Hugh Riley

Honour thy guests.

It was intended to be a quiet get-together for a dozen old friends and new ones. An easy mix of locals and tourists. Finger foods, g-rated jokes and a few adult beverages, but no business. I knew things were about to change when I heard “He’s one of those tourism people. Ask him!”

I was in trouble. The whole left flank of the party went silent. A woman in a turquoise dress with blazing eyes to match instantly locked her gaze on me and advanced. A thousand thoughts rushed through my head. Was she roughed up at Immigration? Robbed on the beach? Got bumped out of the penthouse suite? Was given a faulty rental car? Came face-to-face with a mosquito? Whatever the issue, the person about to confront me was clearly not a happy camper.

“I have a problem. I hear you’re the man I should talk to. Are you with the government?”

So now we’ve narrowed this down. At least she knows from my nosy neighbor that I’m somehow involved on the policy side of the tourism business and I can’t actually fix whatever maintenance issue might be fueling her foul temper. Sheer experience told me to keep my composure and diffuse this situation quickly. This was not an occasion to fight fire with fire; not if I wanted to leave the party in one piece.

I nodded and with the most calming smile I could muster I ushered Turquoise to a seat; a deep, low, soft-cushioned chair in the corner. I figured if she was going to physically attack me she would need the strength of a Bengal tiger to leap out of that low bamboo quickly.

“You must be here on vacation. Where are you from?” She calmed down and told me her story. It was not nearly as gory as I had imagined but very, very important to her.

Turquoise was indeed on vacation on the island, and not for the first or second time. She was a dedicated repeat visitor. By her reckoning she was on her 24th or 25th visit and she was certain that no one cared; especially not the Government. To make matters worse, earlier that day she had heard from the “deck set” (a group of poolside gossips in her hotel/apartment complex) that one of them had received some sort of special recognition from the Tourist Board – an award for the 10th visit! Turquoise was furious. No one had ever bothered to contact her, even though she had racked up at least twice as many visits as this Jenny-come-lately.

In all of this there are some important lessons.

  1. Repeat visitors spend more money. Some tourism planners fall into the trap of believing that people who have visited a destination multiple times spend very little money, because they’ve ‘been there and done that’. Quite the contrary. There is copious evidence to suggest that repeaters often get sufficiently comfortable to rent a car and explore old and new. They patronize the restaurants, bars and attractions way beyond the narrow confines of their accommodations. They delve deep into the community and spend money in ways that go straight into the local economy with very few filters.
  2. Repeat visitors talk a lot. They show off. They meet other visitors and give tutorials on how to get the best value out of a vacation. Furthermore, they seem to give those talks back home too! They are influencers. They encourage others to keep coming back. In short, apart from the country’s own Diaspora, repeat visitors are the best sales team a destination can have. They are your brand champions.
  3. The cost of acquiring a repeat visitor is next to zero. All the advertising and sales dollars needed to woo a new visitor every time, are saved when a destination does right by its repeat visitors. This powerful, loyal, free, salesforce needs to be identified, recognized and rewarded. The identification, recognition and reward tools all exist but are used effectively by only an embarrassingly small number of travel and tourism entities. The Caribbean Tourism Organization is on a quest to substantially increase that number within the Region.
  4. Repeat visitors have made an emotional investment. Of course they have certainly also invested significant cash in visiting a destination multiple times but the emotional attachment they form with a destination is strong enough to bring them to tears if they feel something has gone wrong on ‘their island’. That same emotional investment can spur them into action when the destination needs help. In fact the tourism value chain has often manifested itself in great deeds of philanthropy and generosity among repeat visitors who have made the Caribbean their home away from home.
  5. Repeat visitors have little fear. They are often undaunted by the scare tactics of over-ambitious reporters who would have the world believe that the Caribbean has been overtaken by some new pestilence or a weather condition has washed away our island chain. Almost nothing short of death (or aviation taxes) will keep repeat visitors from returning to the friends, adopted family and lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Only one category of traveler is more loyal: The Diaspora. More on the Caribbean Diaspora in a subsequent Blog.

Turquoise wanted – and deserved – recognition. We talked about the hurt she felt when the deckchair gossip asked why she did not get invited to the repeat visitor party; the twinge of pure jealousy she experienced at knowing that Jenny, at “only ten visits”, could now take home an award and official photos for display on her mantle.

I assured her that the inter-governmental organization which I have the honour to represent, would not stop until the Caribbean uses its skills to consistently identify, track and reward loyalty. She beamed with delight when I suggested that one day she might even arrive at a Caribbean airport and see a sign at Immigration allowing repeat visitors to use the line normally reserved for diplomats and special travelers.

Repeat visitors cannot be taken for granted. Quite the contrary. They care enough to hurt about things that go wrong. They bristle when people criticize ‘their island’ and they beam with pride when they feel wanted. Honour thy repeat guests, for they shall be long in the land!