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Agents leaving the JAPEX closing ceremony at the Montego Bay Convention Center

JAPEX Scores Big with Travel Agents

Story and photographs by Mark Rogers

The 21st annual Jamaica Product Exchange (JAPEX) was held last month in Montego Bay and was organized by the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association and the Jamaica Tourist Board. During his remarks at JAPEX, Donnie Dawson, Jamaica’s deputy director of tourism of the Americas, said, "A tour operator told me that 90 percent of his business came from travel agents. People who say the travel agent is a dying breed are wrong."

We’ve reached out to a number of travel agents and tour operators who participated in JAPEX to give you a taste of the "Once You Go, You Know" message. While this is Jamaica’s marketing tagline, it’s also a touchstone for tourism players eager to share their knowledge of the island.

"JAPEX did an outstanding job in providing exposure to tour operators and hotels in Jamaica," said Jeannette Hein, independent agent at Miami-based America’s Vacation Center Avoya Travel. "The JTB did an awesome job in coordinating everything." Hein gave the Caribbean Hotel Association high marks for educating agents about the distinctive differences between the major tourism areas of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril, as well as the lesser visited regions of the South Coast, Kingston and Port Antonio. "I did feel the Kingston hoteliers felt a little left out when it came to tourism," said Hein. "In my talks with them, I suggested they create itineraries from Ocho Rios to Kingston that include local culture, such as stops at Faith’s Pen, where you can browse 30 roadside stands selling authentic Jamaican food like jerk, ackee and saltfish and bammy."

For a video clip of Faith’s Pen click HERE.

Hein noticed a welcome change in itinerary planning for participating travel agents. "This year they gave us time to experience the island the way our customers would, which helps us when we’re back home selling the destination. We took an Island Routes catamaran tour from MoBay to Rick’s in Negril, and toured the south coast, with an excursion on the Black River and a visit to YS Falls. I even did the zipline at YS Falls."

Good Hope
Agents enjoying a cocktail party at Good Hope Manor, hosted by Chukka Caribbean Adventures

"I love Jamaica," said Rageshree Inkoo Mehta, travel consultant with Windsor Travel in Framingham, MA (she’s visited Jamaica ten times). "The big change I’ve seen over the past four years is that the airport in Montego Bay is brand new and the roads are great. In the past the roads were narrow and scary – that’s not the case anymore."

"I had attended Caribbean Marketplace last January and I was pleased to see that the new convention center was even further along," said Holly Powers, senior director product development for TripAlertz.com. (TripAlertz.com is a relatively new company that has been described by MSNBC.com as "…Groupon for travel.")

During JAPEX, Powers stayed at The Palmyra, a Solis Resort & Spa and noted, "They’re well on their way to having a great hotel." Powers also had some thoughts on misperceptions about the island. "Jamaica is widely thought to be a dangerous destination, but this is a misperception," she said. "I was traveling in Jamaica by myself during JAPEX and I felt perfectly safe."

Kimberley Morton is in charge of business development for Canadian company itravel2000. She had some advice for the U.S. travel market: "Have faith and get out there and spend." Morton also noted that the Spanish hotel chains coming into Jamaica have done a great job in opening up the Canadian market. "They’re not bringing prices down, but bringing value up."

Kimberley Morton, business development, itravel2000

This view was echoed by Paul Pennicook, president of International Lifestyle, Inc., the worldwide representative of SuperClubs resorts. "The competition among hotels continues to increase inventory and enhance products to the benefit of the traveler and the agent. " Pennicook added, "In this market, in the months to come, it’s taking care of business rather than debuting new products."

"The problem with some visitors is they’ve experienced Jamaica as part of a cruise; they’ve done a quick stop at Ocho Rios and they haven’t seen the real Jamaica at all," said Tom Varghese of AMT – American Express Travel. "The goal is to get them on property. I’ve had clients tell me they want to go on a Caribbean vacation to any island except Jamaica. I walk them through what they can expect of a Jamaica vacation and I get them to change their minds. In ten years of selling travel to Jamaica – except for one client – I’ve had 100 percent positive feedback."

Valerie Josephs, travel agent, Got-A-Go Travel

Valerie Josephs, a travel agent with Got-A-Go Travel in Maryland, has a special interest in heritage tours, and would like to see more tours showcasing the history of the Maroons and Rastas. "My customers want more than the beach," said Josephs. "They want to experience the culture of the destination."

Josephs especially enjoyed an excursion that brought them down to Treasure Beach. "I loved Jakes. One of the highlights for me was when our bus driver made an unscheduled stop by the side of the road, so we could buy bammy and fried fish from a local vendor. I think our stop really made that vendor’s day, and I was gratified that the money we spent was going back into the local economy."

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