Above: the Magdalena Grand Resort in Tobago
By Alexander Britell
Just near the southernmost end of the Caribbean island chain, Tobago has long been something of a secret destination for travelers to the Caribbean. While much of the region sources most of its guests from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, Tobago has found an eclectic mix of visiting Trinidadians and Europeans — mostly from Germany. Today, the sector is led by the opening of the new Magdalena Grand Beach Resort, which debuted last year and is looking to put Tobago on the wider tourism map. To learn more about the Magdalena and marketing Tobago, Caribbean Journal talked to hospitality veteran and Jamaica native Howard Spittle, who took over as general manager of Magdalena Grand in April, about Tobago, his management philosophy, and the future of tourism on the island.
What have you seen so far since taking over as GM?
What I see is a spanking new product with great infrastructure. I was very impressed with food and beverage when I got there. A general manager always wants to change, to tweak, and that’s fine because you bring your own personality to a resort. But I don’t have to bring anything dramatic. We’ve been open a year, and pretty well everything is in place now. Now we start to build on that. The team is in place, the management team, and the sales and marketing will be a very big part.
What is the experience of running a hotel on a smaller island like Tobago?
I have a many-year history in Jamaica, which is my home, which is a much larger tourism product. Here, we’re the new kid on the block, and I think it’s a very attractive property. A lot of the people on the island are very curious about it. So we have a very prominent role in the local community. Instead of being one of many, you’re one of two or three.
What are some of the things you’ve seen to that effect so far?
We hold a lot of meetings for the Trinidadian authorities — the Cabinet meets here from time to time. Roughly half of our business is from Trinidad. The Magdalena Grand is rapidly becoming the place to say you spent the weekend, which is rather neat. The food is extremely well received. I’ve noticed our breakfasts — we easily have the best breakfast on the island, a very extravagant buffet. And the test of that is that I notice more and more people who are either staying elsewhere on the island or living on the island are taking breakfast at our hotel. So we’re on the right track. And I think we’re at a pivotal point — the tourism in Trinidad and Tobago is ready to take off.
“The tourism in Trinidad and Tobago is ready to take off.”
What is your management philosophy?
I have spent a vast amount of my hotel career in the Caribbean. It’s an amazing place to work, and getting to work with people who have this amazing pride in their country. That is not all that usual — everybody, whether you’re in St Kitts or Barbados or the Bahamas, is essentially proud of their island. That produces the sense in the property of wanting to do well. It’s not a transient job like it is in big cities of the world — where many people work in hotels and restaurants going through college. It’s a good, decent, career. It’s a very respected career. And as Tobago tourism grows, you’ll see that a lot more. For me, I’ve spent too many years as a hotel general manager in the Caribbean! For me, it’s a lot of it I see as a conducting-the-orchestra role. The hotel is made up of all these components, and for me, you get it right if you conduct the orchestra properly. They’re all mashed together. If there’s one industry where team is important, it has to be a hotel. Because a hotel is a structure where everybody in it has their role. They have to come together because you have one ultimate purpose, and that’s to take care of that guest. And hopefully the musical ability is there where you conduct the orchestra in a way that it sounds right.
How would you describe Tobago to visitors?
It sounds kind of cliche, but Tobago is actually an island that’s unspoiled. It’s the way the Caribbean used to be. It all sounds very cliche, but it’s very accurate. Because tourism has never been the mainstay of Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, it’s been allowed to develop without all the pressures to support the country. So in some ways it’s very understated. I think first of the environment — the nature side of Tobago is incredibly remarkable. Some islands are experiencing problems with their reefs, but there’s none of that here. It’s the oldest [protected] rainforest in the western hemisphere; there are 400 species of birds stopping by every year en route to somewhere. This sort of thing — the waterfalls, everything, is very easily accessible. I don’t want to say off the beaten track, because that implies a place you need to climb up a mountain for, or to drive a four-wheel-drive car to get there. You don’t need that in Tobago. I think of Englishmen’s Bay, which has to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.
What do you see as the future for Tobago tourism?
I think all destinations are governed by airlift. The European airlift is strong, could be stronger, but Virgin, British Airways, Condor … Scandinavian charters starting this winter as well, which is very exciting. The US and Canadian carriers are serving the country, but mainly through Port of Spain. I think once there are more direct flights into Tobago, which is under serious discussion, you will see a slight change in the mix in tourism. The US and Canadian component will grow. After all, in the rest of the Caribbean, 60 to 70 percent of your guests are American, Throw in another 10 to 15 percent Canadian. Tobago has that kind of unique flavour of mainly European and Trinidadian guests. Again, another difference. But it does need to change. Tobago will need a better mix of guests and more guests. And that’s more likely to come fro the US and Canada.