MAHO--The on-going fourteenth St. Martin/St. Maarten Annual Regional Tradeshow (SMART), dubbed the most important tradeshow of the Northeastern Caribbean, hosted its main day of activities at Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino yesterday, May 14.
Although attendance was not as high as the 2014 event, which boasted one of the best turnouts in years, even participants who did not make any new connections pointed to the importance and usefulness of the annual event that targets local, regional and international tourism stakeholders.
However, noticeable was the lack of participants from South America that had been a major characteristic in 2014, and the non-presence of some regional islands. The South American market typically is targeted both for its spending power and as a way to reduce seasonality.
"It's all about the networking in this business," said one participant. "It is a bit slower this year, but this is an essential event."
Another said the smaller turnout would not mean that the fewer connections made would not "translate into business."
Yet another said that although no concrete business deals had been made as a result of last year's event, the exposure still translated to higher awareness in certain markets, which in turn translated to business picking up in general.
Many others pointed to the fact that they normally would not be able to interact with existing partners on a personal level – usually doing business through e-mail and phone calls – and said they appreciated being able to meet and greet face-to-face.
One representative of a well-established local hotel said the property had made a few new contacts, it had been a year of improvements and renovations, and SMART also functioned as a good platform to share the property's many updates.
New faces such as representatives of Surinam Airways, an interline partner of Winair, said they were happy with the tradeshow, had been approached by a variety of professionals despite not having booked any appointments in advance, and encouragingly had been asked many times whether they would offer direct flights.
The airline representatives were joined by Mets Travel & Tours, which they said was Surinam's biggest tour operator. The group was invited to visit Saba by another SMART attendee, the Saba Tourism Board. Island-hopping is an activity facilitated by the event, although organised individually.
The various booths displayed their products by means of decoration, props, video and printed promotional materials. Booth-holders could be seen sharing information, answering questions and negotiating throughout the day.
Simpson Bay Resort and Marina had an especially grand booth, displaying mood-boards in large banners and a 16-panel LED-lit video screen designed by newly recruited sales and marketing specialists. Representatives said by late afternoon that the resort had been approached by about 25 travel agents and other tourism stakeholders, three of which were already partners and had secured ten site inspections for the following day.
Many booth holders still managed a busy day, but as there were more vendors than suppliers, the suppliers had by far a busier schedule.
Noticeable to participants was the lack of representation from islands such as St. Barths, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Tortola. Saba was represented, but less than expected. As for the lack of South American presence pointed out by participants, there were only one or two this year including CVC, Brazil's largest tour operator, which was also present last year.
One regional representative, a long-time SMART attendee, commended organisers for trying to improve the event every year, but also said the event seemed to be losing the South American market, which had had much stronger representation some 6-7 years ago. He also shared the opinion that the regional marketing "should be more aggressive or innovative, because some islands feel marginalised."
St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA) Executive Director Anenda Zaandam told The Daily Herald in an invited comment that there was indeed a lesser turnout than expected and there were always areas to improve on, but said she was satisfied with the event, as it still "served the purpose that it was designed for," this being networking, showcasing and fostering business opportunities.
"Some years they can make it, and some years they can't," she said concerning the islands, also mentioning that St. Barths had been represented, although not actively on the trade floor.
She also said the product was being revisited to better encompass more neighbouring islands and pointed out that for nearby islands with tight budgets that could not be represented at major international tradeshows, SMART could be a great steppingstone and provided exposure to many of the same markets.
She also pointed out that there were more local vendors this year compared to last year, and that these offered products both hotels and visitors could use, including resort wear, beautification services and skincare products. The promotion of these types of products could make for a more comprehensive tourism product, as many of them tend to be imported.
Many of the participants approached by this newspaper did not attend the workshops, themed "New Millennium Business Practices," because they said the focus was on networking. Some said they had booked too many appointments to include any workshops in the schedule. One session was said to have been cancelled due to low attendance.
Following the busy day, a farewell party was held at Beach Plaza Hotel in Marigot.
The three-day event kicked off on Wednesday with a workshop and a grand welcome reception at Sonesta's newly launched Ocean Point, which is connected to the main venue, Sonesta Maho. The reception centred on showcasing the island's fusion of cultures, represented through staff presentation, décor, food and beverages.
Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication Claret Connor and St. Martin Tourism Office President Jeanne Rogers-Vanterpool addressed the gathering, which included dignitaries such as Prime Minister Marcel Gumbs, Minister Rita Bourne-Gumbs and Members of Parliament Cornelius de Weever and Christophe Emmanuel.
Buyers and suppliers will have one last chance to network and attend a workshop today, before SMART 2015 concludes. Individually organised site inspections and tours also will form a highlight of the last day.
SMART is organised by SHTA and Association des Hoteliers de St. Martin, in conjunction with the St. Martin Office du Tourisme and the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau.