Eyes forever skyward
The story of a small, family-run apartment complex weathering the COVID storm
For many snowbirds, moving to a quaint Caribbean island and starting afresh is a romantic aspiration. A British/Trinidadian couple brought this dream to life in 2000 when they opened a small guesthouse within walking distance of Tobago's Crown Point Airport. A small, yellow-breasted sugarbird that flutters in the garden was the muse for its name.
Bananaquit. There is a relaxed ring to it. Many island nations pay homage to their beloved fauna in this way. The once modest guesthouse has blossomed into several lofts, family suites, studio apartments and a budget guest room for the solo adventurer. It even received a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor in 2019. If the website's famous owl logo joins your branding, you are one to pay attention to.
I have stayed at Bananaquit a few times, and whilst it does not offer the Instagram-worthy beachfront, it offers escapism. For the tired soul seeking a budget-friendly nest during their Tobago vacation, this has always been one of my top picks. Waking up in the morning and sipping on your tea or coffee in a cosy garden. Having an outdoor dinner with dim lights hugging the trees. Friendly staff. Clean rooms. All priceless.
The complex also now boasts of a wine bar and cafe. A sign that they intend to remain competitive in a rapidly developing area. Tobago's tourism sector is neither stagnant nor vigorous. Its memorable quality is fading in the face of burgeoning crime and a much needed 'mojo' in the island's sector. Small businesses like Bananaquit must contend with these external forces.
But Manager Rachel Best remains positive. Even as she is now forced to close her business for perhaps months on end with the arrival of COVID-19. A visitor no one wants on the island.
Bananaquit and many other similar establishments began to suffer adversity from around mid-March. There is a recurring expression I hear from my interviewees- "the cancellation calls started coming in." It sounds like that terrible nightmare that stubbornly latches on to my memory. Rachel remained poised as the hysteria grew. Bananaquit adopted all the necessary safety measures to protect staff and guests without losing focus.
The financial losses have been cavernous. "We have had a complete loss of business with the hotel being completely empty for the past month in a time when we would still be benefiting from the peak season." Rachel also says that there have not been any bookings for the foreseeable future, an ominous sign. Issuing refunds has become a painful trend among businesses that require advance payments for their goods or services. Rachel knows this. She has had to temporarily lay off her small staff complement, and the longer the lockdown persists, her chances of reopening soon dwindle. No incoming revenue also means that her upgrade programme is indefinitely on hold. She has invested considerably in construction materials, and the promised reimbursement of 50% of her investment remains in limbo.
COVID-19's stagnancy is suffocating.
Despite these tremendous challenges, Rachel is determined that Bananaquit will re-emerge as a stronger entity offering a renewed experience to customers. She is perhaps one of the more resilient entrepreneurs I have spoken to since I began this series of articles. She is already activating her contingency plan; a marketing campaign targeting loyal customers with special deals. She is also implementing new safety regulations to ensure clients will feel confident in staying at the complex. This includes training staff to increase sanitization of common areas and leaving rooms vacant for 72 hours before preparing for the next guest.
I asked Rachel whether she can offer comforting words to other embattled entrepreneurs.
Her response- "Everything in life happens for a reason, and the biggest win is that the Earth has had a chance to breathe. Tobago beaches have never looked better. I am sure we have all learnt what is truly important to us. Like everything else, this too shall pass, so let us at least keep our spirits high and take the positives from this experience".
Many of us needed a retreat from life's gruelling demands. Rachel admits that this period serves as the break that many hospitality stakeholders may never have taken before. We may disagree, but COVID-19 is allowing the world to recharge. Social media photos of a healthier planet are forcing leaders to re-examine their climate action plans, businesses are better utilizing online services, and many are learning to cook.
Rachel hopes that hospitality operators use this lull period to insert more sustainable practices in their business models. She believes the possibilities are limitless. This bird will undoubtedly be ready to fly again when the time is right. After all, the Bananaquit is known for its pint-sized frame but is a very active creature. There wasn't much for me to write again...
"Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."
Leonardo da Vinci
Photos below: by Bananaquit Apartments