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Mike Winfield sees a silver lining to tourism downturn

Mike Winfield wants Bermuda to become a place people aspire to visiting, rather than the mid-market destination it has gradually turned into.

Visitors must want to escape to the Island, and the Tourism Board member believes the fact that not everyone can afford to do so is something that should be celebrated, not apologised for.

As one of those charged with turning around Bermuda’s fortunes as a luxury destination, the former Cambridge Beaches CEO thinks the industry has lost its way over the past ten years, and that “perceptually we have devalued the product of Bermuda”.

“I think that actually, over the last ten years let’s say, we forgot our market,” said Mr Winfield. “And what we have tried to do is get in the game with everybody else, and get into a price war, and we commoditised our product, so, we’re just another airline seat, or hotel bed, and we can’t win on that.

“The more you discount, the more the market that

can afford Bermuda says, ‘I’m not sure I want to be there’.”

He cited a 30-year death spiral of negative tourism and a lack of investment as the basis for Bermuda’s troubles, but believes that the clouds hanging over the industry are finally starting to dissipate.

And while the global economy is still going through some turbulent times, Mr Winfield sees the job of selling Bermuda as becoming easier, rather than more difficult.

“Look at the market today,” he said. “We are starting to come out of whatever you call the last five years, [even though] the media don’t really want it to happen because it’s too good a story.

“But, it’s happening. It’s still a mess, but because of that mess a lot of people are saying ‘get me out of this, I want to escape’.

“Where do you escape to? You escape to a place that satisfies your aspirational values, and allows you to disconnect. That’s what we have to provide.”

There are some that would argue with Mr Winfield’s assertion that Bermuda has been on the slide for three decades, pointing to an increase in air arrivals as evidence against this. However, in the hotelier’s opinion, those figures should be viewed as meaningless.

“It’s been 30 years of downturn, he said. “There have been moments, a year here and there, where things have started to look a little better ... but, we got locked into this comparative month-by-month arrival figure,” he said. “It’s meaningless, it’s an easy figure, but it’s an irrelevant figure.

“If every hotel decided to sell their rooms at $5 we could get enormous arrivals, but we’d all be out of business. It’s a yield figure that we have got to get into. How much is tourism contributing to the GDP is the important thing.”

Those same voices pointing to air arrivals would also argue that rather than focusing solely on the luxury market, the Island should be catering to the budget traveller.

Mr Winfield remains unconvinced by that argument, citing a need to reinvent and reinvigorate the industry that made Bermuda such a sought-after destination in its heyday.

Satisfying those aspirations is going to require real investment, a tourism plan that deals with the “very aggressive reality of our rivals”, and the ability to take politics out of the equation.

“Bermuda has to become an aspirational destination; people have to aspire towards it,” he said. “But, you have to ensure that your product is fulfilling the dream that you’re selling to your market.

“We have product issues in Bermuda. It is the age-old problem. Because the infrastructure costs are so very high in comparison to the competition, they [hotels, tour boat operators] have to charge a high rate.

“To do that, they have to deliver value. And are we delivering value? I think we need some real investment, but there is a huge problem as to where that money is going to come from.

“Whether Bermudians like it [the way we sell Bermuda] is irrelevant. The relevancy is, does it appeal to the market that we’re going after?

“But, because it’s been politically-led before, we’ve been trapped into this hole, of, ‘let’s make sure Bermudians like it, and get excited about it’, which is not the right criteria.”

For all that Mr Winfield feels “a real sense of hope” about the future, even if it is going to take some time to turn things around.

“Change is upon us, whether we like it or not,” he said. “The National Tourism Plan is bold and will require engagement by all sectors of the community. We have to all become one team, focused on tourism and that is the vision of the new Minister and our board chairman.

“We are on the way to a [Tourism] Authority and there are many people putting endless hours into the change and into ensuring the plan is realised.

“It is going to take some time and there are significant challenges ahead but for the first time in a long time, I feel a real sense of hope and a real sense of purpose.”

Mike Winfield

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Published April 01, 2013 at 9:33 am (Updated April 01, 2013 at 9:33 am)

Mike Winfield sees a silver lining to tourism downturn

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