Matt Cooper: “We’re Stronger Together”
Matt Cooper has been in the tourism industry for 20 years, though over the past year and a half he’s been directly involved in the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), since March 2015, as Chief Marketing Officer. In this exclusive interview with Caribbean News Digital, Mr. Cooper spoke about the challenges and opportunities for CHTA and the region on the road ahead.
The first question hinged on CHTA’s marketing strategy and the odds the association has to adapt the tourism offer to the needs of the new breed of visitors arriving in the Caribbean, an effort CHTA is pulling off together with CTO (Caribbean Tourism Organization).
“We represent hotels and everything is not government, but we actually collaborate with the CTO and collaborate with governments too because, at the end of the day, we are in the same business, in the business of tourism. So, we make sure to bring more people to our shores and make sure that when they’re here, from beginning to end, they have a great experience,” Mr. Cooper said.
“So, that takes a lot of coordinating, a lot of different categories of business. We face a lot of challenges. One of the best ways for us to represent our membership and represent the industry is through advocacy, by promoting to keep the cost of travel low, to make sure that it’s as easy as possible to travel here and to travel between islands as well, inter-Caribbean travel.”
Advocacy as a strategy is high on the list of CHTA’s top priorities. “One of the things that we’ve been able to accomplish with the US government, especially now that there’s a huge spotlight on Cuba over the last year and a half, is that we advocate on behalf of the region and make sure that if there’s any special concessions given to Cuba from the US government, the rest of the region also benefits from that. Recent news about Cuba have been really good for us to be able to shine a light on the rest of the region and really talk about matters that are of paramount importance to our region.”
As a result of these efforts, CHTA CEO Frank Comito addressed Congress in the last couple of months. The result of that and the efforts CHTA has conducted, together with the Caribbean-Central America Action Committee, is that USAID (United States Agency for International Development) has been tasked with presenting a proposal to Congress on how to improve US-Caribbean relations for the first time in a long time.
Also keeping cost of travel down is really a matter of not only how much the airfare costs, but also de taxation and the fees that are attached to those airfares. So, in some Caribbean destinations half of what travelers pay is taxes and fees on the airfare. And that becomes a problem, Mr. Cooper goes on to explain as he turns to the concept of easy travel.
“Easy travel is also a matter and in the middle of that is the airport experience, how easy it is to arrive and get to your destination, and have a piña colada on the beach, and then how easy it is to get back out. That’s why you see in places like Aruba and Nassau a policy of preclearance. If you’re a US traveler going back to the US, once you get back to your home port you just go home, because you have customs and immigrations clearance issued in Aruba, in the Bahamas. Punta Cana is next in April; but it’s a lengthy and costly process, it’s a matter of investment and for our governments, especially here in the region, to recognize the importance of that, the fact that easy travel is really important to move things forward and make sure that we stay competitive on a global stage.”
Is the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association working with all governments in making efforts to develop tourism in the region?
“Absolutely, and a lot of what we do goes that way. For hoteliers, advocacy also includes professional development education and human resources development, and making sure that we are investing in our workforce, making sure that everybody from a young age understands the importance of the tourism industry in their home, in their destination, and that it feeds more families than any other industry in the world.
“This is the biggest industry in our world for sure, and it is the biggest industry globally. So, we need to lead with our people, our people in number one asset. Tourism is going to account for nearly 11 percent of the global GDP by the year 2020. It’s important and we need to lead with our people. Our people are our number-one asset.”
Is the Caribbean Hotel & Association giving importance to multicultural groups, LGBT travel and other groups of interest?
“Absolutely. At the end of the day, what we getting in the middle of is something that needs to bring more money to our membership. So, our efforts need to achieve a more profitable hotel industry. Whatever it is that we addressing, we need to make sure that increases the profitability of our industry and for our members.”
As to the biggest opportunities and challenges for the Caribbean’s travel and tourism industry, this is what Mr. Cooper had to say:
“The bigger opportunities are what you’ve just touched on: the emerging markets, new markets, niche market, getting into LGBT in a whole sale way is very important because it is a very profitable market, it can be. Also increasing our meeting and incentive (MICE) segments, just making sure that we bring more meeting and incentive travel business to the region as a whole. That’s very important too.
“It’s also important identifying more buyers and operators out of emerging markets for us, like in Latin America and Brazil, but not excluding Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Argentina. Increasing our buyer base in Europe as well is very important, and the pointing east and looking to and taking a deep dive in the Middle East as a new source market as well, especially in places like the UAE and Dubai, and even further east, in China and Asia, because also in those areas there’s middle-class people traveling.
“So, those are challenges and opportunities at the same time, is really about increasing the business and making sure that is grabbing those markets and making sure that we are grabbing those markets and using a sustainably method on going strategic sales and marketing plans and actions, but also making sure that they’re happy when they get here. So, our product has to be up to snuff, and so, we need a really good quality product.
“Other challenge/opportunity is to identify investors and investment houses, and match them with properties in the region that need expansion and renovation. Another opportunity is marketing the region together as a collective, like “Brand Caribbean”. It’s about really going out and attacking the market as a collective and pulling the power of the region together instead of trying to go out on our own. We are stronger together. It’s actually a very active conversation that we are having with public and private sectors.”