Interview With Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association CEO Jeff Vasser

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Above: CHTA CEO Jeff Vasser

By Alexander Britell

MIAMI – Jeff Vasser took over as the Director and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association at the end of 2013, having most recently served as president and COO of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Vasser, who succeeded longtime CEO Alec Sanguinetti in the role, leads an organization that is looking, together with its partners in the public sector, to help promote the islands of the region together as a global Caribbean brand. To learn more about Vasser’s first few months on the job and his initial insights on the job, We caught up with him at one of CJ’s monthly Rum Tasting events at Caribbean Journal’s headquarters in downtown Miami.

How are things going so far? What have you learned in the few months since taking over?

Well, I’ve learned that there’s a lot to learn. But, if nothing else, I’ve learned about the passion that everybody has for the Caribbean. And I think that, in and of itself, gives me a great head start. Everybody has been fantastic, as far as just welcoming me, being warm, offering their advice and telling me what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, what the issues are, what I should focus on. What I try to find from that is some common denominator that cuts across all the different islands on the issues that everybody faces, but, even without that, it shows just that people are passionate about what they’re doing and I think that is going to be a great help. We had the Caribbean Travel Marketplace [in Montego Bay in January], which was fantastic for me, because it gave ma an opportunity to meet a lot of the people, put some faces to the names, sit in on a lot of our committee meetings from our different boards and stakeholders, and from that I learned a lot. I learned what people are really thinking about, what some of the issues are, because my first couple of weeks, it was more about just getting ready for marketplace, getting the budgets ready and things like that, where I really didn’t have a lot of time for any strategic planning, about what it is we want to do and what I want CHTA to look like for the next 50 years.

What do you think were the biggest issues people were mentioning at Marketplace?

I think what they’re looking for from CHTA is an advocacy role, first and foremost — to be able to provide service, as far as bringing all the stakeholders together for a common cause. I think there’s a lot of interest in educational services, in credentials, in things like that that are really going to take and raise the level of the professional and raise the level of the islands as a brand throughout the world. I’m thrilled about our partnership with CTO, for caribbeantravel.com and the Caribbean Tourism Development Company, which is going to be a great vehicle for us, because it’s just a fantastic site, and that’s something we didn’t have before. So I think that when we get that populated, when we get the content in there — and right now we’re facing a chicken-or-the-egg situation, of getting the content. Is the content going to drive the organic results. So until we get that, we have to work on it and really get people interested and let them know, and that’s our job.

For people who don’t know what the CTDC is, how would you describe it? What is its role?

The CTDC is a 50-50 joint venture between the CHTA and the CTO. It’s basically the marketing arm for the Caribbean, a joint venture between the public sector and the private sector to promote the Caribbean brand and as a destination. We’re not looking to be a booking engine, we’re not looking to compete with the individual islands and what they’re trying to do, or the hotels. So you’re not going to find a booking engine, but we want to be the source of information. And we’re going to drive leads to individual websites or individual country sites. But it’s the marketing arm for CHTA and CTO.

What are you bringing to the CHTA from your experience in Atlantic City, or what are you looking to model after Atlantic City that isn’t there right now?

I think, more than anything, it’s just a different set of eyes — somebody that comes from the outside that can ask the silly questions. I don’t know how long I can ride that [laughs], but I’m certainly going to do that for a while, because I find that there are things that we do if for no other reason than we’ve always done them that way. I think those questions are easy to raise now, and let’s look at things a different way — what is the value proposition that the CHTA is providing to its membership? Who is that membership? Is it the individual hotels, or is it the national hotel associations? Who do we really drive our value toward? I think those are the questions that really need to be answered and looked at with a very strong, critical eye.

[Former Bahamas Tourism Minister and CTO Secretary General] Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace always talks about the Caribbean as being the largest unowned brand name in the world. How do you see the state of that brand, and how can its potential be maximized?

I agree with Vincent and I’ve spoken to him a few times. He’s a sharp guy, and it seems that a lot of the quotable things about the Caribbean seem to come from him. But with that said, I think he’s right. We have a great opportunity, because the Caribbean, for a lot of different people, engenders a lot of different visions, and they’re all positive. So I think there are a lot of challenges, but the one thing we have is great natural resources. Things like airlift and taxation and others that we always hear about, those are the things that, between the public sector and private sector, we’ll work hard to fix. But as new hotels are developed, occupancies are climbing, that’s encouraging, ADR [average daily rates] are climbing, behind that, but climbing nonetheless. I think that’s a good thing, and, as as our feeder markets’ economies improving, I think that’s going to improve our lot as well.