Has the Bermuda Tourism Authority lost its way?
The Bermuda Tourism Authority was launched eight years ago to lead the way in revitalising the industry on the island. It was meant to be apolitical and independent but it has attracted considerable commentary and had a high turnover of senior staff. Is it still fit for purpose? Fiona McWhirter reports
When the late Shawn Crockwell presented the Bermuda Tourism Authority Act, he said the organisation would be an independently managed, "modern, leading tourism enterprise“.
He told MPs: “It will be dynamic, entrepreneurial and vibrant. The authority will be the singular voice that restores Bermuda as a world-class tourist destination.”
A well-placed source explained: “The benefit of taking it out of government is being able to think strategically and from a business and community point of view, to think long term and to invest in the long term.”
A second source who was close to Mr Crockwell, highlighted that the Tourism Board, which was set up under legislation in 2012 and was to be autonomous, was designed to have key players in place.
They added: “I feel the board was far more effective as it was representative – unions, hotels, government were all already at the table when decisions were made so buy-in was organic or holistic.
“Today, all of the BTA's efforts feel separate from 'the people'.”
During the stewardship of the BTA’s first chief executive officer, Bill Hanbury, total estimated visitor spending dropped in 2014 and 2015 before it bounced back to $398 million – $4 million more than in 2012 or 2013.
Figures from the BTA website showed that the 2011 figure was $437 million.
Since Mr Hanbury’s tenure ended in December 2016, four others have held the top job, including two on an interim basis. Kevin Dallas’s appointment as CEO began in January 2017.
January 2014 – December 2016: Bill Hanbury as CEO
January 2017 – February 2020: Kevin Dallas as CEO
March 2020 – March 2021: Glenn Jones, as interim CEO
April 2021 – June 2022: Charles H Jeffers II as CEO
June 2022 – unknown: Tracy Berkeley, as interim CEO
Jamahl Simmons, who was Minister of Economic Development and Tourism from July 2017 to November 2018, said that his relationship with the BTA was excellent.
He added: “While we weren't always on the same page, for the most part we worked through those differences and pushed ahead.
“The only issue I had was with not being able to change the board composition fully.
“That would've enabled us to put in place specific expertise and talent that would have been not only beneficial to the organisation and the industry but would have been in alignment with the execution of our vision.”
Mr Simmons said he "probably was privy to about 85 per cent“ of BTA operations and that the organisation was good at keeping him “looped in”.
He said he was particularly interested in “refining the mission” of the authority.
“I believed that its efforts were being spread too thin and needed greater focus,” Mr Simmons said.
“Specifically, by shifting the emphasis primarily to destination marketing with aspects such as the Bermuda Hospitality Institute, international events and tourism investment shifted away to either existing entities or under new ones.”
Sources said a pivotal moment was when legislators passed the Bermuda Tourism Authority Amendment Act 2018, which gave the relevant minister the power to appoint board members after consultation with the board, as well as a deputy chairman.
Zane DeSilva became the Minister of Tourism and Transport in a Cabinet shuffle on November 1, 2018 and told the House of Assembly during a debate on the Bill: “This minister turns over stones … I’m pulling the car apart.”
He said: “The people of this country expect us to show action, and we will give them action.”
The Act also added a provision so that the minister could give the board general directions related to its work in matters said to affect the public interest.
A third source told The Royal Gazette that Mr DeSilva “was very much in that old Department of Tourism mode”.
They said: “Zane was really very much involved … he wanted to be aware of every last thing.”
Mr DeSilva did not respond to requests for comment.
The first source claimed that matters raised by the board to government could languish through inaction.
It was understood that “everything went through the Premier".
They said that “some of the problem was like being paralysed” when the board was unable to make decisions because it was waiting on responses from the Government.
The source added that after the America’s Cup and the Progressive Labour Party’s return to government in summer 2017 and in 2018 “there just seemed to be more and more pressure from the Premier to do things his way”.
They said: “That caused a lot of challenges in the organisation in terms of – you have a long-term strategy and a business plan that’s been approved, you’re being measured against that … then suddenly someone says, I need you to do ‘X’ for me though.
“Then everything kind of gets thrown out the window.
“Everyone’s scrambling to figure out, can we do that? Does it meet our own rules?”
The source added: “Then you’re not delivering on your initial plans because everyone’s spending all of their energy responding to these demands, then the ability to deliver starts to really erode.
“It sort of adds up, people get tired, they lose their energy, they get exhausted, they get worn down, they feel really pulled in different directions, then leadership starts to lose its momentum.”
The source said: “Senior leaders start to turn over and things start to really, I think, fall apart.
