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Discovering Atlantis

Discovering Atlantis

New resort president Audrey Oswell offers insight on expansion and how The Bahamas can grow tourism

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 26, 2018
June 26, 2018
Tosheena Robinson-Blair

When Audrey Oswell returned to the executive team at Atlantis Paradise Island in 2016 after three years away, the welcome the Pennsylvania native received was more than she could have hoped for. “People said: ‘Welcome home Ms Audrey.’ It warmed my heart. It was so sincere.”

A 30-year industry veteran, Oswell held the role of chief gaming officer at Atlantis 2011-13. But when Buffalo-based Seneca Gaming came calling, Oswell thought that working with a Native American gaming corporation represented an amazing opportunity, so she took a position as interim CEO/COO. Despite the rich cultural experience, her love for The Bahamas, its people and Atlantis lured the executive back to take up the role of chief operating officer. Within a year she became president and managing director and this time around she vows to stay “as long as they let me.”

Known for her innovative and integrated approach to operations, Oswell assumes the helm as Atlantis expands, with a revamped hotel offering, new pool area, bar and restaurant.

Q: How difficult was it to transition from chief operating officer to your current role?

A: It has been an easy transition because I know so many people both here at Atlantis and on the island. The responsibilities, certainly, are very different and there are a lot more of them. My predecessor in this role and I used to split the work pretty evenly, so I was exposed to everything that he was involved in. It is similar in a lot of ways, but in my prior position I was certainly focused more on operations. Now I’m focused a lot more on strategy and working with the government and other local businesses.

Q: Do you think there’s a glass ceiling for women executives in this sector?

A: I don’t believe that there is. When I started my career on the gaming side of the business, I was the first female president of Caesars Atlantic City in 1997. I never really allowed gender to be an issue for me. Being the first female president of a property in Atlantic City in a male-dominated industry was nerve-wracking, but everybody was always very respectful and everybody was always very supportive, as they are today.

So, do I believe there’s a glass ceiling in the industry? Only if you allow there to be. People who are smart and good at what they do, in this day and age, in this industry, are recognized for what they do.

Q: To what extent are you drawing on experience gained from other posts you have held?

A: To a very large extent. I started in the hospitality industry as an entry level supervisor. I had the opportunity over the years to hold a lot of different positions and work my way up through the ranks. I have worked at the front desk, in credit, food and beverage, finance and marketing. It has given me a better insight into the organization and how it runs. More importantly, I know what our employees are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.

At the end of the day, my job is to make sure our guests have a fabulous experience and to help make it easier for all of our employees to do their jobs. Having that first-hand experience to draw on provides me with the insight that I need to make those things happen.

Q: What impact has the recent frequent turnover in the resort’s top executive post had on the overall vision for the future development of Atlantis?

A: The vision for the resort has not changed. When I returned to the resort last year as the chief operating officer, I helped develop, with the senior management team and all of our management teams, a vision for the property going forward that I still believe in very much today.

Last year marked a milestone in bringing a lot of our vision to fruition with the opening of Sip Sip bar and restaurant, the relaunch of The Cove pool, the opening of all our Bahamian restaurants in Marina Village. That’s a big part of what we worked on last year and goes a long way in bringing the Bahamian experience to our customers.

Everybody knows that Atlantis is in The Bahamas, but now I truly believe that The Bahamas is in Atlantis. It was obvious that people were not getting enough of a true Bahamian experience here at the resort and we wanted them to be able to enjoy that. It was a piece that was missing, quite frankly, for many years. People want to experience the full culture of a country when they go there. Part of that is experiencing local arts and crafts, culinary creativity and music.

Q: What are the key initiatives you hope will be the hallmarks of your tenure as president?

A: I am focused on the continued development of our employees and working with the government to provide educational programmes promoting workforce readiness, not just in soft skills, but in the hard skills of the hospitality industry. We are working with the University of The Bahamas and the National Training Agency. We are working with the Minister of Labour to seek out opportunities and the way forward.

Another focus is making sure that the resort continues to evolve. It’s an iconic resort with a lot of unique features and experiences and we want to continue to develop those. Over the next couple years we will have some new surprises to offer the public.

