The man in charge of transforming St Helena’s economy has praised people in business on the island – because couldn’t do it himself. It’s too tough.
Julian Morris said running a tourism business was the hardest of all. But the chief executive for economic development also said it was about to get tougher still for anyone who failed to improve.
The buidling of an airport would bring greater competition – including from outside – and businesses that did not change would be in trouble.
He told members of the island’s Tourism Association: “Anyone who’s in business, full-stop, on St Helena, I respect. I’m not tough enough to do it: it’s too hard.
“There are easier ways of making money than opening a business on St Helena, and opening a tourism business on St Helena, where you’ve only got customers one week in three, has got to be the toughest of all things to be doing.
“If you’re in tourism you’re one of the pioneers. You’re resilient people who have put in the hard yards, and now you need to make sure you’re the people who are going to harvest what is coming.”
He said the first priority for the island’s new development agency, Enterprise St Helena, was to support Saint businesses – and the second was to help finance them.
But he warned: “If you’re not improving your game, you’re in trouble. The people whose business are falling into the ‘I’m struggling’ category are probably going to struggle more.
“People think, well, things are going to be better, wages are going to go up, prices are going to go up, but if you’re not planning, your business is in trouble. If you’re changing your plans, you’re going to do fine.
“I will seek to help you, and people in the hospitality sector can help themselves.”
That meant accepting the need for a sharper approach, he said. “There are people who are just not really interested in changing their approach to business and there are people who are. Everything on the island has to change.
“It is going to change whether people like it or not. It’s coming down the railway tracks.
“Somebody said to me once, not very long ago, ‘Julian, you’re the guy who’s going to solve my problems,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re completely deluded. The person who’s going to solve your problems is you. It’s your business, it’s your decisions’.”
The food was good and the service was excellent, for at least one person who responded to a survey of eating out on St Helena. But others felt they did not get their just desserts.
The insight was presented by Julian Morris, the guest speaker at the annual meeting of the island’s Tourism Association.
“When I was asked to come here, I said to all sorts of people, ‘Could you give me feedback on what’s happening in the hospitality sector?’
“The feedback included, ‘excellent service on a very busy occasion, had a good meal, very well done’, which was good.
“But also comments included ‘hygiene very poor’, ‘wrong order’, ‘an aggressive waitress’, ‘I waited for an hour for my food’, ‘no fresh tuna available on the island’, ‘no dessert offered or available’…
“All of that is money running through people’s hands.”
The failings were not down to the Tourism Department, said Julian, who is head of economic development on the island. “That’s only down to one thing, which is businesses themselves. Service is everything. We all have to improve.”
And businesses weren’t taking the initiative to win customers, he said. “The island is operated on word of mouth. There is never enough promotion being done: special offers, promotions, when things are open, why should people go there. It doesn’t happen.”
Julian told his audience that Enterprise St Helena had begun helping people gear up to the higher standards that must be met if the island was to attract discerning tourists.
The change of culture is beginning in Prince Andrew School. “For the first time, we’ve got a Tourism and Travel iGCSE. We’ve got five people on that course this year.
“We’ve got, for the first time, a Business Studis iGCSE at the school. So this is hard-wiring into the curriculum the coming opportunities that St Helenians will have.”
Hospitality training was also being planned for established businesses, and tourist attractions were being enhanced.
“In terms of the Yacht Club, that’s being improved; walks are being improved, and there’s a programme of promotion on-island and off-island; signage across the place; we’re looking to improve car parking.
“People talk about changing mindsets, and normally what that means is somebody wants somebody else to change their mindset while they retain their own mindset. And that is not good enough.”
A big drop in tourist numbers on St Helena has been blamed partly on last year’s sudden cut in spaces on RAF flights.
Efforts are being made to restore the island’s allocation of seats on the “airbridge” between Ascension and RAF Brize Norton in the UK.
In the meantime, there’s uncertainty over the future frequency of Ascension shuttle trips by the RMS St Helena.
Julian Morris, head of economic development on St Helena, admitted to the island’s Tourism Association that visitor numbers had dropped significantly.
“They’re down very substantially from April this year,” he said. “Last year was good, but this year they’re down.
“There are many reasons why visitor numbers are down: the Rand weakening by about 20%; the cut in airbridge seats from 26 to ten has had a very marked effect; the [RMS] schedule not being published further in advance.
“Six months ago we wanted to publish it, and then the airbridge was cut,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get the airbridge seats back up, but not wanting to extend the schedule.”
With so few passengers able to travel to or from the island via Ascension, it has become less viable to maintain the frequency of the 700-mile shipping run between Jamestown and Georgetown.
“So there’s a real dilemma that we’ve been wrestling with,” said Julian – who has now joined the board of St Helena Line, which manages the schedule. “We don’t want to cut calls to Ascension, but if we can’t get the airbridge seats up, then we’re going to have to cut those calls.”
He said not all the problems lay outside the island’s control. “I think in terms of sales and marketing, it’s been done not as well as it should be by a long chalk, and we need to put our hands up and say, sales and marketing has been not up to snuff.
“I became a member of the board in March and I formed a group to look at this.
“We’re doing a number of things. People have seen reductions in fares – very tough to do short term – increased advertising, looking to put together tours, much increased PR.”
Julian said a lot of work was being done on the 2012 yacht race from The Cape to St Helena – now set to be the biggest yet.
“We’ve put a lot more effort into the Governor’s Cup, which we see as a great event. Enterprise St Helena is doing a lot more with that.
“We’re supporting the yacht club a lot more, we’re doing a lot more marketing, we’re doing some specialist press, we’re making the activities of the week a lot better.
“It’s going to bring 300 people to the island. They are probably, at this moment in time, our highest priority and best customer group.
“We need to ramp up numbers. I’m embarrassed sitting here with the way the numbers have gone. We need to turn that around.”