“St. Lucia Redefines the Caribbean Vacation” – Travel + Leisure

by Holland-Mark | December 24, 2009

Sometimes the brand defines the product. Here’s an interesting example of that, about big plans on the island of St. Lucia.

…But St. Lucia required more than just new hotels; it needed a whole new vision. For this, the prime minister turned to a 49-year-old Lucian native with two decades of travel industry experience. Allen Chastanet—no connection to the resort—had served as the island’s director of tourism in the early 1990’s. He then spent a decade in Miami working with Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost, which runs five stylish hotels in Jamaica, and later with Air Jamaica. Upon returning to St. Lucia, Chastanet opened two small, well-regarded hotels, the Coco Palm and Coco Kreole, in the beach-and-marina resort of Rodney Bay on the island’s northwestern coast. And in 2006—upon relinquishing his stake in the Coco hotels—he was appointed St. Lucia’s minister of tourism.

Chastanet’s mandate was daunting: double the number of visitors to St. Lucia by 2012. He and his team immediately set to work on what they call a “road map” for development—an infinitesimally detailed 25-year plan that will cost half a billion dollars in the first five years alone.

The primary agenda, however, was to forge a brand for the island, with the help of New York–based firm FutureBrand, which had created destination campaigns for Singapore, Australia, and Mexico. “It was important that the brand for St. Lucia not be driven by tourism alone,” Chastanet explains in his modest office overlooking the port of Castries, the island’s scruffy capital. “The brand has to be ‘St. Lucia,’ the country. We’re only 160,000 people. If you have one overarching idea, then everyone in every sector can get behind it. And tourism can build off that.”

FutureBrand’s first trick was showing how St. Lucia’s apparent shortcomings could be recast as advantages. The relative difficulty of getting to the island, for example, keeps St. Lucia appealingly “off the beaten path.” Its low profile, meanwhile, makes it a “best-kept secret.” And its limited, mostly small-scale development qualifies it as a “boutique” island.

FutureBrand found similar themes when it identified the island’s core attributes with four key words: lush, mosaic (i.e., diverse and colorful), genuine, and, again, boutique. It’s this last characteristic that struck a particular chord with Chastanet. “To me the word is about attention to detail, great service, a unique personality, being intimate in scale,” Chastanet says. “St. Lucia has that in spades.”

Most of the island’s existing hotels and resorts are on the smaller side to begin with; this will now become a priority. All-inclusives and international-brand resorts will play a part as well—“You need a mix of properties to give you volume and flights,” Chastanet explains—but the emphasis has to be on the little guys.

This wasn’t just a cynical leap onto the small-is-trendy bandwagon. Chastanet and his staff worked up complex algorithms that proved “boutique” (read: smaller) hotels are the best investments in terms of both capital and the island’s most limited resource: land. “They hire more people per room than bigger resorts,” he explains. “They tend to have stronger links to your economy. Being small, they cause less stress on your infrastructure, and are generally less damaging to your environment.”

Some of these boutique properties will be budget-oriented: B&B’s, homestays, two- and three-star hotels. But near the top of the agenda are what the industry calls “premium pleasures.” St. Lucia was already a port of call on the yachting circuit; this spring the Rodney Bay Marina was upgraded and expanded to cater to “megayachts,” a whole realm beyond the 100-foot superyacht class. And on an island with only two golf courses, seven more are currently in the works.

But fairways and megayachts are not the endgame. St. Lucia could certainly fashion itself after other small islands such as Turks and Caicos, which has had great success with luxury boutique resorts such as Parrot Cay and Amanyara. Instead, Chastanet is thinking outside the typical Caribbean mold—by incorporating local culture into the plan. You heard that right, vacationers: culture.

As Chastanet sees it, today’s discerning travelers want more than a sea-and-sand escape; they want a singular experience on top of their R&R, preferably one that conveys a sense of place. “You need to create opportunities for the guests to interact with locals,” Chastanet says. For this reason, St. Lucia’s best bet is to embrace the idea of “village tourism.” “The concept is no different from what you see in France or Italy,” he says. “Only there, it’s done on a more sophisticated level, and it’s developed organically over hundreds of years.”

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