IF the movements made by a handful of young Bahamian professionals over the past year in tourism are any indication of the entrepreneurial thinking of their counterparts, then there is some hope for the future outlook of tourism in the Bahamas.
Entrepreneurs such as Alanna Rogers, Jamie Lewis, Adlai Kerr and Scott Turnquest, owners of tourism startups Tru Bahamian Food Tours, Islandz Tours, and BahamaGo, are breaking barriers in tourism by going head to head with established businesses in nontraditional areas of the business. Their starups are refreshing additions to the product offering, and reflect a break from the tunnel vision way of thinking about tourism in terms of traditional service jobs, foreign direct investment and hotels.
The tour business in the Bahamas is not an easy one to get into. Ancient companies such as Majestic Tours, the last of the original travel agents from the days of white-only operators, have an effective monopoly over the key supply chains of visitors. And yet, Majestic Tours only places 19 amongst the 22 sightseeing tours ranked on Trip Advisor for Nassau based activities.
In the top spot on the Trip Advisor listing is Tru Bahamian Food Tours, with Islandz Tours following closely behind in the number four spot. As far as Trip Advisor is concerned Majestic Tours is essentially a nobody, despite their relative operational size and level of business experience. Old school business minds with an analogue outlook would not understand the significance of such a ranking. They miss how the Internet acts as a great democratic equalizer in this digital world, particularly for those with Rocky-style ambition and fight.
These young entrepreneurs are attempting to solve long-standing problems that the industry has been incapable of solving. The Downtown Nassau Partnership has doled out big dollars to revitalise downtown, focusing in large part on upgrading infrastructure. Their efforts are all well and good, but the creation of new businesses that add value and enhance the downtown Nassau experience could do just as well in the revitalisation efforts.
That is what Tru Bahamian Food Tours and Islandz Tours have proven, with Islandz also operating in the merchandising side of the business, with authentic Bahamian souvenirs.
Innovation and the expansion of existing products and business services are critical for the revitalisation of the Bahamas as a destination, which is on the decline. Sometimes it seems as though leaders in the business sector are either comfortable or complacent. Either way, it is leading to a lack of improvement and modernisation in our tourism offerings.
As far as downtown goes, our city centre is a stale, dry place at night, notwithstanding the few bars and clubs that make an effort. Why haven’t existing businesses figured out a way to make downtown vibrant at night? Why haven’t entrepreneurs seen this need as an opportunity to create new businesses? When the Downtown Nassau Partnership ran its successful bar crawl promotion on the Heineken bus, I immediately wondered why a private group hadn’t made a successful business out of a Nassau at night bar hop.
Why haven’t downtown businesses figured out a way to bring more Bahamians downtown? Not all of them are convinced that central to downtown’s success is bringing the city back to life for Bahamians. In fact, there is a night spot off Bay Street that has a notorious reputation for being racist and discriminatory towards black Bahamians. During the recent Goombay Summer festival in Pompey Square, I heard a tourism official say, “It was good, except, not many tourists came out.” Meanwhile, the square was jam-packed with Bahamians, starved for outlets to enjoy downtown.
If businesses are supposed to solve problems, fill needs, serve markets, it seems we are going year to year without innovating solutions and creating products to plug the market gaps; without solving problems and keeping pace with the under-served and emerging markets.
The startup BahamaGo is doing just that. It is attempting to solve two critical problems that the Ministry of Tourism with its $80 million annual budget has been unable to do in its more than five decades. So far BahamaGo has had success, not because it has the financial resources to do so, but because it has financial accountability; it has the business motivation combined with passion and drive; and most importantly, it does not have an analogue mind.
The reality is most hotels in the Bahamas are in fact small hotels, strung amongst the Family Islands; they are using outdated hotel management tools with no access to the large online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Travelocity and Expedia. This lack of access to OTAs is a major challenge for small hotels, which cannot accept online bookings for their properties, and have no way of offering booking packages that pair airfare and accommodation.
Many hotels are using manual ledgers or telepathic room inventory management systems. BahamaGo is an niche OTA created by Bahamian entrepreneurs with technology and finance backgrounds who understand the specific demands and challenges of the local market and are centrally focused on meeting the local needs.
Unfortunately, BahamaGo is not only competing against the large OTAs, it is also competing against the Ministry of Tourism (MOT). The MOT is simultaneously pursuing a strategy to solve the same problem, investing big bucks to contract an international company. It is not that the MOT is oblivious to the problems; even though they often take a while, they do act. But it is their action that often undermines entrepreneurial opportunity. And in the long run, the bureaucracy often underserves the market.
Small startup businesses in the tourism sector quickly come to learn that the tourism market is not free and open; it has a gate keeper known as the MOT. Large developments, particularly that bring foreign direct investment, need not worry, because the political leadership which sets the tone in tourism always has time for that.
A business’ size, bank balance, credit history, experience and level of connections correlate to level of trust that is inherently granted by the gate keeper. The problem for small startups, particularly those put forward by young entrepreneurs, is obvious. They suffer the most having to navigate their own way around the bureaucratic gate keeper.
