by Vincent Alonzo | February 02, 2018
It's fitting that this year's Caribbean Marketplace is being held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
This is by necessity a comeback year for the entire region. Following last year's hurricanes, the rebound made by tourism in and around San Juan shows great promise for the region being meeting- and incentive-ready to varying degrees in 2018.

As Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares told 975 buyers and suppliers at the opening night reception, "this is a great opportunity we have in the Caribbean to come back better than ever. The world will mark 2018 as the year the Caribbean came back."

2017 by the Numbers

According to Frank J. Comito, CEO and director general of Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, Caribbean room occupancy in 2017 was up but down slightly from projections. Quoting STR data, Comito said that room occupancy rates in the Caribbean for 2017 was 66 percent.

"But from Christmas of last year to the end of January, hotel industry performance in the region has been trending up and we are confident that will continue at least through Easter," he added.

Comito released the results of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association Performance Outlook Survey, which showed that 24 percent of hotels in the region expect to post a loss for 2017, while 76 percent expect to show a profit. When survey respondents were asked if they felt positive about revenue in 2018, 58 percent said yes.

One Caribbean

If there is a silver lining to come out of the hurricanes of 2017, it is a commitment to to market the Caribbean as a region as well as individual nations, Governor Rossello said.

"During the hurricanes, islands reached out and helped each other even as they were having hardships of their own, this acknowledgement that we are all dependent upon each other is something we have to build upon," said Governor Rossello. "'One Caribbean' is not just a slogan. It is a mantra, it needs to be our a way of life."

Karolin Troubetzkoy, outgoing president of Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, pointed to the region's Zika experience as an example of how the Caribbean needs to speak to the world with one voice during times of crisis.

"Zika is over but not in the mindset of the world community. We've been Zika-free for over a year but we're still on all the health watch websites for Zika. It's easy to get on these lists but hard to get off of them," said Troubetzkoy.

It brings home the fact that world has identified the Caribbean as a brand, even if some of the countries in the region do not recognize it, Troubetzkoy went on to say.

"While it is true that our islands all have unique cultures with experiences that are exclusive to them, that is not the way the world views us. And the reaction to hurricanes Irma and Maria has reinforced the fact that the world views us as one brand. We have to begin addressing that in our marketing efforts and how we communicate with the world," she said.

The Sharing Economy Arrives

Numerous tourism officials from countries throughout the region mentioned the importance of integrating sharing economy services such as Uber and Airbnb into strategic plans.

"One other thing the hurricanes revealed was that we have to become more connected with the shared economy sector of our tourism industry. We had a very difficult time accounting for visitors staying in Airbnb and other sharing economy accommodations," said Troubetzkoy.

"We need to have policies in place for documentation of sharing economy activity to account for the safety and security of our visitors as well as our brands," said Stacy Cox, president, Caribbean Society of Hotel Association Executives. "This type of information is also crucial for accurately gauging the level of tourism that is occurring in our destinations and the revenue it is generating."

For the United States Virgin Islands, which were hit extremely hard by the hurricanes, the sharing economy has become a crucial part of its operating strategy for 2018. According to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of United States Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, one-hundred percent of power has been restored to all of the islands and the beaches have recovered beautifully.

"The hotel segment will take a while, most will be rebuilding for most of 2018, but we're seeing a shift to the sharing economy to accommodate visitors this year," Nicholson-Doty said. "We're also seeing people being creative on the incentive side this year, using villas to accommodate small incentives. But we're focusing on St. Croix for 2019. We've been in discussions with Maritz and they are looking to increase their incentive business for 2019."