Talking with the New ‘Yachting Ambassador’,
Cuthbert Didier is well known in the Caribbean yachting community as the long-time manager of Rodney Bay Marina in St. Lucia. He has recently left that position to lead community and government relations in the Southern Caribbean for Island Global Yachting, a company that owns, develops and manages marinas worldwide. Cuthbert talks with Compass about his new role and his vision for yachting in the Caribbean.
CC: As a young St. Lucian, you joined Rodney Bay Marina as accountant in 1986 and rose to become the company’s General Manager. Were you interested in boats or sailing before working at the marina? Tell us a bit about your background.
CD: I started at Rodney Bay Marina with a charter company called Starlight Charters. In fact I was a tax officer before starting in the yachting industry, but yachts always had the lure of freedom and untamed limits for me.
I worked for that charter company for one year before they moved to St. Maarten. During the move, Rodney Bay Marina’s owner, Arch Marez, approached me on a Saturday to become the accountant at the marina; by Monday I started the job. Arch wanted someone to build the accounting department, and as I had a strong tax background at age 17, he picked me.
I am an economist by profession, having studied at George Mason University, the University of Wisconsin and Wharton Business School. My Major was in Economics and Labor Management. I have also attended the Advanced Marina Management School of the International Marina Institute and numerous university courses relating to marina management. In 2000 while at Rodney Bay Marina, I did several groundbreaking studies for the UNECLAC (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), which quantified the economic impact of yachting in the OECS islands. In 2005 I completed a study on hotel taxation and operating costs for the Caribbean Hotel Association.
CC: In much of the Caribbean tourism industry, including the yachting sector, top management positions are filled by non-Caribbean nationals. Why was your situation different? Would you advocate management-training programs in the yachting sector? Why or why not?
CD: Yes indeed, my situation was very different in that I had a personal relationship with the owner of Rodney Bay Marina and his family. Arch took a personal interest in me and encouraged me to explore higher training. In fact, he financed two years of my bachelors’ degree. It was always his intention that after I got qualified I would return to improve the business and help him get a return on his investment.
Yes, I strongly advocate management-training programs in the yachting sector. There is no reason, given the natural resources in all these islands for great marinas and boatyards, that we should not have qualified persons from the region managing these sites. Being from the region gives a different perspective to the management angles, especially when dealing with cultural issues which impact labor and government relations. Several years ago I did a strategic paper for the Marinas Association of the Caribbean (now the Caribbean Marine Association) and one strong recommendation was a regional management school to groom marina managers from the region.
CC: Island Global Yachting (IGY) acquired the Rodney Bay Marina in 2007. Your new position with IGY is as an “ambassador” for IGY, leading community and government relations in the Southern Caribbean region. There has also been talk about a new position with the St. Lucia Tourist Board, also having to do with yachting.
If you took a snapshot today of the yachting sectors in the Northern and Southern Caribbean, what would you see as the main differences? Would you define any of these differences as strengths or weaknesses?
CD: The yachting sector in the north differs from the yachting sector in the south for many reasons.
First off: the northern yachting sector is mature, having been a charter-driven product for years. The BVI, St. Maarten, St. Barths and Antigua have always been stronger charter bases. While the infrastructure has only recently been developed, the yachts which ply these waters have always been charter driven. This has created natural expansion of the services which are needed to support this charter-driven product.
However, in the south, with the exception of Martinique, the yachting product is driven mostly by cruisers. Even though the Grenadines are the biggest yachting playground in the world, most of the charters do not originate in St. Vincent. And only within the last ten years or so have we seen the development of yacht charter bases there.
While the north has a stronger customer focus on the chartering aspect, the south has always been cruiser driven. However, the two have complemented each other and helped the entire Eastern Caribbean develop a unique yachting product in the world.
