By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior tourism official yesterday said Grand Bahama’s Memories resort is forecasting an 80 per cent average annual occupancy rate, arguing that the gamble to open the property before it was 100 per cent complete was paying off.
David Johnson, the Ministry of Tourism’s director-general, said the market would have “shut it down for six months” had the Sunwing/Blue Diamond group chosen to keep Memories the property closed until it was ready, costing it the peak winter season.
Recognising the impact this might have on the visitor experience, Mr Johnson said the Ministry of Tourism had opened a service and information desk within Memories to monitor guest feedback - the first-ever on-property facility of its kind in the Bahamas.
And, responding to Canadian press reports that some Memories guests had endured a “nightmare trip”, and were contemplating lawsuits against Sunwing/Blue Diamond, Mr Johnson said such complaints were “not representative” of most visitors’ feedback.
“Obviously, we’re concerned if it happens to just one guest,” Mr Johnson told Tribune Business. “We monitor it very closely. We have a service and information desk in the hotel; something we have never done before.
“We opened that because the hotel and facilities were not fully ready. The guests were advised previously of the state of affairs, and Sunwing made provisions for them to have upgrades elsewhere.
“We went into this knowing the property was not 100 per cent ready, but was able to provide a good experience,” he added.
“We’re monitoring what the guests are saying, and after some 2,000 guests and two-and-a-half weeks of being open, it’s [the Canadian media reports] not representative of the experience the guests have had. That feedback is not consistent with the feedback we’ve seen otherwise.”
Mr Johnson emphasised that the Ministry of Tourism was watching Memories’ guests closely and assessing their feedback.
He added that he was “not disputing” the veracity of any complaints, acknowledging there had been “one or two challenges”.
The Ministry of Tourism’s director-general added that Memories “should be on target” for 100 per completion by month’s end, or this coming weekend.
He added that the readiness of one floor of rooms had been delayed, while the wait for parts had also set back the resort’s Aqua Park. The third restaurant, an Asian experience, which former guests had complained was closed, had opened at the weekend.
“Overall, we are quite encouraged by the guest feedback, but if there is one complaint in 2,000 we are concerned about this. We have to get it right,” Mr Johnson said.
“The demand has been strong, and certainly we had demand for every available room at the resort this past weekend. We had 720 guests this past week every night.”
The tourism director-general predicted that once Memories was fully opened, the resort was expected to generate an average annual occupancy of 80 per cent based on 490 rooms.
He added that the resort’s owner, Hutchison Whampoa, had still been getting some of the rooms ready in the previous week.
“It appears there was a slip up; the degree, I don’t know,” Mr Johnson said. Sunwing/Blue Diamond are the operators for the Memories resort, which is the former Reef Village at the Grand Lucayan.
As owner, Hutchison Whampoa has had the responsibility of getting the Memories property ready, and ensure it is at Blue Diamond standards.
Several sources have suggested the relationship between the two has been strained at times, with the operator concerned about whether the Hong Kong conglomerate was investing the sums necessary to get the property ready on time and to standard.
Mr Johnson, though, said the decision to open Memories before it was fully complete was justified, as the hotel would now capture the “bulk of the winter” season.
Had it missed the peak February-April period, and cancelled previously booked reservations, Mr Johnson said the Freeport-based property would have effectively missed an entire year’s business - with all the implications that held for the owner and operator’s respective investments.
“It was mostly ready,” Mr Johnson told Tribune Business of Memories. “If you tell the marketplace it’s not ready, they will shut you down for six months until the next season.
“We believe it was the right decision, because if a few rooms are not ready, say 100 rooms, and you say to guests it’s not ready despite 75-80 per cent being available, guests would not have come.
“To miss a year after doing what we would have done, and have that property sitting unnecessarily and unused, we could not do that.
“We’re satisfied we’re going to capture the bulk of the winter season, and the resort will be 100 per cent complete by the end of next week.”
Memories’ opening is viewed as key to both the revival of Grand Bahama’s tourism product and reducing its unemployment rate, given predictions it will generate around 1,000 direct jobs.