Hugh Riley looks back at Caribbean tourism roles and CTO tenure: Travel Weekly

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Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

For the past 10 years, Hugh Riley has been its public face of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and served as its chief spokesperson.

He's stepped down now from that post, electing to take preretirement leave ahead of his scheduled departure, which was at the end of June.

Neil Walters, the CTO's director finance, has temporarily taken over the position until a permanent successor is appointed.

"I will miss this," Riley said when we spoke at length last week.

During our conversation, the Bajan-born Riley traced the timeline that began with his earliest days in the tourism industry in New York City in the early 1980s.

Along the way, he went from a subway-hopping sales rep for Barbados tourism to the top role at the CTO. He dealt with the global financial crisis in 2008; several hurricanes and natural disasters; the challenges of competing against major destinations with bigger budgets; and the ongoing efforts to market the region through public and private partnerships.

"I started as a sales rep with what was then called Barbados Tourism, calling on tour operators, travel agents and hotel reps, handing out brochures," Riley recalled. "It was the pre-digital days. I had a territory. I learned the New York subway system by heart."

As he rose through the ranks, he lived in Florida for a few years and opened the Barbados office there. He relocated to Canada to do the same and was brought back to the U.S. as head of North America, from 1997 through 2001. The CTO entered the picture in 2002, when Riley was hired as director of marketing for the Americas. In 2008 he was briefly named acting secretary general, replacing Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, who had returned to the Bahamas to become minister of tourism.

An interim secretary general was then named, but he died six weeks later, and Riley was asked to serve in his place until a permanent head was appointed.

"I decided to throw my hat in the running for the position," Riley said. "The selection process took a year: began with 65 applicants, was whittled down to 12 and then five and eventually there were two of us left."

Riley was the one who got the letter of acceptance in August 2009.

"I was in Barbados at the time," he said. "I believed strongly that the job had to be there. I wanted to be on the scene, immersed in the Caribbean. I wanted to bump into people on the street, see them at the markets, run into them at airports. I wanted to get news and views and be in the thick of things on the island and in the region. You can't get that from a desk at CTO's offices in New York."

Hugh Riley, On the Record

Hugh Riley spoke with news editor Johanna Jainchill earlier this year about post-hurricane arrival numbers in the Caribbean and the need for a rainy-day fund.

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As secretary general, Riley's job has involved travel throughout the Caribbean and beyond. He represented the CTO, its member countries and the Caribbean brand at major conferences and events as a keynote speaker, panel moderator and seminar director.

"The challenge for the region, then and now, is the growing competition we face," he said. "We are rubbing shoulders with every major destination. We are competing for business against competitors that have more resources than we do. We have had to do more with less, but we need to stop thinking that way and we have to find resources and treat this seriously."

As an example he cited Brand USA which, he said, has the mechanism in place to market its brand, whereas "we have no rainy-day fund to rely upon. We lurch from crisis to crisis. What we need is a sustainable mechanism to market the region."

Public-private partnerships have the best chance to succeed, and Riley said he felt that with the Caribbean Coalition for Tourism, which was formed at the end of 2017, "we have widened the circle in our efforts to brand the Caribbean." The coalition includes the CTO and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, along with Expedia and the Clinton Global Initiative, he said, "to help bring innovation, resources and clarity together on the Caribbean branding process."

The CTO has to be an organization that advocates on behalf of its members, according to Riley.

"We've had a laser-like focus on advocacy and sharpened the region's focus on visitor satisfaction through destination scorecards; we've introduced exam-level tourism courses in high schools that give students an opportunity to study the hospitality industry; and we've forged partnerships through memorandums of understanding with Airbnb in several member countries," he said.

In addition, the CTO has worked closely with the diaspora to engage Caribbean nationals living outside the region and to tap into their expertise in many fields. "We've paid attention to the non-sun-sand-sea element and created tools to generate additional off-the-beach business for visitors who want to experience the Caribbean's other aspects by designating the Year of Festivals this year; and romance, adventure and wellness themes in previous years," Riley said.

And he gave credit to "a team effort by a group of professionals at the CTO, in many instances working in close collaboration with specific member countries and industry partners."  

Riley's future plans call for "copious amounts" of family time, including time with his two grandchildren in the San Francisco area. "Eventually there will be some productive pursuits, but they will not interrupt family time."

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