Interview With Jamaica Tourist Board Director Paul Pennicook
Above: Paul Pennicook (CJ Photo)
By Guy Britton
MONTEGO BAY — Paul Pennicook returned to the Jamaica Tourism Board in July as the country’s Director of Tourism for the second time — this time with more experience and a new mission. Pennicook was previously Director of Tourism in Jamaica from 2003-2006. Paul Pennicook has built a distinguished career spanning almost 40 years working both in the private and public sides of Jamaica tourism. At JAPEX 2014 in Montego Bay, the country’s leading tourism conference, Caribbean Journal sat down with Mr Pennicook to discuss his unique perspective on what has changed, new opportunity for tourism in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
As this is your second term as Jamaica’s director of tourism, what is different this time around?
What is different or what has changed is the nature of the market out there. For example, the mobile arena and social media have become major factors in how we promote, market and sell the destination. The retail travel agents, tour operators and wholesalers are still there but the OTAs have taken another share of the marketplace so that landscape is changing. Generally speaking, the whole scope of advertising has changed as technology has become more advanced.
The fact that so many brands are looking at coming to Jamaica gives me confidence that the product is still fabulous. People want to come here and investors are confident that they can be successful here. So that means we will get an even larger inventory of rooms and in that regard, I realize that my job will be even more difficult this time around as we will have an increasing number of rooms.
You have been involved in Jamaica tourism for more than 35 years. What are the biggest changes you have seen in that time?
There have been massive changes. There was a period in the 70 and 80s when we had serious Jamaican ownership coming into place and on to the scene taking their rightful places on the Jamaica tourism landscape. We had Sandals and SuperClubs and others come to the fore and they became major players in the industry. Then at the turn of the century and in the 2000s came the large Spanish hotels, which created a whole other perspective on the industry. What that did was take Jamaica from a Caribbean destination where you could be satisfied with certain amounts of arrivals per year to [being in the] big leagues, because you had the capacity to take large charters from all over the world with hotels of 500, 600 and 800 rooms and the now with capacity to place all these guests.
And course we had this large collection of all-inclusives. We have now evolved to where even the all-inclusives themselves have segmented and have gone into different categories. They do this because the market demands that in order to be competitive you have to continually improve the product and the package. So today, are now at a stage where a brand like Hyatt with the new Hyatt Ziva is coming into Jamaica with an all-inclusive product. It just shows you how the industry has grown and evolved with the segments of the market over the last few years. I’ve enjoyed watching this.
How has technology changed the role of the JTB and destination marketing in general?
In the 90s and even the early 2000s, when we ran an ad on television we would look at how the calls came in to 1-800 Jamaica to see how they changed to determine whether the ad was successful. That’s history. You don’t worry about calls to call centers anymore. Now you encourage people to go to visitjamaica.com. When they go there or they go to Expedia or they still go to their travel agent you have a whole different perspective on how that change in technology has made the industry become more … nimble. That’s the reason I talked about mobile technology, because, for example, there are applications where we can send things out, people get them on their phone, can react and literally book a vacation on the fly. That is what has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.
What is Jamaica doing to stay on the cutting edge of new technology?
We are working with our advertising agencies, our press relations agency, our hotel partners and the hotel association JHTA and we are looking into creating new travel apps. In some cases, we are looking at doing that together as a destination. We are looking into technology as a destination to create conversions more rapidly and communicate our messages much more quickly. We used to wait on advertising in the newspaper or on radio or on television. We were waiting for the phone to ring waiting for the booking and more and now we can’t wait anymore -it all happens in a flash now.
What is JTB doing for the small hoteliers in Jamaica?
The JTB’s responsibility is to attract the most diverse clientele to the destination. In that job of advertising the destination, I am being insistent that we promote the wide variety of accommodations that we have in Jamaica; specifically; small hotels, boutique hotels, villas and apartments. medium-sized hotels and the large hotels. When we promote that, we have all of those segments and we promote those different segments of accommodations to the right market we will stimulate the demand for the destination. Then I say to our small hoteliers: “now you have to do your part to make sure that the clients choose your hotel verses ABC hotel.” But my job as Director of Tourism is making sure that we promote not only the large all-inclusive hotels that are here in Jamaica but that we also promote the widest variety of accommodations imaginable including; small hotels, boutique hotels, villas and apartments, medium-sized hotels and the large hotels.
What is the biggest challenge that Jamaica Tourism is facing today?
There is always a challenge in getting the amount of resources that we need to promote the destination … there is always that challenge. And the economy is tight at the moment. So it’s a question of prioritizing what you spend on. Having said that, the government will readily tell you and acknowledges that tourism is a major industry, that tourism is Jamaica’s leading foreign exchange earner and that the government has to support tourism to ensure tourism gets the resources necessary to promote Jamaica tourism to keep those visitor arrivals growing. The trickle-down effect from tourism on the whole economy is substantial and in that regard we have to keep up the promotion it and finding the resources to do it.
The only other challenge we have is ensuring that we can grow enough food as possible to feed both the local population and the tourists. For the long-term and as far as the economy is concerned I know the government would like to produce enough so that we do not have to import as much as we do at the moment. We are making in improvement in this area but the more we can produce here, supply here and supply to the tourism industry the more of the earnings from tourism we can keep can keep in the country. I know that is an objective of the government.
What are the biggest opportunities for Jamaica Tourism and what will the industry look like in 10-20 years?
We have a huge opportunity to continue to grow, from the simple reason that we have such fantastic airline partners who are flying their planes here, we have fantastic tour operator partners who are selling our hotels and of course we have fantastic companies that have hotels here that work aggressively to promote themselves. The reason I feel so confident about it and feel there is such opportunity is that every major US air carrier flies into Montego Bay and as far as I am concerned if we keep building hotel rooms, we keep putting up new hotels and opening new attractions as we are, more airlines will increase their frequency and bring in even more flights. So I think there is an opportunity to keep growing and we want to be sure that we are on the cutting edge of new marketing technologies and advertising mediums to keep that growth happening.