The UNESCO designation of Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison as a World Heritage site creates all kinds of opportunities for business in Barbados, related to our rich history. For 200 years tourism in Barbados WAS what we can only call heritage tourism, while some visitors came for health reasons, such as George Washington and his brother in 1751. Visitors were interested in places from Sam Lord’s Castle to St. John’s Church, St. Michael’s Cathedral to St. Nicholas Abbey. And hotels like the Atlantis, the Crane and the “lovely lost lady”, the Marine, were the hosts.
Our UNESCO branding intersects with a whole new era of tourism – the re-birth of the intimate inn, through the development of the phenomenon Airbnb. This exponentially growing business, now worth more than a billion dollars, is based on the same principal as the little family run, intimate hostelry or bed and breakfast, making good use of what’s there. Here’s the Wikipedia definition of a bed and breakfast: “A bed and breakfast (typically shortened to B&B or BnB) is a small lodging establishment that offers overnight accommodation and breakfast. Bed and breakfasts are often private family homes and typically have between four and eleven rooms, with six being the average. A B&B usually has the hosts in the house.”
Ancient inns occurred along main highways, as far back as the Romans and the Appian Way – and in the old days they provided beds, meals and a hostelry for horses. In the old days in Barbados visitors lodged in small hotels and guest houses, originally in the historic core of Bridgetown, made famous by Rachel Pringle, who hosted a party for Prince William Henry, and by the 1880s they opened by the sea – at Hastings (the Seaview, now The Savannah, and the Ocean View), the Crane and the Atlantis on the dramatic East Coast. They were small, family run hotels initially, just like the intimate historic inns in any country.
Modern hotels operate on an entirely different basis and a different scale – economies of scale. They are rarely family run, and international “chain” hotels have streamlined the business, with common standards and chain details. For some travellers this provides an expected, standard service. For others it’s sterile and boring – many visitors want a local experience, and this is where both our UNESCO branding, emphasising our history, and Airbnb come in.
Airbnb has an interesting history. Apparently it was conceived by two friends in 2007. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who had met five years before at Rhode Island School of Design, were struggling to pay their rent in San Francisco. A design conference was coming up and all hotels were fully booked (as happened to me in 1981 in San Diego), so they hatched the idea of renting out three airbeds in their living-room and providing breakfast. It was an emergency bed and breakfast! Next day they built a website, airbedandbreakfast.com. So that’s the origin of the name, and it’s now worth more than a billion US dollars. Barbados, I understand, already has more than 1,000 properties and growing. And they range from a modest room or two with a family to a beach side luxury villa and what I call historic inns – and this broad range of hostelries – from simple to sophisticated – has become a full part of Airbnb.
Two splendid “Historic Inns” which can capitalise on both the UNESCO branding and the Airbnb rules are Sweetfield Manor in St. Michael and Colleton House in St.Peter. Both are splendid great houses, overseen by owner / family, where a spacious historic residence provides both architectural interest and ambiance, and an intimate setting.
Sweetfield Manor, an old merchant’s house overlooking the Historic Garrison, has gardens, pool and peacocks! It’s just outside Bridgetown and a passable walk to the Garrison and the beach at Carlisle Bay.
Colleton House in St. Lucy is the crème de la crème. It’s a beautiful old plantation “great house” in Palladian style, in seven acres of tropical gardens. It was originally the property of Sir John Colleton, the Royalist settler in 1650 who conceived and brought about the settlement of the Carolinas in 1670, with the backing of his wealthy London friends. It’s magnificently furnished with a splendid, eclectic art collection – from 16th to 19th century – Persian rugs, elegant furniture and art glass, making a stay a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s also a Regency-period gem – the stables, filled with some 200 pieces of Papua New Guinea and African sculptures. There are three beautiful suites and a two-bedroom self-contained cottage. It’s close to the beach and historic Speightstown, and it’s the epitome of a heritage tourism holiday.
The concept of small, more intimate accommodations, promoted by Airbnb, is a win-win situation, because it actions their philosophy of sharing, swapping and renting your possessions. What’s most important for the Barbados economy is that it provides income for sociable hosts or those with room to spare, and keeps most of the money in Barbados, compared to the international chain hotels, where much of the money goes out or never comes in. And it attracts visitors who can’t pay the rates of a Hilton or Elegant Hotels, and want to taste our cultural heritage in a more intimate way. It’s certainly good business for Barbados, although in some popular cities such as Vancouver I understand it’s contributing to a serious housing shortage, as short-term visitor rates are much higher than long-term rentals.
But I can see that with modest capital outlay many spacious houses can be adapted as historic inns, for everyone’s benefit. Finally, bed and breakfasts are generally economical to run. It’s an ideal small business venture and opens many opportunities for investment, for use of possibly vacant real estate, especially great houses and beach houses, for our people and for the hospitality industry.