An Interview with Sanovnik Destang
Sanovnik Destang is President of the Saint Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) and Director and Regional Vice President of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA). A local Saint Lucian, second generation hotelier and CEO and owner of a successful Saint Lucian hotel group, Bay Gardens Resorts, Sanovnik is a professional with his finger on the pulse of Caribbean tourism. The STAR Businessweek sat with with Sanovnik to discuss the state of the tourism industry in Saint Lucia and the wider region.
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY BECOME INVOLVED IN HOTELS?
SANOVNIK: My parents began very late in their careers as business people. They were, in fact, late stage entrepreneurs generally. Both were trained teachers, and civil servants. They spent time some time in other industries before coming to hotels, first opening a fabric store in the early ‘80s, investing in a bit of real estate thereafter, and things like that.
It was only in 1994 that my parents decided to get into the hotel business, with the Bay Gardens Hotel. When opened, the Rodney Bay village location was great but they also were determined to make it a really special destination, with a focus on the CARICOM market and beyond, and with a goal to deliver a really great level of service to everyone – that means people of all backgrounds, skin colours and countries.
In 2002 we acquired Bay Gardens Inn, literally next to Bay Gardens Hotel. We built our flagship property, Bay Gardens Beach Resort – our four-star property on Reduit Beach – in 2007, and we’ve been growing ever since.
HOW HAS THE BUSINESS CHANGED OVER THE YEAR?
SANOVNIK: I came on in 2008; it was a different time. Till then I was a chartered accountant by profession, so too my wife, Julianna, I at KPMG, she at Deloitte. I think that background has continued to influence our approach today but we’ve also been receptive to all the new challenges we need to face. For example, in my parents’ generation you could set a rate and hold it. Now we have a perpetual discount economy. The idea of offering 50% off your rate constantly was unheard of whereas today it is common. Put simply, today there are no certainties surrounding the old certainties. Since 2007 that all has changed. You need to find a way to work with less, while also offering someone great service.
This said, I always make a point to underscore: work with less does not mean working with less people. Sure, like any hotel, we have rotations of staff in the off-season versus the busy season but, actually, we’ve had a longstanding practice of never laying off our staff. It’s something we are very proud of and we always look to maintain. We can find new ways to save money and cut costs when needed but we won’t cut people. That’s a cornerstone of our business.
HOW HAVE RECENT HURRICANES AFFECTED THE WORK OF THE CHTA?
SANOVNIK: Know our geography. Know our region. Some islands are impacted but some untouched. We need to do a better job to get that message out. It is a shame some islands are impacted but not every one of them was, and so we need to work now on business as usual where we can, while we await the recovery and return of other islands.
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT CHALLENGE FOR THE CHTA?
SANOVNIK: I think we really need to work on showing how diverse our regional identity is. That may sound strange at first but I promise it makes sense in practice. We need only look at the drop of visitors we see across the region when a hurricane has occured to see this is a real problem.
Make no mistake, we are certainly one region and share in the pain of a hurricane, and in the responsibility of rebuilding. In fact, our hotel, the SLHTA – through our Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) – and Saint Lucia as a whole have been deeply involved in the recovery efforts of Dominica and beyond.
Nonetheless, we also need to ensure people understand that when a hurricane has occurred it is not the whole region that is impacted. This is a big problem as while tourists may need to stop visiting one island or nation for a while, there is no need to stop visiting others. What’s more, if they do, that just makes it harder for the whole region to recover as a whole.
Truly the Caribbean is so big and diverse in terms of its many nations and locales, it’s critical we celebrate that, while also making sure people understand the differences from one nation to the next. Not only is this important for tourism, but our region as a whole.
SIMILARLY, WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING ISSUE FOR THE SLHTA?
SANOVNIK: Beyond hurricanes, we have issues of safety and security like any other destination; issues of training and arming our human resource pool with the tools to deliver on our destination’s marketing promises.
Sensitization of the great populace to the importance of tourism. Tourism affects everything. Our ability to lobby, our ability to get support for tourism. And people have a lot of sensitivity.
The tourism dollar doesn’t just go to hoteliers. Tourism is not just about tourists; it’s about everyone. If you’re a banker, a certain percentage comes from employers; if you are a vendor, a certain percentage comes from the tourism industry. Data is a big way to help that. Subjective views are one thing but hard core data is another.
