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Business travel shows signs of bouncing back

Video-conferencing technology failing to replace in-person interaction
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In photo: Stephen Todd, CEO of the BHA

Business travel to Bermuda is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels but it is bouncing back — and the reopening of the Fairmont Southampton will help hugely with the rebound.

That’s the view of Stephen Todd, chief executive officer of Bermuda Hotel Association, who said the island would benefit from having the landmark Southampton hotel back.

“Clearly, I think we are all waiting with bated breath for the eventual reopening of the Fairmont Southampton, because that’s going to give us our largest meeting venue,” he said.

“From a standpoint of business travel, we believe that’s going to see a re-emergence of larger groups seeking to meet, as they previously did, prior to the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the interest on the part of business travel.”

Mr Todd described Bermuda as being still in the “throes of post-pandemic recovery” but with some encouraging signs.

Bermuda Tourism Authority figures show there were 32,768 air visitors who came for business in 2023, compared to 47,285 in 2019. Business visitors saw the largest growth in 2023, up 42.4 per cent year-on-year.

Mr Todd said business travel would be a “key component” in the recovery of the island’s tourism industry, with an emphasis right now on attracting small to medium-sized corporate events.

“That’s been demonstrated most recently by the Business Development Agency and their conference [Bermuda Risk Summit] at the Hamilton Princess,” he said.

“We’re positioning ourselves to meet that re-emergence of business travel and group meetings. We’re getting the message out that we’re open for business.”

He added: “We’re not going to try to sell something that we can’t support. We may not be able to entertain an event for 400 to 600 people but we may be able to handle 350 to 400.”

At the height of the pandemic, many wondered if corporate travel would ever return to normal levels, with companies realising the cost savings that video-conferencing technology could bring.

But Mr Todd said: “That’s not proving to be the current status at all.” There was nothing quite like meeting clients and colleagues in person, he added.

“As much as technology is advantageous, it’s also impersonal,” he said, adding that an in-person event lent itself to many more opportunities for interaction.

“Having that social interaction and the ability to, for want of a better term, press the flesh, this technology doesn’t provide us with that upfront, personal interaction.”

Mr Todd noted a post-pandemic trend of business visitors adding additional non-work days to their trip, something the Hamilton Princess has noticed too.

A hotel spokeswoman said: “As experienced globally, a business traveller may add on extra days for leisure, joined by a partner and other family members.”

She said the Hamilton Princess’s business clientele profile had “always remained constant” and the hotel was now seeing the “return of the corporate group traveller, attending groups and conferences”.

Business analysts have suggested the high number of people who relocated after the pandemic means many executives now need to travel to meet colleagues within their own companies.

The Hamilton Princess spokeswoman said the hotel had experienced an increase in requests for meeting spaces geared towards board meetings. It has responded to demand with a new executive meeting suite floor, consisting of four boardrooms, including the Tea Rose and Tea Rose terrace, with views over Hamilton Harbour.

Mr Todd said increased airlift to Bermuda from several US cities from April would provide another boost for business travel.

“We are going to prove to be far more attractive,” he said. “We are in very close proximity to the US eastern seaboard.

“That, to me, is an incentive for groups that want the ease and convenience of getting here. We are talking as short as 90 minutes and perhaps no more than three hours, depending on where you are originating.

“In a couple of hours, you could be walking along a beach, or having a swim, or playing pickleball.”

He said it was heartening to see ground being broken on the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Fairmont Southampton in February, when owner Westend Properties indicated it should be ready to welcome guests before the end of 2025.

Mr Todd said Bermuda’s marketing should focus on the quality on offer here.

“If we can provide a brand experience, whether it’s a local or international brand, then the price is not the issue. It’s really whether we’ve given value for money.”

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