I don’t believe it is intentional, but the MOT is a large bureaucracy that in some instances undermines economic opportunities for small businesses and innovation in the tourism sector. Whereas business is about taking risks, the bureaucracy is about playing it safe (routine processes aimed at protecting the country’s resources and not screwing things up; utilizing public funds in low risk investments); the different modes of being naturally conflict with each other, particularly when it comes to dealing with small businesses.
A small business might offer a service that the MOT is willing to pay for, but the MOT will always defer to the company that is perceived to present fewer risks. From a public sector management point of view it makes sense, but we must acknowledge how and when it creates an unsupportive, even anti-competitive environment for small Bahamian businesses.
A group of artists and photographers were having a conversation online the other day about Bahamian photographers joining together to create an online stock images website. The discussion was lively and interesting, and when I made my contribution I threw a wrench in the mix. If the MOT operates a free stock images website in partnership with an international stock images company, how could a local company compete? Wouldn’t the MOT’s free service undermine the business efforts of the private group?
The MOT has its fingers in many pots, and it often has a possessive like sense of ownership over anything that it is involved in. This posture inevitably becomes the elephant in the room when a private business tries to enter the market.
For large players the point is not so relevant, but for young entrepreneurs and small businesses it is critical. At some point, there will have to be a negotiation, whether spoken or unspoken, or some sort of mediation, with the MOT, before the gates of opportunity are fully opened. In the meantime, these businesses are forced to work in spite of the MOT.
The events market is a classic area. The MOT is committed to events. However, when the MOT stages an event, it often undermines the capacity of a private business to operate or manage an event in the same market place. On the flip side, if a private individual or company has an event it will not be legitimized as a marketable event to the tourist market unless it has the stamp of approval of the gate keeper.
The People to People programme is another example. People to People is a signature MOT programme that pairs visitors with a volunteer Bahamian host to experience Bahamian life and culture. The People to People programme is a successful MOT programme. But, it could also be a great business. The MOT innovated a great product for an important niche sector, but might it not be the time for a Bahamian to pursue it as a private business venture?
We must ask the question, what is the MOT really about? Justifying its own existence – its $80 million budget – or supporting a local business market? Shouldn’t we encourage and celebrate the creation of businesses to service areas previously subsided by the MOT? In a thriving tourism market, shouldn’t the MOT theoretically become more and more specialized, because the needs of the market would create viable businesses opportunities that are filled by Bahamian businesses.
I am not certain our thinking has reached that level of consciousness. More than likely, if a Bahamian saw an opportunity to create a People to People like business, it would attract resistance from those in tourism responsible for People to People, particularly its founders. And if the MOT was so inclined, it could undermine the business efforts of the private individual.
In this respect I sympathise with the civil servants who work at the MOT, because their public service often means missing out on business opportunities. However, their experience in the MOT also creates for them a wealth of knowledge and networks that would be vital assets in business. Instead of normalising career service, I think civil servants should be encouraged to take their experience into the public sector, where they can step out and take on the risks of entrepreneurship.
For all of its shortcomings, there is no question, the MOT has over the years plugged important market gaps with its own innovations, not only in marketing, but also product development. The civil servants who work for the MOT do mean well and they work hard to fulfil the mission of the organisation. In many respects the public/private sector relationship that exists in the tourism industry is something to be celebrated and modelled.
But we must not let our pride and good intentions make us blind to our own weaknesses or limitations. From some angles, the enviable relationship between the MOT and the private sector looks incestuous.
As the need for product expansion and innovation becomes more and more critical and young entrepreneurs mature, Bahamians are not going to just pass up emerging opportunities. They are going to take risks and start new businesses that defy the logic of the analogue mind. The MOT must examine its role and function in light of this approaching wave.
Fundamentally, the MOT has a delicate balance to strike: it must act like a business (for marketing is a core business strategy aimed at achieving business objectives), but it should not be in business. And if its service to the business community is justified in support of big business, then it should also be justified in support of small businesses.
I am encouraged by young Bahamian entrepreneurs and I know they will do what is necessary despite the MOT or the wider business environment. There is no question, tourism in the Bahamas is badly in need of product development and modernization and it is the innovators, the young entrepreneurs, small and niche businesses that are the hope for the future.
As for the MOT, it if wants to do right by the future, it needs to engage in self-examination and create a way forward that reshapes its relationship with innovators, startups and small businesses, who possess different needs to established and large businesses.
The MOT’s challenge is to value and support small and niche businesses; facilitate modernisation in the small business sector; encourage product development, especially through diversification into non-traditional areas of the business; recognize and nourish the talents of true innovators. Fundamentally, the MOT is called to be a facilitator not a gatekeeper; be a partner not a competitor; and to truly support the business of tourism, not merely justify its own existence.
• (Noelle Khalila Nicolls is The Tribune’s Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter @explorebahamas. For questions or comments, email email@example.com).