One-on-One with Petra Roach of Barbados Tourism

Barbados tourism is on a three-year visitor growth streak that shows little sign of slowing. After years during which the southern Caribbean nation struggled to regain its one-time popularity with American travelers, U.S.-based visitors are now driving Barbados tourism to unprecedented levels.

This year, Barbados outranked such destinations as the Seychelles and Bermuda to win the top spot on the 2017 Destination Satisfaction Index (DSI), a ranking conducted by European research companies Norstat and dp2research.

Heading up Barbados’ U.S. marketing effort is Petra Roach, a Barbados native and veteran marketing executive, who assumed the role of U.S. director of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. in 2015. We spoke with Roach to learn more about the destination’s turnaround and its many tourism offerings.

What were your goals when you took over as U.S. director of tourism for Barbados Tourism Marketing in 2015?

It was in January, and historically, we hadn’t quite gotten the traction we needed or the consistency in terms of our U.S. visitor arrivals. Some years we would grow, followed by a decrease, followed by growth. So my priority was to develop a sustainable tourism business, which prioritized understanding the product we have on offer and engaging with a customer who was looking for that type of product.

Ultimately this leads to customers who are emotionally engaged with the island, which ultimately leads to an increase in length of stay and an increase in repeat visitation. These customers are then so engaged that they become our mouthpieces and ambassadors, and they spread the word organically to their friends and family about what an amazing place Barbados is.

What are Barbados’ most notable attributes as a travel destination?

Everyone knows that we are an island, and everyone knows that we have the sun, sand, and sea—but a lot of people don’t know that we have a commonality in history with the U.S., because Barbados and Boston were the two most strategic outposts for the British Empire. The first governor of the Carolinas was a Barbadian, as were the six subsequent to him. The only place outside the U.S. that George Washington ever visited was Barbados. And we are the birthplace of rum!

In the U.K., Barbados is the place people dream of going. They win the lottery and want to go to Barbados. I wanted to create the same brand awareness and brand equity in the U.S. I saw so much potential for elevating Barbados’ reputation as the happening place to be rediscovered by previous visitors, and to be discovered for the first time by Millennial travelers.

What do you attribute the resurgence in American visitors to?

The first priority was increasing the amount of airlift into the island and also the number of gateways out of the U.S. There was no way we could grow the market without getting additional airlift, and we know that convenience is key.

The next strategy that we implemented was working with our tour operators to expand the hotel product offering by engaging in a push-and-pull strategy where we would incentivize their travel agency base with financial rewards and incentivize the customer with compelling offers from our hotel partners.

Today’s traveler is looking for that immersive, transformative experience, so we curated experiences with tour operator partners around events on the island, where, for example, visitors could actually come and jump in our Crop Over [masquerade] bands. We also established IntimacyMoons, which are vacations designed for couples to re-engage with each other.

We are working closely with the travel agent community, lending support through webinars and familiarization trips. Barbados is a Diamond sponsor with Virtuoso, which gives us unprecedented visibility among high-end agents.

From a marketing perspective, we put most of our resources behind strategic, online campaigns where we can immediately see the results. We are using this empirical data to inform our future campaigns and to help us understand better the vagaries of the customer-booking curve.

This year is Barbados’Year of Culinary Experiences, so, naturally, we’re showcasing our restaurants—whether it’s fine dining at The Cliff, or getting a fish cutter [sandwich made with Bajan salt bread] from a small shack on the beach. Oistins and Lemon Arbor are not to be missed—the former for delectable grilled fish and the latter for a Barbadian delicacy called pudding and souse.

In terms of beaches, we have the perfect combination of ‘west coast calm’ and ‘east coast wild’ and ‘rugged south coast hip and happening’ and “north coast serene and peaceful.’

In terms of activities, Harrison’s Cave is a must-see. It’s a massive subterranean cave in the center of the island. It is unique to Barbados given its limestone, as opposed to volcanic, composition. We are also home to Bushy Park—the only professional racetrack in the Caribbean—where top racers such as Lewis Hamilton and Ken Block have raced.

Our diverse accommodations offerings, of course, are a big draw, with over 43 hotels refurbished in the past 18 months. The new Sandals Royal Pavilion opened in December, and Sea Breeze Beach House, Fairmont Royal Pavilion and Treasure Beach have also undergone extensive renovations.

In terms of shopping [for art], there are many talented Barbadian artists who specialize in oils and watercolors. For luxury brands, there’s the Limegrove Lifestyle Center [for jewelry, clothing, and accessories] on the west coast. The latest visitor attraction is Rihanna Drive, the newly renamed street where the songbird grew up. It has turned into quite the attraction.

The DSI results mention Barbados’ excellence in beaches, accommodations, cuisine, and shopping. What are the highlight spots in each of these areas?

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