Interview with British Virgin Islands Tourism Director Sharon Flax-Mars

Above: BVI

By Alexander Britell

The British Virgin Islands received approximately 302,647 tourist arrivals in 2012, essentially unchanged from the previous year. Seeking to improve on those numbers, the BVI hired a new director of tourism, Sharon Flax-Mars, a 25-year veteran of the tourism industry in the British Virgin Islands, in January. To learn more about her priorities and her first quarter on the job, Caribbean Journal talked to Flax-Mars about her major plans for BVI tourism, the departure of American Eagle from the region and courting tourists from emerging markets.

How have your first few months on the job been?

Very interesting and very busy. We have a lot of ground to cover. I’m coming in from the private sector, so it just takes a bit of getting used to — adjusting to working on the government level and working with the various industry partners. And I came in at the beginning of the year, smack dab into the middle of the tourist season — obviously, the busy season. So I’m making the adjustments. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of ground to cover and of course the competition that is out there is very strong.

What surprised you most in your first few months in the post?

How intense the competition is among our [Caribbean] destinations and what we need to do to set us apart. You always hear that the Caribbean is sun, sand and sea, but we, as a destination, need to differentiate ourselves and have an added component besides that. And it’s interesting how very aggressive the region is in promoting themselves — islands that didn’t do much promotion before are now heavily targeting and focusing on tourism. There are a lot of new properties in the Caribbean, and the luxury market as well on the other islands that we’re having to compete with. But, having said that, I believe in the product that we have. I’m very passionate about tourism in the BVI.

So how can the BVI set itself apart from the rest of the region?

I’m a very service-oriented person. Working in the private sector, I’ve worked on the luxury hotel side for 15 years, and what we’ve always found is that service tends to set you apart. And that can indeed make the difference. That as well as the cultural component. And that is one of the things I plan to focus on in the BVI — increasing the service levels, and the customer service levels on the point of arrival to the point of departure. So the experience is not only in your yacht, your villa, or your hotel. The experience starts from the point of arrival with our customs and immigration offiicals, with the persons working in our gift shops.

The BVI lost a major carrier when American Airlines left Tortola at the end of March. Has it had a serious impact or have smaller carriers like Cape Air and Seaborne been able to mitigate the effects?

I think it’s been mitigated for the time being through the other airlines stepping up. And we’re getting quite a bit of lift with the ferry operators — quite a few of our visitors are arriving through the gateway of St Thomas. We have an extensive ferry system from St Thomas to Tortola, and as well to Virgin Gorda. So we’re seeing quite a bit of arrivals coming through that medium as well. But we do have Cape Air who has stepped up, and we do have Seaborne who stepped up as well to run additional flights to the territory. So Seaborne has more flights than American. Yes, it’s a smaller airplane, but the frequency is more. American was basically doing three flights a day, and Seaborne is doing about seven into Tortola and on currently into Virgin Gorda.

Are there any niche tourism markets you’re looking at expanding?

Yes. We’ve realized that we’ve been leaving the destination honeymoon-wedding market on the table, so we’re stepping up our promotions toward that end. We’re also looking to target the luxury villa market. That seems to be the sector that the travel agents and tour operators are buzzing about — the luxury product in the British Virgin Islands, as opposed to the same luxury villa experience of, say, the USVI, St Barth and Barbados. So we’re focusing on that. Last year, we opened our mega-yacht marina located in North Sound, Virgin Gorda, and that’s affiliated with Costa Smeralda in Italy as a sister mega-yacht facility. So we’re doing a lot of pushing in that area as well, and in fact, there was a regatta last month that was sold out with the mega-yachts. So we’re focusing on those areas, and there are things we’re looking at from an eco-tourism standpoint. We’re looing at adding some cultural tours such as birdwatching, because there are persons that are looking for more of a bespoke type of vacation, rather than just sun, sand and sea — they want to experience something.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization held its Sustainable Tourism Conference in Trinidad last month, and it seems that the region is increasingly looking to sustainability in its tourism sector. Is that something that’s on your radar?

Yes it is, and because of our size and what we have to offer, we’re still seen as the “virgin Caribbean” and as a place for barefoot elegance. You can have the luxury experience, but it’s still a wonderful experience to be on a beach where you’re the only one on the beach.

BVI Premier Dr Orlando Smith recently led a delegation to Brazil, in part to court tourism investment. Is Brazil a market that you’re looking to expand?

We see Brazil, as well as Canada, as potential areas that we’re seeing an increase in visitors, especially from Canada, without us doing much work and not having a presence there. I think, because the Brazilian economy is resilient, right now that’s a good area for us. The type of product that we have is something that the Brazilians seem to be keen on as well. So we do believe there is some potential there, and we’re actually looking at representation in the Latin American market later in the year to boost our presence.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for Caribbean tourism?

What I’m seeing as a region is that we need to look at marketing our region as a region, rather than having individual islands competing for sometimes the same customer. We need to show that you can have a vacation experience in the Caribbean, and that having multiple experiences can work. There is also the challenge of the perception of the Caribbean as well as, from a service standpoint, being an expensive destination as opposed to Mexico and the Maldives. So we need ot work at changing the perception and, for me, it comes down to that service component. Luxury means different things to different people. But at the end of the day, if you provide service, and a very personalized level of services, that is something the visitors would remember and come back for.