“To me, it’s the political interference that really triggers that and makes the organisation not function properly any more because you have two masters.”
The BTA board is chaired by Wayne Caines, a sitting Progressive Labour Party MP, who is joined on the board by his PLP and parliamentary colleague Kim Swan.
A government spokeswoman yesterday disagreed with the claim that there was political interference at the organisation.
She said: “The Government does not interfere politically with the board of the BTA.
“The board has a legal mandate to follow. The BTA board is responsible for decisions that are in the best interest of Bermuda and carrying out the mission of the National Tourism Plan.”
She added that the plan included working with relevant stakeholders, including the Government.
The spokeswoman said: “The National Tourism Plan speaks to making Bermuda an ‘alluring destination set apart not only by our geographic location but also our way of life’.
“That way of life must include events like Cup Match and Heroes Weekend / Carnival Weekend, events which don’t receive the same funding or long-term marketing support and planning as golf, sailing and triathlon.
“The Government aims to see the National Tourism Plan fulfilled and more done to promote the wider cultural experiences Bermuda offers.”
A government spokeswoman told the Gazette last week: “The Bermuda Tourism Authority receives over $20 million in taxpayer funding.
“It is not fully self-financing and as such, the BTA, like any organisation in receipt of taxpayer funds, is accountable for the use of those funds.”
She explained: “The minister responsible for tourism is responsible to the taxpayer and the House of Assembly for the annual grant to the BTA.
“The grant is paid in quarterly instalments and each quarter requires the BTA to submit an invoice, the accounts for the period and a compliance document.
“Modern organisations expect to answer for their expenditure and show that their activities and programmes meet their core functions and policies.
“The BTA should be no different and should not shy away from marrying expenditure to meeting the goals of the National Tourism Plan and meeting the important metric of increasing the numbers of visitors to Bermuda as a result of the dollars spent on sales and marketing.
“That is the Government’s goal for the BTA and it is to that standard that taxpayers expect the BTA to be held accountable.”
Mr Dallas left the BTA in March 2020, and Glenn Jones, then the organisation’s chief experience development officer, became the CEO on an interim basis.
The Royal Gazette sent questions to the Government for Vance Campbell, the Minister of Tourism. They are shown, with his responses, below.
Q: Is the BTA fit for purpose? That is, does it fulfil its mission and what it set out to do? If so, in what ways?
A: This isn’t really the most pressing question. It may well be that the BTA is doing exactly what it was designed to do. We are on the cusp of the BTA’s second decade of existence.
In the wake of the pandemic and radically changed travel perceptions and demands, the real question is: how do we equip the BTA to meet the new challenges of an altered tourism marketplace? Is an entity, designed in 2014 and essentially unchanged, best equipped to deliver on the tourism needs of this economy and the mission of meeting the pent-up demand of increasingly discerning travellers?
Q: Do you believe the Bermuda Tourism Authority is apolitical, particularly given that a sitting MP and former Cabinet minister – Wayne Caines – is chairman of the board?
A: Any board is about governance, oversight and setting clear objectives and goals. Following the statutory requirements for discharging their duties, this is the BTA chairman and the board's role.
The current chairman of the board is an experienced CEO and board member who is exceptionally well-qualified to lead.
Q: How will/have the recent changes on the BTA board as well as at executive level … affect/ed the Bermuda tourism brand?
A: Bermuda’s tourism brand is not defined by executive appointments or individual board members. The organisation and BTA team are resilient and continue to deliver on the principal goal of selling Bermuda to leisure travellers and promoting our island as a destination of choice for all facets of tourism.
Q: To what extent have these knocked confidence among overseas partners or businesses in the organisation or the island generally?
A: Not at all. Organisations go through change and stakeholders are confident in the seamless transition of late.
The bustling trade in various tourism-related businesses clearly indicates that Bermuda can grow tourism and develop greater strength in the market as we move towards a post-pandemic period.
David Burt, the Premier took over ministerial responsibility for tourism in July 2020.
Another two C-suite officers left the authority later that year and Mr Jones departed after he handed the reins to Charles H Jeffers II in April 2021.
Mr Jones, who is now a TV news anchor and reporter in Boston, told the Gazette: “I gave 100 per cent of my focus and even more of my effort during almost six years at the Bermuda Tourism Authority – every day, until the day I left.
“I cherished my time there and trust it can rediscover the strategic success the destination deserves.”
Mr Jeffers warned in February that it would take several years to return the sector to 2019 levels after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest BTA figures showed signs of a gradual recovery, with 91,419 visitors to the island by the end of May.
