This is what action looks like, if Caribbean tourism is to build back better. Investment in technology, a solid private-public relationship, and homegrown talent driving the framework and the narrative.
When the pandemic hit, the hospitality and tourism industry in the Caribbean wasn’t just hurt by the absence of visitors. It was faced with a larger conundrum: delayed payments from major international tour operators, such as TUI and Virgin Holidays, for services rendered in the first three months of 2020. By May 2020, 69 percent of hotels had reported being owed from $200,000 up to $15 million, according to the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
Two years on, a solution has emerged out of Barbados that could point to a groundbreaking model for the rest of the Caribbean region. Launched at the close of 2021, BookBarbados.com, a Barbadian-owned and independently funded and operated online travel booking platform, allows users to buy hotel stays ranging from luxury to budget, local tours, Airbnb rentals, and long term stays all in one place. The site also taps into local influencer recommendations for a more authentic version of the island.
It’s what Barbados and much of the region had been missing until now: an e-commerce and travel marketing platform that will place more of consumer’s vacation booking funds directly into local businesses’ hands, and a way to stand out with a homegrown depiction of Barbados that goes beyond the sun and sand narrative.
“I mentioned it to previous government officials with little or no success on trying to basically control our destiny as opposed to leave it in the hands of the big online travel agencies internationally who sort of market multiple destinations and not just one country,” said Peter Harris, founder of Book Barbados and a self-professed serial Barbadian entrepreneur who has run businesses in insurance, media, tourism and now real estate. Harris did not reveal what it cost to launch the startup.
That’s the promise of this innovative independent online booking platform, which welcomes all tourism businesses big and small to sign up: it enjoys a solid public-private relationship, with approval from the island’s current destination marketing organization leaders and the government at its highest levels.
“Book Barbados is an example of the kind of innovative and internationalized, technology driven start up enterprise that needs to begin to revolutionize the tourism sector,” said Lisa Cummins, Barbados’ minister of tourism, lauding the startup’s ability to create new revenue streams for local tourism businesses.
Book Barbados’ team holds ambitious plans for this first of its kind government-endorsed independent destination travel booking engine.
Future goals include offering cruise booking for ships sailing out of Barbados, as well as other add on services travelers might need while in country, such as a personal trainer or DJ. The platform is also cognizant of the importance of local support and has plans to offer an affiliate program for residents, as well as for travel advisors to be able to earn commissions when booking products for clients.
An election is looming in Barbados, scheduled for January 19, but any potential political changes aren’t expected to affect this privately funded and owned platform.
The aim is to expand the BookBarbados.com model to the Caribbean region, said the site’s founder Harris. A locally-run and owned booking platform would also allow Barbados to have control of its foreign exchange, a relentless struggle year after year to prop up the U.S. reserves needed to survive on the island, Harris said.
Ultimately, it’s the inclusivity in the content and offerings, which also features local influencers and links to social media platforms for a wide range of local businesses, and a payment structure that pays local businesses faster than international players that the Book Barbados team believe will capture more travelers and vendors and ultimately, distinguish them from the competition.
“I can only envisage that the platform will complement the marketing efforts of the DMO especially during this period of tourism recovery in the region,” said Billy Griffith, former CEO of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., the island’s destination management organization who also served as a consulting partner with the platform’s team.
For the site’s founder, Book Barbados isn’t just about providing a way to book travel to Barbados, but also reading about Barbados, and access and promote content and businesses that would never make it internationally because of the lack of budgets to get there.
“The Expedias of this world don’t care about my favorite rum shop,” Harris said. “And so you know, getting people like that onto the website helps develop Barbados as a society.”
A Catalyst for Access and Inclusivity
So far BookBarbados.com has onboarded 70 accommodations, 20 attractions, 30 experiences, and 20 car rental companies, with more on the way. The platform was recently accredited by the International Air Transport Association, which means flight packages will soon be available for online purchase.
Marriott International, which entered the all-inclusive resort space in 2019 with Barbados’ Elegant Hotels, is in current talks to onboard as well but it’s taking longer to figure out due to their relationship with Expedia.
While the Book Barbados team used an international company to build up the back end, it wasn’t a cookie cutter solution, and the customized framework for the booking platform was designed by Josea Browne, managing director of BookBarbados.com and a Barbadian hotel revenue manager whose experience spans 20 years in the hospitality industry, with stints around the Caribbean, and as an island-based, former third-party hotel vendor for Expedia Group.
