THE BRANDING OF FREEPORT: YOU CAN’T MARKET WHAT YOU DON’T HAVE
Thank you.
Let me quickly admit that the title of my talk is a lie. You can certainly market what you don’t have. I could create a campaign to sell 10 acres of waterfront property in the heart of Freeport, with an insanely attractive price, as they did in the 1960’s in the Florida swamps. Of course, the result of that kind of deception can never be positive, and I assume Freeport is tired of less than positive results.
President Turnquest, Officers and members of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce, friends. It is an honour to be invited to speak to you on a subject about which I am certainly not an expert, but about which I am concerned enough to risk the slings and arrows of those who are. I’m here to talk about the failing tourism business in Freeport and Grand Bahama and to suggest ways to arrest the decline.
What causes a person in Chicago, Toronto or Liverpool to decide to spend several month’s salary, time and hassle in several airports, to try to sleep in airplane seats obviously not made for sleeping and miss his favorite team’s next game to come to Grand Bahama just for a few days? The answer is the same as it would be for us taking a trip to Chicago, Toronto or Liverpool. The promise of an experience we would not have unless we made that trip. This is what people mean when they talk about tourism product – those experiences peculiar to a place which are of interest to visitors.
For example, Bahamians flock to Fort Lauderdale to experience shopping with lower prices and greater variety, to enjoy Broadway shows at the Center for the Performing Arts and to drive down to Miami for Miami Heat or Dolphins games. They flock to New York to experience the vertical city, to walk through Times Square, said to be the most exciting spot on earth, and to see Broadway shows. They go to Cuba to see the show at the Tropicana, to sit on a plaza in Havana and watch pretty girls, and to sip Cuban coffee.
In each case, while it would certainly be possible to find other ways to have those experiences, at the moment of making a travelling decision, the perception is that those experiences are unique to those places. Those experiences are the product for which the destinations are known – for which they have become branded.
Miami, for example, has become branded as a young lifestyle destination. South Beach is promoted as a place where the young, rich and famous can be seen partying on the streets. An array of sporting activities keeps the national and international spotlight on this mecca of youth energy. For the City of Miami, Lebron James’ decision was not about basketball, it was about the business of tourism. Visitor interest is driven by the anticipation of an experience, which is the result of a consistent message going out that that experience is available to you. Using television shows, game broadcast, movies and advertising, Miami has successfully transformed the almost comatose Miami of the late seventies into this dynamic, exciting city of street parties, basketball championships playoff football and speedboats full of semi-nude, blonde women. Miami Vice. Bad Boys 2. CSI Miami. True Lies. Burn Notice. All reinforcing the same message.
But they do more than promise. They know that once the promise is made, they must deliver. That is why Dwayne Wade needed Lebron. That is why the Dolphins need a quarterback. The City of Miami uses its tax laws, its planning department and its business community to make certain the promise is kept. Sponsorship money is not wasted on events that do not reinforce the message that creates the business that generates the sponsorship money in the first place. They make sure they keep their branding promise.
So. Back to Grand Bahama. What are the experiences promised for a visit to Freeport or Grand Bahama? A brief internet search of Freeport attractions offered some 14 tours and 17 attractions. Unfortunately, when studied more closely, there were only 9 tours and 6 attractions. And of the 9 tours, 5 were fishing or diving tours and 3 were nature tours. Of the 6 attractions, 3 were nature based and the others were a festival marketplace, a golf resort and a perfume factory.
If I were sitting in New Jersey, trying to determine what kind of destination Freeport is, based upon this list, I would conclude that it is another Caribbean island – offering me sun, sand, sea and the natural landscape. Just like all the other islands in the Caribbean. This reminds me that the second Law of Retail says, “If you are selling the same thing as your competitor, price drives your business. If what you are selling is unique, price is not an issue.”
Nigel Morgan and Annette Prichard, in their essay on “Contextualizing Destination Branding” agree. They say, and I quote:
“…Yet despite this aggressive marketplace, how many country advertisements do you see which portray blue seas, cloudless skies and endless golden beaches with a less than memorable tag line? Yet what does differentiate one Caribbean or Mediterranean island from its nearest neighbor? Rarely sun and sand. In this marketplace what persuades potential tourists to visit (and revisit) one place instead of another is whether they have empathy with the destination and its values. The battle for customers in tomorrow’s destination marketplace will be fought not over price but over hearts and minds….”
