Mauritius tourism – where is the brand heading?

By Sean Carey

I have been following articles in the Mauritian media regarding the repositioning of segments of the Mauritius visitor economy with interest. A few months back I read about the carnival at Flic-en-Flac. The main focus of attention seemed to be on the troupe of Brazilian dancers, specially flown in for the occasion.

To be fair, I didn’t attend so without direct experience it is difficult to make a final judgement. But even so, one thought occurs: if Mauritius is trying to promote its tourism brand, why use dancers from another continent when sega artists, who perform the island’s traditional and updated dance forms, are available, and can reinforce the concept of cultural uniqueness, both to its citizens as well as foreigners?

On the other hand, I have seen Brazilian dancers performing on other occasions to good effect. The last time was on Sunday, when I attended a wedding of a good friend of mine to his bride at The Grove, a five-star resort, located around 18 miles north of central London. With the backing of English Heritage, the former home of the Earls of Clarendon, a listed building set in 300 acres of parkland, was transformed from its previously dilapidated state into a 227-room luxury hotel, and opened to the public in 2004. The resort is renowned for its service and food – it was, for instance, voted the UK’s favourite leisure hotel by Condé Nast readers in 2008 — but is also famous because it is used by the English football team when preparing for international matches at Wembley. Earlier this year it was the venue for the Google Zeitgeist and ‘Big Tent’ conference, which Bill Clinton and Annie Lennox attended.

On Sunday, after an excellent three-course meal served by a well-trained group of charming young men and women of diverse ethnicities, three lithe and fantastically co-ordinated Brazilian women wearing traditional carnival costumes and very high heels took to the floor to dance to a series of percussive tracks, played by a Nigerian DJ. The dancers fitted the occasion very well. But take note the Brazilians weren’t there to sell or underpin The Grove — it has enough brand content already – but to add something different to an otherwise conventional British wedding reception, including persuading some reluctant and not so reluctant guests to dance the night away. (They succeeded.)

By a neat coincidence, as you read this the newly married couple are currently enjoying a two-week all-inclusive honeymoon at a five-star coastal resort in the south of Mauritius. Recently, I read that Robert Desvaux, chair of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, had criticised all-inclusive packages now on offer at some of the island’s best hotels. The argument he put forward was that it devalued the country’s tourism brand, and that only three and four-star hotels should make such offerings. Some of the five-star hoteliers replied that if they weren’t able to make these sorts of deals other destinations like the Maldives and numerous countries in the Caribbean would fill the gap. Better to have a lot of people paying a reasonable amount, than a few paying a lot, in other words.

I have sympathy for both parties. Desvaux is right that over time all-inclusive packages at the top end of the market will generate a downward shift in Mauritius’s brand image (although there is no reason why customisation and bespoke services cannot be developed to preserve exclusivity). On the other hand, I can understand hoteliers, who are fighting hard to maintain market share, when the number of tourists visiting the island, especially from Europe where two thirds of visitors traditionally come, has declined because of the on-going economic crisis.

But to the best of my knowledge, no one has identified another factor that has affected Mauritius’s position as a much sought-after holiday destination — that is, the proliferation of hotels and resorts owned by companies which have a global footprint. For example, the Delhi-based Oberoi Group has expanded from the Indian subcontinent not only to Mauritius but also to new markets in Egypt, Indonesia and Dubai. All of the hotels and resorts have ‘Oberoi’ somewhere in the title. Similarly, the recently rebranded LUX* Resorts operates in Reunion, the Maldives and Mauritius. Unsurprisingly, the word ‘LUX*’ appears in the title of five of its six hotels, the exception being the three-star Hotel Le Recif in Réunion.

The same sort of branding and marketing can be seen with the One & Only, Sofitel and Beachcomber groups. Visit their websites, and you will be spoilt for choice. The problem for Mauritius is that it is only one destination amongst many offered to the consumer by these companies. How does anyone decide which one to go to? Maybe the best solution for the confused consumer is to put the names of the hotels in a hat and pull one out. Put simply, global marketing is good for global resort brands, but not so good for a country trying to promote itself in a very crowded marketplace.

Significantly, The Grove does not make that mistake. Although owned by the Ralph Trustees Limited, a private family-owned company, which has a portfolio of three UK resorts as well as a serviced apartment block in central London, there is no common website. Instead, each location is promoted as a unique destination. Put simply, differentiation in terms in what is on offer is key to the company’s success.

It’s an important lesson in branding and marketing that those involved in shaping the visitor economy of Mauritius would do well to consider.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 1 November 2012

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