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Fijian life lessons, FTE and the future: Brent Hill, Tourism Fiji CEO

Since 'Reopening for Happiness' in Australia and the world in late 2021, Fiji has seen record growth in arrivals and paved the way for a new era of post-pandemic Pacific travel. Karryon founder Matt Leedham caught up with Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill on the eve of the Fijian Tourism Expo (FTE) to unbottle the secret hot sauce and find out what's next for the 333 island nation.

Since ‘Reopening for Happiness’ in Australia and the world in late 2021, Fiji has seen record growth in arrivals and paved the way for a new era of post-pandemic Pacific travel. Karryon founder Matt Leedham caught up with Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill on the eve of the Fijian Tourism Expo (FTE) to unbottle the secret hot sauce and find out what’s next for the 333 island nation.

FTE is back! How is everyone feeling ahead of the event?

We’re excited, but there’s also a bit of that nervousness about seeing everybody again, given it’s the most significant event that the tourism industry has had for a couple of years now.

But we’re confident that everything will go well as we have put a lot of effort into FTE. We’re just thrilled to have everybody back again.

It’s a significant moment for our industry, and I know all of our sellers are super excited to be able to talk to all of the buyers again internationally.

How big a deal is it for the nation to have an event like this happening again?

That’s the exciting thing here in Fiji. Many of the things we do here are well recognised and commented on. From the journalists right up to the PM, even the President will be there.

Everybody knows about it and knows how significant FTE is.

What do you want people to take away these next few days?

Fiji_Holiday

Rebuilding relationships and getting connections happening again is crucial, but I want some business to be written. I think that’s really important too.

We’ve probably surprised a lot of people with our success since reopening. So I think that more people need to see Fiji and experience the range of products with their own eyes now that the resorts are looking great again, with so many renovated. Most of the resorts have had something done to them, and are fully staffed again.

From our perspective, we want people to see and understand that Fiji is back, and we’re booming. I want some of the buyers to be able to see new products such as Seventh Heaven and The Residences at Vomo Island. To see how beautiful the newly renovated Sofitel and the Sheraton are. I’m keen for buyers to realise the depth of product that we’re starting to build in Fiji.

To that point, have FTE delegates already sampled Fiji pre-Expo?

We’ve had an objective all the way through to showcase Fiji as best we possibly can, and we’re so stoked. We’ve had fantastic weather and created new itineraries so that people can get out there and experience great things.

We’ve got famils out in the Mamanucas, on the Coral Coast, and people at Malamala Beach Club and Cloud Nine. They’re all over the place. And having been to a lot of those places recently, I know how happy they will be to see the buyers again and showcase them as bigger and better than ever.

Fiji has been a massive success story since its reopening. What are some of the key reasons why do you think?

Fiji_Open_for_Happiness

I’ve had the chance to reflect on that. And I think there are several things.

Firstly, a massive hat’s off to the Fijian Government on a number of levels. They were very bold in working with Fiji Airways on the first Bula Bubble packages last year, which was significant. We had a solid, well-priced product offering to entice people to come back, and the results have been fantastic.

The Fijian Government was also swift to look at the data and the science, and I think they balanced health and economy superbly. And I say that in the sense of looking at all the different states and territories in Australia and New Zealand, the US, etc.

I feel like Fiji has achieved the right balance. They didn’t just rip it open, but they also didn’t unnecessarily hold things longer than they had to. So I think you have to applaud that.

I also think we just had a collaborative team atmosphere with a lot of hard work from many vital people, including Fiji Airways and our airline partners, to the hotels, tourism industry, and the trade. A lot of the marketing that we’ve been putting out there has combined to get a message out to sate a world thirsty for Fiji, which is fantastic.

So we’ve had a lot of cut-through, and I feel that we’ve punched well above our weight in terms of how much awareness there is of Fiji, that we were open and what we’ve got to offer.

The ‘Open for happiness’ campaign must have played a significant part in that as well?

To date, we’ve had 26 million views of our campaign video, which is quite staggering.

To some degree, it was a little bit expected but not that high. I mean, it literally went around the world and the PR exposure was enormous and continues to be.

Rebel Wilson has done a great job talking about Fiji, which continues to shine. Whenever Rebel gets spoken about, Fiji gets talked about. It has also spawned many more celebrities visiting Fiji, which has also been commented on.

The power of all of that was extraordinary, and the ‘Open for Happiness’ message was perfect, which is precisely what we’re all about. So I’m proud of that.

One of the other great things is that our trade partners grabbed the Open for Happiness campaign and used our toolkit assets to showcase their packages and their product. 

I couldn’t have dreamt how it could have worked any better to amplify the message.

How has the trade helped reboot Fiji?

There’s no doubt we couldn’t have done what we have achieved in the last several months in Fiji without the trade’s phenomenal help.

And again, kudos particularly to Fiji Airways and the hotels that were able to pull together a fantastic range of great value packages.

From our perspective, one of the things I’m proud of is that the team was very clever with selecting partners that they knew could push the packages out.

Luxury Escapes, for example, were probably our third or fourth biggest partner pre-covid, and they shot to number one after really moving a significant number of people in the Bula Bubble.

