October 08, 2008

The Music Festival is Failing

The Royal Gazette
8 October 2008

The upside of this past weekend's weather is that I can't be accused of raining on the Music Festival parade.

Measured by performances, the event was a predictable success. However, when the Premier took to the stage to give the obligatory thanks, he conspicuously forgot the most important group: taxpayers.

Now that 2008 Festival is in the history books, it's time for a substantive discussion of what it is intended to achieve, whether that's being met and what changes could be made.

Because let's be brutally honest; the few tourists at the National Stadium were almost entirely on stage. If heads in beds is no longer the objective of the Music Festival, the Department of Tourism should make it official and hand this event over to the Department of Community Affairs and put it on the local calendar.

Precise tourist numbers will undoubtedly be a state secret, but hotel occupancies were reportedly at 50 percent. And Beyonce's entourage alone probably accounted for a couple of percentage points of that.

If you believe the Department of Tourism's mandate is to provide socialised entertainment, then you're probably satisfied and should stop reading now. If, on the other hand, you think the idea is to attract tourists and generate broader economic benefits Island-wide, then however enjoyable, the Music Festival is failing.

The original intent over a decade ago justified a short term loss: extending the tourism season into October. That worthwhile goal however surely should be coupled with an effort to build this into a self-sustaining fixture, reducing the burden to the taxpayer?

Instead Government is going in the opposite direction: content to throw an increasingly expensive annual party and hopefully not lose too much money. At best cover costs.

The predictable rebuttal will be that we benefit from overseas media coverage.

But this is an increasingly weak argument, not to mention unquantifiable. Scant international coverage was picked up by the ubiquitous Google News service.

The economic goal for tourism appears to have been superseded by a political one: local politicking through glitzy distractions and photo ops of our Government MPs with the beautiful people.

While Dr. Brown is often described as a master of promotion, the rub is that he's mostly promoting and entertaining himself. His declaration in July that "it's already known around the world that Bermuda's festival is sold out" confirms that political public relations were paramount.

That wasn't just an outright lie invoked to temporarily fend off valid criticism, it was colossally counter-productive.

As overseas ticket sales lagged, we saw not one, but two announcements that "Bermuda releases additional tickets" (read: unsold tickets). Eventually an unspecified amount of these "additional" tickets were sent back for sale and handed out as freebies.

This outcome was probably inevitable based on the marketing of this event, and increasingly the marketing of Bermuda in general.

Now I know that this next statement is incredibly politically incorrect, but it might not be the best strategy — economically that is — to market Bermuda's tourism product so heavily to black East Coast Americans via urban black media and black celebrities.

These were the few outlets that seemed to promote and cover the event and the celebrities who were paid to walk the pink carpet.

It's a risky marketing strategy for sure, but an attractive political one as the Music Festival was geared to cater to Bermudians first and tourists second.

Based on population size alone, a highly targeted demographic promotion is going to produce lower numbers of overall visitors.

This strategy will have to be executed to perfection or it will never result in enough tourists. The US Northeast is by definition a much larger potential pool of visitors than Northeast black Americans. It's simple math. By all means market to black Americans, but let's get the balance right.

If Beyonce and Alicia Keys can't attract a meaningful number of tourists, something is seriously wrong. It's definitely not the calibre of artist. The logical place to look is the promotion.

Results suggest that the marketing strategy is too narrow. The dilemma the Minister has put himself in is that by producing events for locals under the banner of tourism and de facto marketing to them as well, he's created a perennial tourism disappointment.

Dr. Brown has tilted our marketing too heavily to one group, rather than the bigger pool of Americans. This is confirmed by the selection of Global Hue for the Department's marketing and Dr. Brown's declaration that "money is now brown".

Based on recent numbers from the Department of Statistics, tourism spending is approaching 30 year lows, the worst years in recent history.

The kind of money that helps Bermuda is green it would seem. The formula for local politics doesn't necessarily make for sensible tourism economics.

This racial shift in our tourism marketing is the same dynamic on display when the Premier goes on his trips to DC. He seems overly-focused on the Congressional Black Caucus; far less interested in the bigger pool of legislators (a curious half-hour chat about little of substance with a lame duck President Bush notwithstanding).

Dr. Brown's personal agenda and Bermuda's aren't necessarily aligned. Too often Bermuda appears to play second fiddle and be a springboard for his personal interests.

Throwing out first pitches and staying at seven diamond hotels doesn't make for a successful marketing strategy or tourism product.

The numbers speak for themselves. It's time for a review of the Music Festival. We should start rebuilding this from the ground up by cutting costs, marketing it more broadly and pushing out smaller acts Island-wide to create a true festival environment.

The success of internationally acclaimed festivals (music and film) is the result of long-term cultivation of a memorable experience un-compromised by political marketing strategies.

Posted by Christian S. Dunleavy