My story: Carol Hay, chief executive, McKenzie Gayle
Carol Hay talks about… her plans after the closure of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s UK office, starting off in the industry and how the Caribbean puts a greater emphasis on education than the UK.
Carol Hay is busy planning the future from her office in south London after a whirlwind few weeks.
At the end of January, The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) shut three overseas offices – in New York, Toronto and London – as part of a major restructure.
Hay, who had held the post of CTO director of marketing for UK and Europe for 11 years, found herself out of a job.
“It was unfortunate, but it wasn’t a surprise,” she said. “Many membership organisations are struggling to remain relevant.
“We live in a digital world where borders have been broken down, the world is at your fingertips and people believe they can do things themselves without needing a physical presence.”
However, with the closure came an opportunity for Hay.
The head office of the CTO has been established in Barbados for 76 years, while CTO UK Ltd is the UK chapter and was registered as its own not-for-profit organisation in 2001.
When the CTO decided to close the UK office, the board of the UK chapter, led by chairman Colin Pegler, who is also the managing director of representation company Resort Marketing International, took the decision that the chapter would continue to operate independently.
Hay formed her own company, McKenzie Gayle, and the board has retained her to manage the chapter for the next three years.
She has hired a full-time business development manager and will call on the help of other professionals as and when she needs them.
“My business will in time work with other clients but my commitment, focus and passion is with the chapter and I believe we can do a lot with it.”
The chapter has 65 members, including airlines, tour operators and tourist offices, but Hay believes that can grow substantially.
“My major focus is to grow the membership and to work more with the travel industry, and get organisations working together.
“At World Travel Market there were two hoteliers on our stand who didn’t know each other or that they were working for the same group. It was great to introduce them, but would not have been possible if we were not an association supporting our members. We need better communication.
“We would like to do a lot more with tour operators and companies that represent hotels that are not part of the chapter. We want to bring in more small affiliates, for example companies that might be digital start-ups, and create an environment where we can all work together to drive people to the Caribbean.”
Hay is also keen to develop strong future leaders who can deal with any difficult situation.
“If there is an issue like a hurricane, we would work closely with the destination and the PR team to ensure that they have the right messages. We want to train people to ensure that they have the skills and the confidence to handle any situation.
“There is a great emphasis on protecting the brand. There is a lot to deal with these days, such as issues like terrorism and cyber-crime and we want people to be articulate and convincing with their messages.
“When a crisis comes, good old-fashioned confidence and experience is worth its weight in gold. What I’ve learnt is that there are times when you have to stand tall and deal with any situation.
“While I love the ease and efficiency that technology has brought to my life, when anyone asks me what my greatest skill is, I point to my head and say ‘what’s up here’.”
Speaking on behalf of all Caribbean destinations, that have their own individual needs and agendas, can be a challenge.
“I used to refer to it more as sibling rivalry rather than outright competition, but we have to be mindful that each is and has a different focus.”
A familiar theme in the travel industry is that there is still some way to go before we have equal opportunities for all.
Hay echoes these sentiments and says she wants to see more diversity among leaders.
“When I returned to the UK from Jamaica, I happened to be walking past a recruitment agency advertising a number of positions in the travel industry.
“I rang the doorbell because I wanted to drop off my CV. It was a video doorbell, so the person could see me. I’ll never forget being told coldly that those vacancies were filled. I’d had management positions in the Caribbean and was prepared to work my way up again in the UK, but they were not even prepared to see me!
“The situation is better now, but still I meet many young people with heritage in the Caribbean, who have completed their education and are finding it difficult to get a job.
“I’ve been to functions and had young black people saying they’d love to have the opportunities that I’ve had. On a personal level, if I can help people in the industry I will, because the more diverse the industry is, the better it is for all.
“I’ve also attended so many events, even recently, where I’ve been the only black person there, and I often wonder why others are not sitting around the table and being a part of the discussions."
Some Caribbean destinations have been criticised for their stance on gay rights. Nine nations still have the homosexual act as a criminal offence on their statute books. It’s a subject that Hay does not shy away from.
“I’m aware that if I’m going to stand up and talk about diversity, I can’t duck the issue.
“But it’s a difficult area to talk about, because people who know the history of Caribbean people know that enslaved males were sexually abused in order to emasculate them and the legacy lives on in the values and beliefs of many.