Mr Jeffers’s departure was announced on June 10, when Tracy Berkeley, the BTA’s chief administration officer, was made interim CEO.
The first source highlighted that the turnover of senior staff was “totally demoralising” for staff and created disruption in talks with external partners.
They described authority employees as “wonderful, passionate and highly skilled” people, who had "often unfairly been caught in the crossfire“.
The source said: “The devastation of the pandemic has had a big impact on BTA staff, like everyone in the industry.
“They want nothing more than to bring visitors back to the island, to revitalise local businesses, but marketing and sales can't overcome friction at our border.
“Travellers are moving on from the pandemic and are no longer willing to put up with border anxiety.
“I am hopeful we can soon lift all Covid restrictions so BTA staff can finally inject all their energy and know-how into driving Bermuda's tourism recovery.”
Wayne Caines, the chairman of the BTA, told The Royal Gazette last month: “The board of Bermuda Tourism Authority is an independent, fit-for-purpose entity tasked with delivering a sustainable and balanced tourism product for the country.
“We are bound to ensure that we operate in a way that provides optimal value for the people of Bermuda.
“While I proudly serve my country as a Member of Parliament, my professional career includes chief executive roles in both multinational and local businesses, as well as significant board experience.
“Furthermore, I chair a dynamic eight-person board comprising accomplished professionals with diverse backgrounds.”
He added: “They are engaged in delivering on the organisational mandate by leveraging the broad range of talent that each brings to the organisation without fear or favour.”
Mr Caines, who is a Progressive Labour Party backbencher for Devonshire North West, added: “Throughout two years of pandemic-induced tourism collapse that essentially shut down tourism, the BTA has supported stakeholders and developed training and development initiatives for the workforce.
“All the while creating promotions to help spur demand for travel to Bermuda.
“We have a talented, dynamic team in Bermuda and the US and a clear plan.
“Specifically, our leadership team has developed a comprehensive strategic recovery plan overlaid on the fundamentals of the National Tourism Plan.
“We are seeing the green shoots of a tourism renaissance finally emerging.”
He said: "Current projections predict even more growth in air, business, and leisure visitor categories driven by upcoming events and ongoing promotions.
“To support the expected demand generated by our marketing and sales promotions, we look forward to the increase of Bermuda's hotel inventory.
“The passage of the Fairmont Act is exciting news for our crucial group and meeting business. While the development plans for Ariel Sands property, Cambridge Beaches, and Azura sister property, Nautilus, is excellent news for the island's tourism prospects.”
Mr Caines said that BTA board members had a “broad range of expertise, professional insights, and impartiality”.
He added: “From the world of branding, media, advertising, and communications, we have three accomplished directors providing informed direction for the authority – Earl Graves, Shiona Turini, and Carol Blaser.”
Mr Caines said: “Our other board members reflect a dynamic range of experiences that likewise contribute positively to the authority.”
He highlighted the hotel industry experience of Bushara Bushara, who is chairman of the Bermuda Hotel Association and general manager of the Newstead Resort.
Mr Caines cited Kim Swan, another PLP backbencher, whom he said “has spent nearly 50 years in the world of golf”.
He said: “His relationships and international professional experience inform his guidance and contributions to our conversations on developing sport and golf tourism for Bermuda.”
Mr Caines added: “Jennifer Phillips is our newest board member.
“She provides the board with crucial insight into employing Bermuda's culture and the arts to support tourism growth.
“Deputy chairman Joseph Best Jr's success in the world of finance and risk management is leveraged to make intelligent, data-driven decisions for growth, and the betterment of the organisation.”
The second source believed there was a disconnect between the sector and island residents.
They said that the One Bermuda Alliance, which introduced the BTA when it was in government in 2014, and David Dodwell, a hotelier and former United Bermuda Party tourism minister who championed a tourism authority, “spent so much energy demanding 'independence' and 'autonomy' that tourism has lost its role in the national psyche”.
The source added: “Instead of, for example, the Department of Cultural Affairs being seen as Bermuda Day organisers or the cricket clubs for Cup Match, the BTA has no real draw or vibe in the community.
“I think ‘tourism is what those BTA lot do’ is how tourism is seen now … this is a people and experiences industry and needs Bermudians on the frontline as we have before.”
Some sources felt that the BTA was reverting to the role of a government tourism department.
The third summed up: “It takes it right back to the Dark Ages, it’s ridiculous.
“There are tourism destinations all around the world, and especially in the Caribbean, who are looking to create tourism authorities or destination management organisations and here we are trying to dismantle it.
“What’s gone wrong with our government?”