In Australia, the US and New Zealand, we used the right partners to amplify Fiji. We gave them great products, and we did it in an integrated manner.

People would see the brand marketing, then open the paper and see a big full-page ad from Helloworld or Flight Centre or House of Travel or Costco or wherever it was. And then they’d get into the digital space, and we were solid there as well.

So it felt like it was all integrated, and the bookings started to flow as a result. What was even better was that we just kept having things to say. We had lots of product openings around March and April, which was significant.

There’s been a lot of talk about Bali fans visiting and being converted into Fiji fans. Is that a thing?

karryon-zoe-macfarlene-noww-retreat-day-club
Take a day trip to Malamala Beach Club.

I was out at Malamala Beach Club the other day, and I saw a group of 25-30 somethings, you know, the beautiful people. They were popping the Champagne, sunbaking and having a great time.

One of the comments that I picked up was when one of the girls said, “I can’t believe that I never considered coming here, and it took me this long to come. This is awesome. It’s just here. It’s not that far.”

So it’s perfect that the message is getting through because we’ve spent a lot of time trying to get that younger, adventurous tourist from around the world, not just from Australia.

To see people coming who are first-timers and talk to them and ask, “what was it like and what enticed you to come? What’s your experience been?” I’ve only heard positive things.

Do you see any new trends from these new visitors?

I’m noticing the length of stay as a key trend. We’ll get new data soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the length of stay pushing out considerably.

I’ve loved seeing the trend of multiple stops too. People are coming into Nadi and then going out to the Mamanucas and doing three or four nights there and then potentially going up to Savu Savu for four nights.

Getting a younger crowd here has been great, as I mentioned.

And one thing that’s been quite intriguing is how well packages have gone in the sense of people being comfortable getting food and beverage packages and other extras when they book.

As a result, spending on food and beverages over and above the packages has been at 25 – 30 per cent plus, so the hotels are delighted with how things are going. Where traditionally, perhaps, some hotels turned their noses up at packages, now, suddenly, they are saying, “Maybe we’ll give this a go.”

We’re just about to put out our corporate plan, and a big part of what we’re focusing on is dispersal. A big trend that is starting to come in is sustainability, with people asking themselves, “Maybe we shouldn’t take as many long-haul overseas trips?”

Instead, the trend is to go to one country and spend more time and immerse yourself in it from a sustainability perspective, and I applaud that.

If people came to Fiji for two weeks, they would not be bored. And, of course, it’s a great thing that a lot of the money stays here in Fiji. You can travel sustainably here, and there are many ethical choices you can make, so I think that’s an excellent opportunity.

Are you seeing other markets kicking in now as well?

Fiji_Airways

Very slowly. Australia has done a considerable amount of the heavy lifting for us and is up around 15 per cent in 2019, which was our peak, so that’s exceptional.

New Zealand is already happening, and the US is tracking in 2019 levels, so all three markets are firing.

But we’re now just starting to scratch the surface, with a little bit of the South Pacific and Singapore.

Europe is beginning to come through, but I think we need to balance our expectations at the moment. But as those other markets start to open up, we will get to know more about that long haul and the flow-on effect with our South Pacific neighbours.

I think we’ve probably got a good 12 months where we can keep the foot down with Australia, New Zealand, and the US.

I’d love for more markets in Australia to open up too. I’d love Adelaide to open up and even down into Canberra, Tasmania and potentially even Perth.

How do you think your perspective perception has changed about Fiji since you’ve moved here?

The more I understand Fiji, the more I fall in love with it. I’ve loved exploring Fiji and getting out and meeting the tourism industry, and seeing the different elements of our mix.

I’m motivated to get our plans out and build our way through them. I’m excited about the opportunity for new markets but am not treating that lightly.

We want to open well in every market and have consistent drive. There are discussions about more markets in Australia and North America.

It’s exhilarating. It’s great to build capability within the team and add more talent. But over and above that, seeing tourists go home and say great things is the best feeling ever.

You can’t imagine how fulfilling it feels when you represent not only an industry but a country, and you talk to people, and they say, “Wow, I’ve had the time my life and am so glad I came here. It’s exactly what I needed.”

That fills me with a lot of satisfaction.

Are you feeling more like a local now?

Brent Hill, Tourism Fiji CEO
Brent Hill, Tourism Fiji CEO

Yeah, I am. I find myself laughing at local things now. I love meeting the tourism industry and seeing people’s joy in doing their job.

Every day, I learn something new about Fiji as a place that is just so in touch with itself in terms of being emotionally intelligent and yet simple.

We’re constantly striving for mindfulness and ways to find meaning in the Western world. And then you come to Fiji and soon discover that people are blissfully ignorant of so many things that drive people crazy in the Western world. And yet, they’ve found the secret of happiness.

And that’s what I love about living here. You can’t wipe the smile off your face every day. As soon as you get frustrated about something, someone will come along and brighten you up again.

And that’s the uncomplicated beauty of the Fijian way.

For more information on the Matai Program for Travel advisors and how you can win your way to Fiji, visit specialist.fiji.travel