East End businessman: Guest houses the best hope for tourism
Tourism in St George's can thrive without major hotel development or a dedicated cruise ship, according to one guest house owner.
Philip Seaman believes the town could attract hundreds of visitors each week if more private homes were available for tourists to rent.
And the architectural technologist has laid out a vision of how a steady stream of visitors who want to “go local” rather than be cosseted at a large hotel could support other businesses and develop the town's infrastructure.
Mr Seaman, who works for OBM International and is also chairman of the Sustainable Development Roundtable, opened his family's guest house in the town two years ago, after renovating a 200-year-old carriage house.
He says business has been booming ever since and could provide a model for tourism in the town to flourish.
The World Heritage site's only major hotel was shut down in the 1980s and razed in 2008. Despite assurances from the former Government that a new resort would be built on the site, a deal with developer Bazarian International eventually collapsed last year. Furthermore, the town has not had a designated cruise ship since 2010.
Although the One Bermuda Alliance Government claims it is working to attract both a new hotel developer and a regular cruise ship visitor, Mr Seaman believes the solution to reversing woeful visitor numbers in the East End is much closer to home.
While he has no experience of working in tourism, Mr Seaman began to realise the potential of his family's Clarence Street cottage while working on the renovation project three years ago.
He said that he encountered scores of visitors who passed his property while wandering through the town, heading for major attractions such as St Peter's Church or Tobacco Bay. The encounters began as minor distractions — a restaurant recommendation or helpful directions to the Unfinished Church — but became major disruptions, as Mr Seaman became increasingly involved in his role as a tourism ambassador. He even began conducting architectural tours of the town.
And one subject appeared to be on the lips of most holidaymakers who stopped for a chat — without a hotel, where could visitors find suitable and reasonably priced accommodations within the town?
“There appeared to be a shift in the needs and desires of our guests,” Mr Seaman said.
“While some still preferred being catered to in larger hotels, many were seeking to stay in a real, historic town, with Bermudians — to shop at the local grocery stores, cook meals at home, sit off and share a glass of wine with their significant other, and live like locals live.
“They fell in love with the town and any expressed that they began to understand why Sir George Somers had his heart buried in St George's, for it had captured their hearts as well.”
After consulting with his family, Mr Seaman eventually decided to turn what had been a labour of love into a fully working commercial operation which he now manages with his wife.
And two years on The Loft, as the property is now known, is a temporary home to scores of tourists who want to be based in the East End — and don't need a hotel on order to do so.
“Just about every night it seems to be filled,” Mr Seaman said.
“We added a two-bedroom unit to our supply of beds in October 2012 and that is filling up as well. Some guests have returned three times and most stay at least five nights.”
A third unit could soon be added pending Planning approval.
Mr Seaman does not share Government's confidence that a developer can be found to build a new hotel in the East End. But he does believe there is a gap in the market for tourist accommodation that can be provided not by foreign investment and international resort brands, but by Bermudians and their Bermudian homes.
We often joke and say, ‘If we build it, they will come',” he said.
“In this case, I rebuilt it, and they not only came, but continue to come. They are coming to the point where I have had to reach out to other property owners in the area for assistance with providing hotel beds now, as it appears that the demand is greater than the supply of beds within the town of St George.”
A blossoming guest house industry would not only inject cash into the local economy, it could also help protect Bermuda's heritage, according to Mr Seaman.
“During the last 30 years, we seem to have evolved into throwaway society with no appreciation for historic buildings,” he said, adding that contractors had recommended he demolish the structure and build new rather than renovate because it would be “cheaper, and faster”.
“Not on my watch. The truth is that many take that approach because they have no clue how to work with Bermuda stone, or to carry out a sensitive renovation of a historic structure. The recession may have given many historic building a reprieve.”
A cottage industry of guest houses would also provide plenty of spin-offs for other tourism-related businesses in the town, although infrastructure investment will be needed.
“I believe that the town has the capacity to increase the number of small guest units to 50 or 75 rooms, by utilising and repurposing some of the empty buildings,” Mr Seaman said.
“She could become another Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
He suggested that the now-closed former George & Dragon pub in the town square could be transformed into a central reception area for guests, who will arrive in the town via water taxi from the airport.
“They will check in at the reception building, and then be taken to their individual units via an electric shuttle service, as some of the streets are quite narrow and large taxis may have trouble negotiating them,” Mr Seaman said.
Similarly, he proposed that golf carts should be allowed on the town's roads, giving tourists a more comfortable option than two wheels.
“The water taxis could transport guests back and forth between the town square, Grotto Bay Hotel, Tucker's Point, Clearwater Beach, and Cooper's Island.”
He added that potential spin-off businesses could include shuttle services, cleaning companies to service the guest houses, walking and cycle tour guides and the expansion of current restaurant services to handle a ‘breakfast' component of a bed-and-breakfast package.
And with more tourists coming into the town, facilities such as the currently closed Somers Playhouse theatre and St George's golf course, could be tempted to reopen.
For Mr Seaman, guest houses rather than a new hotel represent the best hope for tourism to grow in the town at the grass roots level. And he believes the success of his family's business demonstrates that other property owners could become the driving force behind a new age of tourism in the old town.
“If you build it, they will come. Why? One simple answer — they have requested it,” he said.
“I believe that our only true limits are the size of our ideas, and the degree of our dedication. If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”