There are so many opportunities unfulfilled for better agricultural and tourism linkages. I think we need to do more work to really build those. We have certainly done our part at the SLHTA and are the only HTA in the Caribbean with a dedicated Agricultural Liaison Officer who runs our Virtual Agricultural Clearing House (VACH). What this programme has accomplished using a simple Whatsapp platform to put hoteliers in touch with farmers has been amazing and it has so far yielded $1 million worth of business to farmers from our hotel partners in its first year.
HOW IS AIRBNB AFFECTING THE CARIBBEAN?
SANOVNIK: I think this question really covers two parts. The first is the issue of changes to the industry as a whole, and then what it means as it applies to Airbnb and the alternate accommodation sector particularly.
I think the key factor for hoteliers in the Airbnb generation is the need to understand your model. You need to understand your staff and recognise – and I’m someone that is between Gen X and Gen Y in age – the different goals not only of business but also staff.
The world of business has certainly changed in the last decade with the digital economy and that means finding new ways to engage and attract staff. It is really about looking to not only employ people but also find ways to actively support them to build and grow their skills and opportunities. Just because many more people change jobs statistically today than they used to a generation or two ago, that doesn’t mean a good business can’t hold its staff long-term. It’s about building a real team and real culture, beyond just a workplace.
The second factor is being ready to change your operations, and make it truly agile. For example, we focus on getting online bookings through our website. We focus on digital marketing, were one of the first hotels to embrace online marketing and social media and to do it successfully in the Caribbean, and today we remain a leader in technology and e-marketing. I’m very proud of what we’ve done here at Bay Gardens Resorts as it’s not only been good for our business but proved to hotels around the region that this is worthwhile, and worth investing time in.
The alternate accommodation sector (the so-called Airbnb sector) has been growing double digits on an annual basis in Saint Lucia. I think a few hoteliers wish that Airbnb would just go away but I know Airbnb has an audience, and I understand why. They are reacting to demand. Airbnbers want space, they want freedom and an authentic cultural experience, and we as an industry have to be receptive to that.
This said, I think some reform would be in everyone’s interest. The biggest concern for me with Airbnb is standards and taxation. Properties that are listed on Airbnb, Homeaway and other such sites have to meet safety and security standards as there remains a big difference today between the peace of mind someone can have booking a hotel where they know the host’s business is reputable, the security is strong, and so on. It can be harder to get that same guarantee when looking for a place on Airbnb.
Beyond this, there is also the issue of taxation. I don’t think it should be groundbreaking if I say ‘when you earn money here, your profits should be reinvested here’. Again, this is something that is in everybody’s interest. If a business listed on Airbnb and other such sites is taxed here on money earned here, and that money is then reinvested in local tourism, then that is going to mean more business for them!
In this regard, I certainly don’t think it is an ‘us versus them’ equation when it comes to traditional hoteliers and Airbnb. My hotel actually even advertises a couple of rooms on Airbnb, and caters to their audience happily with our restaurants and water park.
It is just about getting the essential foundations right, and if we can do that, not only will Airbnb thrive but so, too, the tourism industry as a whole. It’s just about ensuring the pitch is even and match-ready.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE THE INDUSTRY TO EVOLVE?
SANOVNIK: I’d really love to see a hospitality training institute and a culinary institute in Saint Lucia. There’s a need for training, and staff trained from the ground up. We have a few training institutes but not a fully fledged one with a hotel and restaurant. It is unlikely to happen right now but I hope I’m part of it one day.
In complement to this I’d really like to see a growth in the understanding of what a career in hospitality and tourism can offer. Some folks have this perception that an entry level job in hospitality is something you take for a time, or something in which you have a limited chance to grow. I’d actually say the opposite is true. There are a lot of fields that have some very difficult and arbitrary barriers so, while most certainly you need to build your skills and qualifications and experience to progress in this sector too – because it is built on providing great customer service at its core – it is also one where you can learn very fast and progress very fast accordingly.
That can be done in Saint Lucia but also around the world, as no other industry gives you in-depth and immediate contact with people from so many professions and walks of life like this one does. We talk so often about what it means to be a global citizen in 2017. Well, working in tourism is a great way to build your understanding of what it is to be one, and how to become one. Truly, it’s something I really think about a lot and hope we’ll all think about more in the future.
I came to this field after another career and on account of my parents’ background in it. I’m excited for my future and proud of what I’ve done so far but I’m even more excited by the idea of what the next generation could do: a young woman or man starting out in this field, at 18 years old, with the digital era and all its possibilities for tourism unfolding before them. Let’s work on creating a path for this generation; I know they’ll make us very proud.