“While we may be working with an international company for our back end technology, it was not an out of the box solution,” said Browne, adding that the framework of BookBarbados.com was completely customized to the needs of Caribbean hotels.
“There are certain things in the technology that you can’t do on an Airbnb or that you can’t do on an Expedia that are very their little persistent pain points for suppliers when they’re dealing with systems all the time.”
It comes down to the ability to split commissions across different items, which isn’t possible with the other platforms, Browne said.
“For example, I am a hotel and I offer a bed and breakfast rate, but the breakfast part of the rate is really a cost. I can’t afford to pay you 20-25 percent commission on that. In our system, we can take the full commission on the room, but we can offer a much lower commission on the breakfast portion of it.”
That encourages suppliers to make more appealing bundling options available, giving consumers a wider choice in packages as well, Browne added. “The technology in the back allows for all of our suppliers to make every extra dollar on every single transaction that is possible, which they can’t really do with the others. All of these little points add up to actual hard cash in the hands of our suppliers.”
Ultimately, the goal is to make the site as inclusive as possible — from the big guns like Marriott to the small mom and pop-owned rum shops on the island.
“With our commission structure, the one thing we do to make sure that we have inclusivity is that we absorb all of the credit card transactions; we absorb that part of the operational cost for the supplier. So right away we are that much cheaper than our competitors,” said Browne.
All the payments are also processed in Barbados, either in U.S. dollars for international transactions, but there’s also a version of the site that is for locals and processes in Barbadian dollars. “We then transfer the payments by local bank transfer, so that means that you’re not waiting 30 days for an international wire to come in,” said Browne, adding that businesses would see payments arrive within 72 hours after the service has been rendered, thus improving their cashflow.
Perhaps even more competitive is the site offering a prepayment relationship to prevent a recurrence of 2020 backpay issues from international online travel agencies. Vendors can receive money prior to guests actually arriving, depending on their cancellation policies. Either way, the payments come much faster.
“So it’s pretty much from my local bank to your local bank, which might take 10 minutes if it’s over a weekend, but the latest is 72 hours after the service has been rendered,” said Book Barbados’ Browne.
A Boon for Bajan Experiences and Products
Local tour operators and suppliers are able to submit their listings online in their own time, and Book Barbados reviews entries to check on whether business registration and tourism licenses are either valid or needed as a first step. But the goal isn’t to exclude participants right off the bat should they be missing any of the required certifications to do business in Barbados, if not to help them obtain them.
Getting more businesses registered and building closer relationships with tourism officials would lead to a more robust tourism industry, and the platform aim is to help the sector move in that direction.
Could there be some confusion for consumers between VisitBarbados.com and BookBarbados.com? The website’s team believe their project is more complimentary to the tourism board than not.
“As a marketing organization, they may not have the technical skills to build what we have built,” said Book Barbados’ Browne. “So from the beginning, everybody has identified that this definitely is a need and we are going to work together. There’s always been a synergy from the first time we started to have that conversation with them.”
It’s this strong private-public sector relationship that will boost the platform’s long-term efforts.
“I can only envisage that the platform will complement the marketing efforts of the DMO especially during this period of tourism recovery in the region,” said former Barbados tourism marketing CEO Griffith.
While moving forward with onboarding more suppliers, which is the first phase of the project, the Book Barbados team has ambitious plans in growing their startup.
The win for Book Barbados, the team said, is likely to come from having an upper hand on the range of tours and experiences offerings. While the dominant online travel agencies are 100 percent dependent on accommodations, Book Barbados has the flexibility to offer a wider range of services from the ground, Browne said.
“We are here locally. We know every single thing that’s going on. There should be nobody in the world that sells better experiences for our destination than we do.”
Could BookBarbados.com be a game changer for the island’s tourism sector and trigger innovation in the rest of the region?
On the heels of a crisis that has disrupted traveler habits and left online travel booking loyalty up for grabs, there is indeed a real opportunity here for Book Barbados to grab more of the consumer market, particularly the conscious traveler, looking for local recommendations and authentic experiences along with the ease of technology.
Photo credit: An aerial view of Barbados' coastline. Courtesy of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. / Visit Barbados