What this says to us is this: while we live in the most beautiful country in the world, unless we are prepared to be the lowest price on the board, it is no longer enough to separate us from our competitors in the minds of our potential customers. We would have to be the best price in the Bahamas, the best price in the Caribbean or almost anywhere on the globe between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. According to the Minister of Tourism, we are far from that at the moment. Just getting here from Florida costs as much or more than getting to Las Vegas.
So if sun, sand, sea and nature’s beauty are not the basis on which we can compete, what is? Do you remember that second Law of Retail? “If what you are selling is unique, price is not an issue.” The best bet is to find something unique to sell. So what do Freeport and Grand Bahama have to take to the market that is unique?
The answer is its people.
We know this. We know there is no one on the planet with the same History, the same Mythology and the same Lifestyle as us. Who else eats boiled fish for breakfast? Drinks Love Vine, Five Fingers or pear leaf tea? Who else wears Junkanoo colours to church? Or believe in sperrit? We have always known that the greatest satisfaction for our visitors came from interacting with us. We have just not learned to make that interaction something anticipated by the potential customer in Chicago. That is, we have not yet become a part of our own brand.
How, then, do we bridge this gap, and begin to build a brand for Freeport and Grand Bahama that creates an anticipation for a unique destination? First, we must begin to turn our knowledge of ourselves and our uniqueness into experiences accessible to our visitors for a price. In the language of the tourism marketplace, we must turn our story into attractions. Secondly, we must decide what we want our brand to be. Thirdly, we must develop a marketing plan that uses the appropriate attractions to reinforce that brand proposition, to build the appropriate anticipation.
Let’s say we decided we would like to build a brand as a sporting and entertainment destination. What kinds of attractions would our market expect?
 We might have tours to movie sets, to that new post-production studio complex, to the new Florida Marlins Spring Training site, and to the Howard Hughes Museum.
 Retail attractions? How about the Pirate’s Dinner Theatre, the Imax Theatre, the Komedy Klub, Madam Toussards’ Pirates Republic and the Great Billfish Hall of Fame.
 Event attractions? I can see Phil Mickleson, Earnie Els and Tiger Woods in the Our Lucaya Skins Game, Branford Marsellas starring in the Grand Bahama Blues and Jazz Festival. Fox broadcasting the Freeport Marathon and the Manny Pachiou fight.
 How about virtual attractions? All the movies being made or TV shows broadcast from Grand Bahama.
On the other hand, should we wish to be thought of as a cultural destination, the things we might promote most could be:
 Tours of museums, churches, artists’ studios. Tours of some of the older settlements. A major cultural revue at the Lucayan National Park.
 Retail attractions? Festivals celebrating Junkanoo, conch, rake’n’scrape music, the many uses of coconuts, bush medicine, Bahamian fruit. Straw or craft markets. Restaurants that specialize in conch, fish, duff, souce or local pastry. Museums and galleries.
 Event attractions? Concerts by local or regional stars. Junkanoo parades. British ceremonies, like the opening of the Supreme Courts or the Beat Retreat.
 Virtual attractions like books on slavery, British Colonial rule, piracy, the History of the Bahamas. Bahamian cookbooks. Books written by Bahamians or in the Bahamas. Movies with local scripts. TV shows on Bahamian locations.
You get the message.
But let’s be clear here. I am not suggesting that the brand proposition restricts which attractions are built. A good destination satisfies all types of visitors. So you should build any attraction that you feel helps you share your story. What the branding agreement does is guides the promotional efforts, so that the result of the promotion is the delivery of a customer to all your attractions.