“Tolerance is the key on all sides. It’s difficult to go to any region in the world and dictate the values that others must accept, particularly if it is not their norm.
“I tell people who are planning a holiday that they do not have anything to worry about.
“Often, same-sex couples ask me if they will enjoy themselves. I tell them that no-one is going to ask you about your sexuality and you can have a wonderful time in the Caribbean.
“My advice is to keep personal displays of affection private but, to be honest, I would say that to a mixed sex couple. It’s the same for a lot of destinations.”
Long term approach
Hay favours a long-term approach to sustainability to reduce the impact of tourism on the environment.
“Sustainability is important. In the Caribbean we are susceptible to climate change and the effect on our coastline and, of course, I support measures to mitigate the impact.
“But we need some long-term planning. We don’t want to just be running around in September during the hurricane season, writing press releases and panicking. We need to bring everyone together to talk about this.
“We do contribute significantly to emissions with long-haul flights, but I don’t take the view that we should over-tax flights and damage tourism.
“I am very mindful of the millions of people – families and communities – that are totally reliant on tourism.”
Early love of travel
Hay started her career as a 17-year-old correspondence clerk in Pratts department store, which was then part of John Lewis, in Streatham, but soon got the travel bug.
“At 18 I went overseas for the first time, to Jamaica. It was my heritage, where my parents came from. They had five small kids so didn’t have the money to take us all back and they really only used to return for certain events, like funerals.
“When I returned, I was so excited about the trip I was asked to write an article for the in-house travel magazine at Pratts. It was my first travel article – something they would now call a blog!
“Then one day I picked up the Evening Standard and saw a direct-sell operator, Portland Holidays, were looking for reservation staff. I gave them a call, got the job and spent a couple of years there.
“You were either on the phone taking bookings or in the retail area helping out. I thoroughly enjoyed it and won so many incentives. I knew the industry was for me.”
Standards in the Caribbean
At 21, Hay’s parents wanted to move back to Jamaica and she thought she would accompany them for a short period, but ended up staying 20 years.
During that period, she gained huge experiences in various areas of tourism, firstly as private secretary to then director of tourism Carrole Guntley and then in various posts at British West Indian Airlines and Wyndham Resorts.
She was struck by how competitive the job market was in the Caribbean.
“The time I spent over there showed me just how competitive it was to secure a job. In the UK, when I wanted to join the travel industry, I just made a phone call.
“When I got to the Caribbean, I was faced with a lot of ambitious, educated people. I only had ‘O’ levels and so much emphasis was placed on education.
“While I was there, I was working and then in my spare time completing diplomas, a bachelor of science degree and a masters in science. I had to do all that just to stay in the game, and I had a baby!
“It gave me a totally different respect for people in the Caribbean and the importance they placed on education.
“More emphasis is based on education in the Caribbean than the UK and there a lot of organisations giving sponsorships to those who can’t afford to pay for them.”
On her return to the UK, Hay spent four years as director of marketing UK and Europe for the Antigua and Barbuda Tourist Office before being offered the role at the CTO.
“It was a wonderful opportunity and I couldn’t turn it down.”
Hay is optimistic about the future of Caribbean tourism but believes it needs to diversify its tourism offering.
“We are blessed in being a naturally beautiful destination. But we need to attract more low season visitors and that means more diverse accommodation.
“We need more boutique accommodation, suited to people who want to be more independent and stay longer.
“There’s an untapped market for people of Caribbean heritage who want somewhere to stay during the winter period that has a community spirit.
“I’d like to see accommodation that is a hybrid between tourism hotels and community living, targeting extended families. In summer there is a ‘Visiting Friends and Relatives’ (VFR) market that would love to be part of the tourism mix but not necessarily stay in an all-inclusive resort or a secluded hotel or villa.”
She praises all-inclusive resorts for the way they have evolved in recent years.
“All-inclusives now do a wonderful job in engaging with communities and guests. They support dine-a-rounds (the opportunity to dine in different restaurants) and employ people to take you into the community. And they provide a lot of employment.
“They certainly have their place. If I’m holidaying with my family, I might stay in an all-inclusive, and have done so on many occasions.”
Hay says the Caribbean has so much more to offer than beaches but concedes that is the main attraction for visitors.
“It’s not frustrating, but I do think people are missing out if that’s all they come for. The Caribbean has some great adventure, health and wellness experiences, gastronomy and so much more.
“It’s our job to get that message out.”