Hugh Riley may officially be retiring in June after nearly a decade as the secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), but his love and appreciation of the Caribbean—and the organization he lead—will last a lifetime.
“People who gravitate toward the center of the hospitality industry enjoy sharing space and breaking bread with people,” Riley told TravelPulse. “And I have been able to do that all over the world. That is an honor and a privilege that the Caribbean gave to me and I never took it lightly, and never will.”
Although he will officially step down later in the year, the CTO stated in a news release on Tuesday that Riley has already entered a “pre-retirement leave” until June, meaning he’s basically going to be on leave until his current contract expires.
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“There is certainly pride in working for a premium brand like the Caribbean,” he said. “There is no question it is cool to be Caribbean and it is cool to visit the Caribbean. I have enjoyed being associated with a premium brand like that.”
In one of his first interviews since news of the retirement broke, Riley spoke to us about his decision to retire, the current state of the CTO and how the public can expect some major improvements from the organization in the near future.
And, of course, he tells us how travel advisors made his job easier over the years.
The CTO’s Biggest Need
When it comes to Caribbean tourism’s greatest need, Riley told TravelPulse that all of the region’s tourism entities need to collaborate to implement a “sustainable funding mechanism” to be used for both damage-control and normal, everyday marketing.
“Clearly as a region, we faced then—and we continued to face—a massive challenge of resourcing,” said Riley. “We are now rubbing shoulders with major competitors around the world, some of whom have better resources than the Caribbean and many of whom have sustainable funding mechanisms in place that are far superior to the mechanisms the Caribbean has instituted.”
And while Riley points to the devastating 2017 hurricane season as one example where such a funding mechanism would have helped, he also pointed out that a crisis is not the only time a fund shared by the entire region could help.
“One of the things we are proud of is that we were able to recover quite swiftly after the natural disasters in 2017 when hurricanes Maria and Irma came through the region,” said Riley. “A crisis heightens the need for that fund, but it shouldn’t only be a crisis fund.
“The funding to rebuild the image of the Caribbean is always going to be a challenge unless, and until, the region can put a mechanism in place, such as our competitors around the world have been able to do,” he continued. “If we don’t do that, we will always have problems. People will always be asking if the Caribbean is open for business if something happens and we will always have difficulty in differentiating the islands, like Barbados from Barbuda.”
Riley also said the newly-formed Caribbean Coalition for Tourism, a public-private partnership that focuses on marketing the Caribbean as a brand, cannot just be made up of representatives from the CTO and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA).
“It can’t just be a coalition between the CTO and the CHTA, it has to be wider, which is really the plan at the moment, so that entities that have an interest in Caribbean tourism can bring into the discussion their innovation, creation, their resources and their influence,” he said.
Riley went onto to say that this is the “right time to widen that circle” and alluded to TravelPulse that there will be a major development on the matter during Caribbean Week in New York in early June.
“It’s been in the works for a while now,” said Riley. “And if you go to Caribbean Week in June, you will see some clear evidence of that.”
How an Interim Role Lasted Almost a Decade
When Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, who replaced the CTO’s original secretary general, Jean Holder, resigned about 10 years ago, his replacement, Arley Sobers, died after six weeks on the job.
Riley then stepped in as the CTO’s interim secretary general and held the position ever since. But before “interim” was removed from his title, Riley first had to apply amongst a wide network of qualified people when the position was advertised.
Riley was ultimately selected and his reward was the challenging task of getting people to vacation during the recession in 2009.
“The organization was reeling,” said Riley. “We were in a global financial crisis. There’s nothing that says people have to travel and when things are tough financially, travel often times suffers a budget cut. So, we were just seeing a lot of families that were making decisions to delay their Caribbean vacation until things got better.
“The first challenge was stabilization,” he continued. “The first order of business was the stabilization of the organization and to make the Caribbean people confident that the CTO had the ability to deliver its mandate. I think we brought that stability to the CTO and got it back on an even keel.”
The Decision to Retire
According to the CTO release, “the organization’s director of finance, Neil Walters, will act in the position until a successor is appointed.”
Riley told TravelPulse he had been mulling the decision to retire for quite some time to spend more time with his family, but by no means did he feel his mission was accomplished. He just felt like it was time for a fresh face to serve in the role.
“We need to be mindful that there is always going to be the need for innovation and new thinking because the industry is changing all the time,” he said. “Some of the problems are rarely going to be consistent, but there are new ones that are occurring and new solutions will need to be found.”
Travel Agents’ Role in Riley’s Success
So, what have travel experts meant to the Caribbean’s success during Riley’s tenure?
“Visitors turn to travel agents to get the inside scoop, to understand that the Caribbean islands are not all identical,” he said. “I say this a lot, ‘If you have seen one island, you’ve seen one island.’ You need a travel professional to help you wave through the masses of information out there, all of the choices out there, to help get your money’s worth and to help match you with the best island for your tastes.”
So, what are his immediate plans now that his pre-retirement has begun?
“Lots and lots of family time,” said Riley. “I’ll be doing some productive things, but will make sure they don’t encroach with my family time.”
But what was Riley’s response when we asked him if this was the last time we would see his face in the tourism industry?
Riley told TravelPulse, “Who knows?”