CC: You have said (in 2005), “It is time for us to recognize that our competition in the yachting industry is not among ourselves in the Caribbean, but rather with other regions of the world. Once the Caribbean can do that successfully, then the yachting product will improve in terms of services and investment.” How will your IGY mandate for the Southern Caribbean area mesh with this regional aim? What are the Caribbean’s main strengths and weaknesses compared with destinations such as the US (e.g. South Florida or the East Coast) and the Mediterranean?
CD: I see my new mandate as helping implement best practices, both recommended and learned, in all IGY Marinas. Once we have a uniform approach for duty-free fuel, importation of spares, creating seasonal events, etcetera, then the southern region will become a stronger yachting destination. Yachting in the Southern Caribbean has always taken a back seat to the cruise ship industry, however with a brand of marina from IGY having the same focus, I know that will change. Governments will pay more attention!
The Caribbean’s main weakness, in my opinion, is the fallacy of this hurricane exposure. Every year hurricanes come off Africa and head to the eastern seashore of the United States; however we are the ones that are plagued with this insurance advisory for named storms. Also another weakness is the inconsistency in Immigration and Customs policies. We need to have hassle-free systems which encourage persons to stay, sail our waters and spend more time in this part of the Caribbean.
Our big strength is the diverse island cultures and the unique sailing waters. I always say that when God made these islands he said, “Come, let there be yachts!”
CC: What is your ideal goal in your new position? Who will benefit? Give some specific examples of what you hope to do to accomplish this goal.
CD: My ideal goal is to use the template I have used in St. Lucia, which is to reach out and educate and engage the government agencies which help facilitate yachting in all these islands. Of course by doing so, we all will benefit — IGY marinas and the islands — through greater revenues.
For example, I want to work on the mini-rally concept which the OECS secretariat started, a rally that will encourage yachts to visit each island and view all these marinas as one destination rather than competing destinations. Also, creating yachting events which merge with present music events will help market local talent specific to the islands and marinas (such talents can home base at these marinas, becoming part of the product and experience). The IGY marinas should become key partners in tourism in all these islands.
CC: Do you care personally about the yachting sector, or would you be equally happy working in another sector?
CD: To say I care is an understatement. I have given 25 years of my life to working, advocating and developing the yachting product in the Caribbean. I care very much for Caribbean yachting. If I do work in another sector I will always explore links to connect that sector to yachting, no matter what it is.
CC: What would you pinpoint as the major needs of the Caribbean yachting sector today?
CD: The major needs for Caribbean yachting are:
• Hassle-free Customs and Immigration policies
• Better and more efficient law enforcement on the water
• More skilled vendors servicing the yachts in the region
• The need for Caribbean governments to fully appreciate the economic value of yachting.
CC: Can the yachting sector benefit from the global economic downturn? If so, how?
CD: The yachting sector can benefit from the economic downturn. This sector must learn from the land-based tourism industry and take the time during these tough times to control costs and focus entirely on the demands of the customer. In these times, if we learn how to be lean and efficient but customer friendly, we will not only survive but also win new markets.
CC: What trends do you see in yachting infrastructure, legislation and demographics?
CD: I see the region having more mega-yacht facilities, both marinas and boatyards. The present legislation on all the islands does not fully facilitate this growing yachting industry.
We need more modern Yachting Acts which interface with the Shipping Acts. Grenada is an excellent example.
I see within the next five years more yachts of all sizes in this region. The challenge will be to control carrying capacity at each marina as these islands continue expanding. The yachts are getting bigger and more demanding of marina services such as electricity and waste disposal. While this is a business opportunity, it can also be an environmental challenge. The marinas and boatyards must become more eco-friendly.
CC: Is there anything else you would like to say?
CD: Yes. The time has come for all the island nations to now have Ministries for Yachting. This industry can’t be serviced by limited presence on tourist boards. The yachting sector needs its correct place in the halls of government.
CC: Thanks very much, Cuthbert, for sharing your insights with Compass readers. We wish you all the best in your new endeavors.
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