Minister of Business Development & Tourism
Minister Wayne Furbert will fly your group to Bermuda free if the numbers are right. Taking a page from Nike, his philosophy is “Just Do It.” And since coming to office last November, he has been hitting the road, listening and selling, all while crafting a 10-year plan to drive Bermuda’s tourism numbers upwards again. Recently he came to New York and hosted a group of journalists on the roof terrace of public relations consultant Lou Hammond where he gave the pitch and showcased his closing skills. He might even sing a song to close a deal. Following is excerpts from the morning conversation that included Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan.
ET: Tell us about your background?
Wayne Furbert: I’ve been involved in politics since I was 14 years old. Both my great great grandfather and great great uncle served as MPs. I was trained as a CPA, and in the past before being named Minister of Business Development and Tourism last November, I served as Minister of Culture and Minister of Transportation.
ET: How is Bermuda’s economy?
Wayne Furbert: In 1998 the economy was $3 billion. In 2007 it grew to $6 billion, although it now dropped to $5.4 billion. Tourism is about 5 percent of GDP. When the recession hit it was clear we needed another leg, and that leg can be tourism. It made us think, what do we need to do to revitalize the tourism industry? We put together a cabinet level committee together to make sure our tourism plan happens. Our motto is like Nike, “just do it.”
ET: Can you give us an overview of Bermuda’s tourism?
Wayne Furbert: In the early 80s, Bermuda received 400,000 visitors a year by air and 150,000 by cruise ship. Today cruises are up to 400,000 and air arrivals are down to 235,000. However air arrivals spend $1,500 per visit versus $97 for cruisers. To achieve our revenue objectives we only need 350,000 to 400,000 air arrivals, and our time frame is to do that over the next 10 years.
ET: What’s your plan?
Wayne Furbert: We just produced a 10-year national tourism plan. Part of it divides the island into five hubs: St. George’s, Waterfront, South Shore Beaches, Dockyards and Outer Perimeter. We want to concentrate on MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions) and Sports Tourism in addition to upscale leisure. We’ve set up a Tourist Board following after the structure that is used in Singapore, the Bahamas and South Africa
ET: How is Bermuda doing in the MICE market?
Wayne Furbert: Our room nights in the MICE sector have dropped from a peak of 105,000 to around 50,000 so we have a lot of opportunity. We are particularly focused on the off-season; September to March. Recently I was at a MICE conference in Puerto Rico, and before that I was just in Singapore, visiting the Marina Bay Sands, and again, it was a good lesson on how important the MICE market can be. Right now we have a series of State Farm meetings, and these meetings bring a lot of money to Bermuda. I’ve asked the board to set aside a fund that can be used as incentives for groups.
ET: What type of incentives?
Wayne Furbert: It starts with building personal relationships because personal relationships last longer. I want to meet buyers. My question is, “What will it take?” Every group wants something different, so we want to work closely with the planner to make sure we do what we need to do. That could be covering air in the off-season or things like ground transportation.
ET: What makes Bermuda a good venue for meetings?
Wayne Furbert: One of the added benefits of Bermuda is you are not closed in to a secured resort. You are safe and you have the full run of the island. There is good air access and it has a nice climate all year round. We have venues for executive meetings. and of course The Fairmont Southampton can handle groups up to the 1,000 range. We have some great private venues for events. The Maritime Museum, the Aquarium, Bermuda on the Water Expedition Institute can all be had for private events. It’s a one-to-one conversation.
ET: Are you looking at any new products or enhancements?
Wayne Furbert: We take things for granted. We have a lot of assets. People love diving. Bermuda is surrounded by over 300 sunken ships. In the winter the water is actually clearer and better for diving. That’s also when we need to sell hotel rooms. We have reefs like the great Barrier Reef that are off shore, and we are looking at proposals for rafting on the reef like they offer in Australia, and of course then you can snorkel and scuba as well. We are looking to liven up the southern shore beaches. Long Bay beaches are 48 acres of waterfront beach that are not really utilized, so for the summer we are looking at things like moving beach chairs and having music to make it more of a draw. In Hamilton we are redeveloping the entire waterfront area. We are looking at the opportunities to have a performing arts center.
ET: Anything new on the hotel scene?
Wayne Furbert: We have three new projects. The St. Regis is moving along. The financing is on schedule and we expect to break ground by the end of the year. There is another project at Morgan’s Point and one more I can’t talk about yet. The Sonesta is up for sale. It is a great development opportunity and could be a good property for meetings.
ET: Have you considered casinos?
Wayne Furbert: Casinos won’t be the be-all and end-all. Bermuda is an upscale destination so it will be an additional product in the style of Monte Carlo. There will be a government referendum, and it may happen this year. We don’t want the negative side effects. We are looking at other destinations. For example, in Singapore if you have a friend or family member you believe is gambling more money than they should, you can report it and there is a national body that will interview them. We think the key is to have checks and balances.
ET: How do you define sports tourism?
Wayne Furbert: Sports tourism is a big opportunity. For example the Newport to Bermuda Yacht Race costs $150,000 but brings in over $10 million in revenue. There are 170 boats and they all buy goods and services. Families fly down to meet them. The island is a virtual sell out and the families spend money. There is a formal dinner. The store that sells dress blazers and Bermuda shorts makes a mint because they all come in and buy (outfits) for the dinner. The PGA Grand Slam of Golf will be at the Port Royal Golf Course (October 22-24) and we are hoping Tiger Woods plays. The week after we have the Corporate Games, which could attract over 1,000 people. In November we are hosting the World Rugby Class. We will get both fans and corporate entertainment. To run in major marathons such as Boston, you have to run in qualifying marathons. The Bermuda marathon is a qualifier, but people don’t know that. People like to walk, we could look in the future at walking events. We already have beach tennis tournaments, there is scuba, we think there are opportunities with lacrosse as well as things like bridge. The key is niche tourism and the type of sports tourism that draws affluent consumers either as participants, family of participants, spectators or corporate entertaining. If we do it right, sports tourism could bring twenty or thirty-thousand visitors a year.
ET: Have you thought about Formula One?
Wayne Furbert: They would hit the walls, literally. It wouldn’t work, but things like off-shore boat races. That would be perfect.
ET: What about the environment?
Wayne Furbert: Bermuda is pristine. We have no public water system. We use recycled rainwater. Coral is protected. There is one car per family. We have an ethos of conservation and in fact there is amazing birding and of course the undersea life you can see diving.
ET: What do you like to do when you have free time?
Wayne Furbert: I love to sing. I sang the American national anthem at a Boston Red Sox game. My next ambition is to sing at a basketball game. But you should book me now. My rates are going up. My real passion is this jewel (Bermuda) an hour and a half from where we are sitting today in New York.