One of the rooms at the hotel.

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MAGDALENA

'FIRST STEP IN BOOSTING TOBAGO TOURISM'

By By Carla Bridglal

Long considered to be the best kept secret in the Caribbean, Tobago is ready to make its big impression on the tourism stage, and the Magdalena Grand is expected to be its main attraction.

"It's been made clear that the Magdalena Grand is the first step in revitalising tourism in Tobago," says general manager Vince Angelo.

Angelo and a Magdalena Grand team were in Port of Spain recently to conduct a marketing blitz tour, targeting businesses and corporations to highlight the Grand as an ideal location for business meetings and corporate retreats.

"We are now fully opened, so we decided to introduce ourselves to the Trinidad market. We've visited 75 companies to get the word out that we are open and ready to go," he added.

Angelo, an American with over 20 years experience in hotel and restaurant management, came to the Magdalena Grand six months ago, relishing the unique challenge the property faces.

"The project itself is very interesting because of the small window we needed to get things going, but I enjoy the fast pace with a lot to coordinate and I like the challenge," he says.

He spoke with the Business Express two Fridays ago – the last day of the Magdalena team's marketing campaign-at the Hilton Trinidad.

"I have great hopes for the Magdalena Grand, and very much so, being looked at as such an important step in revitalising tourism. It's great to be part of something special. This hotel will be very successful," says Angelo.

The Magdalena Grand is a new incarnation of that particular property in what is supposed to be the exclusive Plantations estate in Lowlands, Tobago. In November 2000, the Hilton Tobago opened to much fanfare, heralding a new era for Tobago's tourism.

Eight years later, it was closed, with the property in dire need of repair. The location even lost the international brand name pedigree, as the Hilton group pulled citing low demand. The property was offered for sale at $139 million, but no buyers.

The hotel is now 100 per cent owned by the government, thorough state-owned asset management company Evolving Technologies (eTecK).

In August last year, the hotel was renamed the Magdalena Grand, and Trade and Industry Minister Stephen Cadiz announced that government had secured US$25 million (TT$160 million) to refurbish and upgrade the hotel.

After a series of setbacks, with delays in the completion of refurbishment works, the Magdalena Grand originally set to open in November, had a "soft opening" last December, with only 50 out of the 200 rooms open for guests. It is now fully operational.

"The Hilton was the brand before we came in. The difference is we are an independent hotel. The Magdalena Grand is not an international brand like the Hilton and we run it that way. One of the differences is we have more flexibility and creativity — not locked into a corporate-type structure," says Angelo.

"A building is a building and you can put new fabrics and furniture. I believe, however, the difference is management. Our operating team is dedicated to maintaining four star services," he added.

So far, he says, the response has been good, as word of the hotel gets out and markets become receptive.

"It's progressed into the new year and we are now fully opened. The hotel has 200 rooms, 22 suites, three restaurants, three bars, banquet and meeting halls with space for 350 at dinner. We have tennis, spa, salon, gym, dive shop with dive certification, three pools- one with a swim-up bar," said Angelo.

"It is starting to grow to the point where we are occupying about 50 per cent of our rooms on a regular basis and it's improving. For a new hotel it is good, going from a soft opening to a full opening, there's growing demand," he said.

"As business ramps up and we can start running consistent occupancy—it's seasonal obviously but we will try to fill in the gaps with Trinidad business in the downtime. I would love to see that hotel ideally run at 75 to 80 per cent occupancy year round. But I believe it will be very successful, and will soon turn a profit," he said.

The key markets are the UK and Europe, because, Angelo says, these travellers tend to stay longer, boosting occupancy rates.

The second target is weekending Trinidadians, and even local Tobagonians.

"It's not an inexpensive place for locals but we have managed to market our local beers and rums and price them accordingly to attract locals. We have buffet restaurants that have breakfast, lunch and a la carte dinner and we have seen locals coming over to try us out. We also have local rates, weekend rates and local corporate rates that are reasonable," he said.

The hotel is also marketing itself to the North American markets, but, Angelo says, an important feature to attracting this clientele is a regular and direct airlift service to the island.

"Americans take shorter holidays and going from one flight to another would probably turn them off. Other similar markets might feel the same way, so the first thing we need to do is create the demand that Tobago is a good quality island destination with good quality rooms- and enough of these rooms -- and then the airlines and tour operators will start opening their doors. Once they start selling us, the planes will be coming to Tobago," he said.

Angelo notes that revitalising tourism on the island will require significant infrastructural development-including new hotel rooms.

"It's a process really. The Magdalena has stepped up. The government and tourism associations have been very supportive to have us successful. This tourism redevelopment is exciting but also puts us in the position where we have to step up, because once we are successful, it will show the government and all those who have to make big decisions confidence that there can be big hotels run properly on the island," he said.

"It's a wonderful island, beautiful with so much to offer. The customers who have come to us so far have told us that this is exactly what they are looking for: gorgeous beaches, peace, quiet, tranquillity, beautiful landscapes and oceans, and friendly people providing a good service. It's not a hustle and bustle island but to grow tourism more is needed, and if we do our part as the first step in the process I believe it will continue to grow and be better," he said.

Tobago will have to compete with the other tourism-intensive islands in the region-and has been playing catch up for a long time in its level of competitiveness.

"You have to promote (the key elements of) your destination and Tobago provides so much: rainforests, waterfalls, beaches, cuisine, culture—that's what you have to sell. We are going to compete with islands that are tourism driven and more experienced, but the good news is we can see what they are doing wrong and right learn from them. We continue to get support from the powers that be and we will see the development and growth," says Angelo.

"The development starts with interest. The support's been there; the interest is there; and then the money needs to be there-- then development will follow, followed by people within the industry with the expertise on how to grow tourism. Once that happens I think Tobago will be a hot destination," says Angelo.

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