Bellman puts heart into ‘cultural tourism’
Bermuda should offer better tourism experiences for ordinary travellers looking to experience the Island — and use its own people and neighbourhood haunts to market itself as welcoming and unique.
That is the firm belief of businessman and veteran hotel bellman W. Carvel Van Putten, the latest “hero of hospitality” to get commendation from the community group Imagine Bermuda as part of hospitality month.
Group member Glenn Fubler said Mr Van Putten's dedication to the guests at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess — as well as his advocacy for the businesses of North Hamilton — deserved special recognition.
“This is what I call cultural tourism — letting people have the experience of melting in with the next people,” Mr Van Putten explained.
“We shouldn't make-believe or try to reproduce other countries; we just have to be ourselves.”
Guests at the hotel have been following Mr Van Putten's advice about what to see and where to dine for close to 40 years. Many of them want an experience that leaves them with a feeling of local culture and a sense of contact with ordinary people. Mr Van Putten has been recommending cliff jumping at Admiralty House for 20 years before YouTube videos popularised it, and the smaller local establishments that offer distinctive food, such as an Art-Mel's fish sandwich.
“It's time for us to come out of the box: use what we have got,” he explained. “Culturally, the people here are nice.
“We've got one of the most beautiful areas in the world. We are isolated in one way but close to the East Coast. I think we could go after the postmen, the hotel workers, people who work in hospitals. Offer group deals.
“We subsidise airlines when they have empty seats — there could be a way of going after these ordinary people. If we can get ten people, offer two free seats.
“They can stay in housing units instead of the more expensive hotels. Right now we've got a lot of empty apartments around Bermuda and people out of work. We have to market Bermuda for everybody.”
As a founding member of the North Hamilton Business Association, which pushed to promote the neighbourhoods that he assiduously avoids calling “back of town”, Mr Van Putten knows how to sell the experiences on offer north of Victoria Street.
“I had one guy tell me, ‘Carvel, I want to go to dinner and go where you would go',” he recalled. Accordingly, Mr Van Putten arranged a taxi ride and reservations at Jamaican Grill on Court Street.
The visitor returned full of enthusiasm for the night out, but questioned whether the area had a bad reputation — because he found it dark and shuttered when he finally left. Mr Van Putten acknowledged the work of the Chewstick Foundation in “opening up Court Street” and expressed regret at seeing it move.
The area still needs to work at promoting itself and keeping a lively local atmosphere, he said. A former Progressive Labour Party candidate and City of Hamilton councillor from 2003 to 2008, Mr Van Putten has long championed the district.
He is also a chief shop steward for the Bermuda Industrial Union's hotel workers. Although the North Hamilton Business Association had “no power, just pressure”, the group was key in applying that pressure towards initiatives such as the Economic Empowerment Zone for the area.
As a jeweller on Court Street who was burgled more than once, Mr Van Putten also had a personal stake in helping to push for the establishment of the independent and confidential Crime Stoppers hotline.
Hospitality has been his mainstay over the decades, he said, adding: “I love people.”
His grandfather Thomas Charles Van Putten was a mason — as was his father Lionel. But Mr Van Putten got his early start in hospitality at a Fairylands establishment called Sherwood Manor, moving up to a position at the Coral Island Hotel.
He worked at the Elbow Beach Hotel and Horizons before settling at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess. Asked if he was giving any thought to retiring, Mr Van Putten, 68, replied: “I take it one day at a time.
“I don't like the word ‘retire'. I'd call it doing something different. I've got some things up my sleeve.
“I would like to get involved to a degree with the type of tourism I'm talking about — getting more people into Bermuda.”
He said the Island's tourism strength lies in the courtesy and warmth of its people, rather than marketing contrivances.
One guest at the hotel had worked 60 years ago at the Bermudiana Hotel and made good friends with a local woman who had since died, he said. Mr Van Putten took pains to track down her son, enjoying the search and eventually managing to put the two in touch.
“I connected them, and it was wonderful,” he said. “That's cultural tourism.”