The Role of the MICE Niche Market and the Opportunities that it Presents for the Development of Barbados’ Tourism Product

Most hoteliers will agree that the fastest way to fill a property is to negotiate with a single group leader or meeting planner to take a block of rooms.  From a small wedding party to a full buy-out of the property, group business can be lucrative, especially in the slower periods of the year.  All groups are not equal and some provide more of the trickledown effect than others.  Whether in Barbados for a “Meeting”, as part of a company sponsored “Incentive” trip, for a “Conference” or “Exposition” (tradeshow), it is possible for players in varied parts of the tourism sector to reap benefit from the M-I-C-E market.  If Barbados continues to seriously pursue this market niche, which is reported to be a hundred billion dollar segment, the airlines, accommodation suppliers, conference services providers, destination management companies, attractions, support services like florists, multimedia practitioners, medics, vendors, etc will benefit in an orchestrated fashion.

The Barbados Tourism Authority and local partners have participated in the development of this niche from its early days over twenty years ago but more formally over the past five years through the MICE Product Club now hosted by the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association.  This initiative brings together all of the major stakeholders in this niche from the private and public sector.  Major strides have been made to ensure that up to date collateral material is available for this market and to host educational or familiarization trips targeted at the major suppliers in the North America and United Kingdom to expose all aspects of the product here on island. Barbados has a major presence at the premiere MICE trade events in the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Table 1 gives a snapshot of the available conference and meeting facilities but also clearly defines the limitations on the size of groups hotels can accommodate in-house.

Barbados Meeting Hotels 2009

Hotels

Max. Meeting Capacity

Accra Beach Hotel & Resort250
Almond Beach Village200
Amaryllis Beach Resort200
Barbados Beach Club130
Bougainvillea Beach Resort65
Coral Reef Club50
Divi Southwinds100
Fairmont Royal Pavilion50
Hilton Barbados350
Island Inn200
Sandy Lane Hotel350
Savannah200
Silver Sands Hotel30
Southern Palms75
Turtle Beach Hotel40
Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre1200
Total3490

Though it is very possible to successfully host groups of up to 1200 using the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford centre for meetings and to offer a shuttle service to and from various hotels, it does present some challenges.  In order for Barbados to grow its market share there are some specific initiatives that need to happen.  The following is an excerpt from the speaking notes prepared for the Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Richard Sealy, M. P. for the closing Dinner and Awards Ceremony of the 48th Annual Master Brewers’ Association of the Americas at the Needham’s Ballroom, Hilton Barbados, Friday, May 22, 2009.

Minister Sealy spoke of some of these targeted for the medium term when he noted the following:  “At this point Barbados lacks a purpose built convention facility that can host meetings accommodating between 1,500 and 3,000 delegates, which is in close proximity to an adequate set of four-star hotel rooms, as well as that quintessential Caribbean holiday requirement, a high quality beach.  The Government certainly wishes to get to the position where such a facility is a reality and is working towards this goal in the medium-term. In the short-term, however, the Government will be breaking ground later this year on a $400 million investment in the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre that will create a three-storey office block of approximately 58,000 square feet within the footprint of the building.  The investment will also include a three and a half level car park, accommodating approximately 320 cars, as well as a significant upgrade of conference facilities and equipment at the centre.  This investment recognises the untapped potential of the centre for generating substantial business in the field of MICE tourism.  This investment shows clearly that the Government intends to spare no effort in ensuring that the facilities offered for conferences in Barbados are modern, state-of-the-art and world-class in nature.”

Facilities limitations aside, Barbados has a well-established reputation for excellent telecommunications, infrastructure, safety and security which put it in league with the ‘big guns’ with respect to hosting world-class events.  The World Cup of Golf and the ICC Cricket World cup are two iconic achievements that underline our ability to plan, prioritise and execute at a very high level.  Indeed our human capital assets are key to our success and in the case of this niche, “our ability to create what a group leader can dream”.  The expertise in managing this segment resides in-house or can be contracted through one of Barbados’ several destination management companies.

Anderson Daniel, CEO of Barefoot Holidays and a certified meeting planner explains:

“A Destination Management Company, or DMC, provides expert destination knowledge, creativity and logistical “know-how” for the groups in the areas of airport / sea port meet and greet, transportation, tours and activities, team building and event production from unique venues to entertainment and decor.  A good DMC will operate as your partner and can provide tremendous benefit to Meeting and Event planners in the area of time management, planning and coordination.”

Is Barbados doing enough to capture group business?  Most players in this segment believe that in the midst of a recession there is opportunity to be heard even louder as other destinations go quiet.  It provides an opportunity to re-tool and re-market the product in a creative manner and to foster even closer personal relationships with long standing allies.  If the age of conspicuous consumption has gone, based on the economic tsunami that the world is facing at present, is the incentives portion of the MICE market segment facing its demise?   The MICE segment is certainly under threat but the destination must work harder to show that it can adapt to the new expectations.  To underscore this point, Honor Clarke, CEO of Island Magic Barbados and a founding member of the MICE Product Club, adds:

“Any savvy Meeting Planner knows that there is no substitute for local knowledge and that comes in the form of a DMC.  This is always seen as the key to any successful event or programme.  DMC’s work hard to build and maintain relationships with local suppliers in addition to keeping up to date with new ones.  Meeting Planners see their DMC as an ally and colleague who have in many cases assisted them in winning that piece of business.  They depend on the professional event specialist at the DMC to design and implement an exciting, innovative and cost effective programme, no matter how large or small the budget.  Whether the incentive program requires themed events, elegant evenings or a Bajan style cultural show with craft market, the DMC can deliver this with flair and wow!”

Personal selling rather than hard-sell has always been the mantra of this niche and the necessity for creativity, as budgets are ratcheted back, may provide opportunity for new ideas and a different viewpoint as to how we can deliver quality and flexibility.  But have we fully explored opportunities that match our product offering both locally and regionally?  Accra Resort and Spa has done an excellent job capturing local and regional business, as has Hilton Barbados, each with proactive in-house programmes and as active participants in the national effort.

MICE is also noted as an important part of the revenue stream for some of the more upmarket west coast properties as well. Catherine Mapp, Sales Manager of Fairmont Royal Pavilion, says: “The MICE niche most definitely is a very important market segment for us.  This market represents approximately 6.3% of room nights of our overall business annually in 2008.  Prior to the recession, we recorded up to 9.1% in 2007.  Fortunately most of this business fits into the shoulder/summer season when it is a challenge to maintain high occupancies with the FIT market.  From a local standpoint, we do relatively well with local corporate functions – be it corporate meetings, lunches or annual gala events.”

So if locally generated business is already an avenue for filling the gaps, perhaps it can act as a catalyst to generate more opportunities. If every social group, members of the business community, offshore sector, educational institutions, etc were to list the number of conferences that they attend outside of Barbados each year, can we joint

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