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EFM Hospitality’s John Murphy on Tobago, Haiti and Caribbean Tourism

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - January 20, 2013

Above: the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort

By Alexander Britell

PARADISE ISLAND — The Caribbean tourism sector is starting to rebound — with improved hotel occupancy and arrivals, despite increased competition from markets around the world. EFM Hospitality Solutions has been one of the Caribbean’s leading hotel developers and operators over the past few decades; its latest project is the newly-opened Magdalena Grand Beach Resort in Tobago. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Murphy at the Caribbean Travel Marketplace Conference about Tobago’s growth, the changing Caribbean market and the potential of tourism in Haiti, where EFM is working on several projects.

Tell me about the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort.

The Magdalena Grand Beach Resort was formerly the Hilton Tobago. It’s a 200-room hotel that was closed for three years. We were engaged by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to open and re-launch the hotel. We were engaged in June 2011, and by January 15, we had a soft opening. After investing $25 million USD in redoing all the rooms, all the restaurants, landscaping, infrastructure, we had the official opening on June1.

How has the response been so far?

It’s going very well so far. Our primary markets would be from Europe, the UK, which represents about 65 percent [of our source markets]. We have 25 percent from the local market, Trinidad and what we call CARICOM business, that come from Barbados and the other islands. The balance is from overseas, which we could call Canada, the US and Central and South America.

How do you see Tobago’s tourism sector progressing?

We are a catalyst to get it going. We are the largest hotel on the island, also the number one hotel on TripAdvisor in Tobago. We have embarked on a major training and development plan to create that experience from an international standpoint. We’ve just taken over the golf course as part of the hotel. The central government of Trinidad and Tobago has a major focus on tourism — they’re looking at developing more hotels, new hotels, they’re also upgrading the current hotels and upgrading the airport. So there is a major focus to get tourism back on Tobago.

Do you see Tobago developing into a destination in its own right — independent of Trinidad?

I see Tobago becoming a market on its own — as opposed to Trinidad and Tobago. There is a major focus for that — so we’re going to have Tobago by itself as a destination.

Regionally, what are the major trends you’re seeing in the Caribbean?

The biggest are that I think the customer is becoming much more selective. They do a lot of research on the vacation experience that they’re about to embark on through TripAdvisor, through editorial, and the message people want to compare. I think the customer is also looking at price point sensitivity — they are not going to put up with second-rate value. They’re looking for direct value for what they spend. Tobago offers that experience because it’s unique — it’s how the Caribbean used to be and should be. We don’t have a lot of hotels, don’t have a lot of ground handlers – it’s very laid back, in a casual sense. But we also have golf, dive, hiking and waterfalls, ecotourism, in a big way. We’ve got beach, watersports. It’s really an unspoiled destination that I think has great potential.

I see Tobago becoming a market on its own.”

 

EFH has also been working in Haiti of late. Can you talk about those projects?

We got involved just after the earthquake in Haiti, and put together a development plan for an owner to rebuild his hotel. We also got funding from a major bank out of Washington — it hasn’t yet happened because of the slowness of how things happen in Haiti. Primarily, the fact is that most banks, most institutions, require you to prove ownership of land. And land ownership rights are a big issue in Haiti. Because many of the buildings got destroyed, including the Ministry of Finance, there are no records. So the absence of land records is just very difficult. We are still involved — we went to Jacmel, and we have several projects that we are working on. And we’ll go back and revisit that. We’re also looking at doing some work in St Kitts and the Bahamas.

What kind of potential do you see for Haiti, which has been working to develop its tourism sector?

I think that Haiti has great potential, given the fact that the Dominican Republic is next door. So obviously there’s a model for tourism, if you can isolate the experience from some of the issues that go on in Port-au-Prince and the overpopulated areas. I think what it really needs is a huge government initiative, and an awful lot of investment — and some risk takers.

Haiti has great potential, given the fact that the Dominican Republic is next door.”

 

What do you think should be the major areas of focus for Caribbean tourism in the next few years?

Having been in the market for as long as I have, I think we have several challenges that we need to deal with. The biggest challenge I think, is the continued education of our young people to get into the industry, to make them believe that the hospitality industry is a respectable career, like we have in Ireland and Spain, and many countries around the world, where it is seen as a profession, as a career. Also, maintaining the product. The discerning customers that travel now are not going to accept second-rate experiences. The water has to be there, the internet has to be there, the quality of food, the types of food that people want to have, like gluten-free products. We’re being compared to a lot of new destinations like Dubai, where I used to work and lived for nine years. And of course, the Far East, with which the Caribbean has always competed. So we need to keep upgrading our product and keep focused — those two elements will keep us going.

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