Q: Tourism arrivals to the Caribbean region have more than doubled in 20 years, from 12 million in 1995 to 26 million in 2014. However, tourism in The Bahamas has remained mostly flat since the mid-1990s. What are your thoughts on how to grow tourist arrival numbers?

A: There’s a couple ways that we can do that. I like what the Ministry of Tourism is doing now with the new advertising and campaigns, but it’s been my experience that Americans don’t understand the geography of The Bahamas and everything that it has to offer. The Bahamas has so much more to offer than just beautiful waters, weather and beaches. Certainly, that’s a big part of it, but we want them to explore the coral reefs, the ocean, the cuisine, the national parks and the Family Islands.

For guests to have that interest, we need to expose them to it. Part of what we want to do to help increase tourist arrival numbers is to get the word out about how beautiful The Bahamas truly is. There is so much more than just Paradise Island. You can come here and visit for five days and take a day trip to one of the Family Islands and have a completely different, unique and beautiful experience.

We also need to work with the airlines and have more airlift into The Bahamas. I hope to partner with the Ministry of Tourism, as well as my counterpart with Baha Mar, to really approach the airlines again. There are some cities that have been approached in the past but the airlines were not ready to make that commitment. I hope that we can work together, go back to them and approach them with a view to bringing on stream airlift from cities that we don’t have direct flights from.

When it comes to Baha Mar, we need to have a united front. What’s good for us is good for them and vice versa. What’s good for us, is good for The Bahamas and that’s really what we both believe in, so we will work together going forward. We belong to a lot of associations together and work together in that way, but we need to work more closely and do what’s right for the destination.

Q: How do you view the state of the tourism industry in general?

A: It’s certainly getting more competitive. The good news is that more people are travelling overall. We are fortunate that we have such a well-known brand and such a good reputation, which give us a competitive edge.

I just want to see The Bahamas continue to prosper and thrive. We will do that by getting more airlift and making the country more affordable to guests to come visit. Travellers have a lot of choices these days and they compare us. Everybody works hard for their money. When visitors make a decision on how they are going to spend it they want to be assured they are getting value for their dollar and they are promised a great experience. We need to be ready to deliver on that promise.

Q: Is the resort’s operator Brookfield Asset Management looking to further invest in the property? If so, how much and when?

A: We have additional renovations planned for next year. We will be starting to renovate The Reef rooms and also a portion of the Royal Tower. The budget is in the millions of dollars. I can’t share specifics, but it is significant.

The Reef renovations will start in the second half of the year and hopefully be finished by the end of 2018 or early 2019. We have just completed extensive renovations in The Coral lobby and The Coral Pool opened up last year.

We have some new restaurant concepts that will come in this year, including Fish by José Andrés, which will be opening sometime in 2018.

Q: How did Atlantis fare this year?

A: It was a good year. We started off the year a little bit behind in group bookings, but we have been able to catch up. It’s just the roller coaster that is the industry.

Our room business is really doing very well. It was a challenge for us over the holiday period not to have The Coral Tower in operation as it was closed for refurbishment. We ran very high occupancy and hit quite a few records, but unfortunately, we had to turn some guests away. In the months of June, July and August we ran a record level at Royal Towers in terms of occupancy, breaking a 22-year record. Coral Tower’s rooms being unavailable accounted for a portion of that, but we also drove a lot of new business.

We changed our marketing strategy back in May last year. We started to relaunch some of our new advertising and messaging for the property, really focusing more on the mission for the organization and the work that we do with the marine life, the ocean and coral reef restoration. Once we started communicating that, we got interest from a whole new segment that probably didn’t consider us as an option for a vacation. We expanded the message from just the entertainment and amenities to include some of the good community work that we do. Millennials seem to be more interested in that. They seem to want to have a more educational experience even though it’s a vacation.

It was a pivotal year for us because we started off with the old messaging and changed that to a broader basis, so people would see us as more than just a resort with beaches and a great water park. This is coming as the resort evolves. You constantly want to evolve and stay fresh so that there is always something new for guests to discover when they visit.

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