Please forgive me for discussing my own project here, but it helps me convey the way a cultural attraction might be put together to satisfy a general, “who are these people?” customer. Guava Bay is a mini-destination park with several individual opportunities for the development of a branding message. The main attraction, the Islands of Guava Bay creates three distinct cultural experiences, each based on the experiences of the Bahamian people, each offering a unique interface with the History, Mythology and Lifestyle of the Bahamian people. Junkanoo Island, through its Museum, Hero’s Garden, Shack Experience and Marketplace offers the visitor opportunities to sink his hands into the belly of the most powerful cultural monster they would have ever seen, and to pull it out again full of great memories. Guava Cay is a Heritage Village, where art, craft and tradition combine, with such unique opportunities as a rake’n’scrape music hall, a Church Bazaar, a tour of a mailboat and a visit to a real bush medicine garden. Local and international choirs and stars may be seen performing on the water stage at the waterfront amphitheatre. Pine Cay shares the Story of Freeport in an Imax theatre located inside Christ Church Cathedral. The shopping surrounding the Cathedral is a memory of the International Bazaar, where the memorabilia of the Freeport experience are available. The park offers the opportunity to build a branding message, based upon the grandest experience of Bahamian culture ever placed in one place, and to tie that experience to Freeport and Grand Bahama. In scale, it is the equivalent of a Disneyworld, although more modest in both size and cost. The rest of Guava Bay offers major amusement, fine art and assembly attractions, making Guava Bay a complete destination within the destination of Freeport.
And if you are not convinced that this works, ask yourself if you would have taken your children to Kissimee, Florida for the Summer break if Disney had not built there. We believe we have crafted an experience so unique and compelling that the 85% of the cruise passengers that presently stay aboard would jump ship to spend the day. But it is not enough. Freeport, and Grand Bahama needs a big enough array of attractions that those responsible for promotion can shape an effective branding effort around real, live, operational experiences that express the uniqueness of the Grand Bahama community. It needs you to understand that not investing in attractions is like not fertilizing your own farm. The produce may survive, but it will not flourish.
I was sitting in church the other day, and the message seemed appropriate for this discussion. It was Haggai, bringing the Israelites God’s message on returning to a ransacked Holy City. He tells them, as I would say to the business community of Grand Bahama, that this is no time to rest in your paneled houses when your temple of tourism is in shambles. The message ended with the Quaker advice, “Pray, then move your feet.” Whatever is done to re-energize your tourism business, you will have to do it. This is no time to sit at home and wait for someone else to act. Your action is the key to your success.
To wrap up, I have good news and I have bad news.
The good news is that you are not starting from scratch. If suddenly an extra hundred thousand customers a month appeared, you would not be overwhelmed. You have an infrastructure to deal with it. You have the hotel rooms, the tour companies, the taxis and the travel agents. You are in better shape than most places in your condition. You just need to build a reason for the hundred thousand potential customers in Chicago, Toronto or Liverpool to place your name at the top of his mental list next month. You need a stronger brand and you need lots of attractions.
The bad news is that creating a brand takes many years of concentrated effort and focused promotion. And the building of attractions is not generally supported by banks and lending institutions, especially in the Bahamas. Most are considered high risk. You will have to develop a higher tolerance for risk than we have been accustomed to, or continue to watch as others eat our lunch. Many of you are looking for a quick fix, but your market condition will take time to cure. That does not mean that in the meantime there are not ways to do good business, but that to create long-term, sustainable business, the kind of business that is not threatened by every hiccup in the International financial markets, will require your immediate investment in attractions. Big attractions and small attractions. Lifestyle attractions and cuiltural attractions. Attractions for mature visitors and attractions for the young. This is the role the business sector is most competent to play. The Government and the Port might help by providing an easier set of conditions for investing, or the planning office might reconsider previous zoning, or the use of bonded vehicles might be allowed all over the island, but in the end, it is up to you to decide whether Freeport and Grand Bahama re-enters the Tourism business or not. It is you who will benefit from the success of the businesses as the high-paying visitors return. It is you who will demonstrate to the market that you have more than sun, sand, sea and physical beauty to offer. You have a unique and exciting community of people, with a particular History, Mythology and Lifestyle, and that that is the most sustainable product for building the business of tourism.
I hope you have found my few words at least entertaining. Even more, I hope you found somewhere in them the courage to look into the mirror and see how little of the people of Grand Bahama is presently being offered to its visitors, and to ask yourself, “Who am I, and why are they not saying all those wonderful things about me?” Maybe they’re just waiting to discover you.
Thank you

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