Tour operators have faced daunting challenges during the pandemic. Chukka's managed to do more than survive — it's now looking to expand with former Royal Caribbean executive TJ O'Sullivan joining as chief commercial officer. They've identified scores of attractions with cultural, historic or national significance that could benefit from Chukka's two decades of experience in building successes like Falmouth's Good Hope Plantation.
'There are lot of fantastic assets across the Caribbean,' Melville said, and Chukka wants to partner with destinations that, through lack of capital or experience, haven't been able to make those assets shine.
Pandemic opened the door to partnerships
With many tourism-dependent economies in the islands struggling during the pandemic, this has led to rethinking and opened the door to partnerships.
'COVID presented us with this opportunity,' Melville said. 'It's not a bad thing. Partnerships are a good thing when I can do something for you that you can't do on your own or that we can do better together. Everybody wins.'
O'Sullivan signed on with Chukka — which he considers a best-in-class tour operator — after six years at Royal Caribbean Group in roles including director of destination development, Caribbean and Americas, and director of compliance, global tour operations.
Adversity brings opportunity
He believes 'great companies like Royal Caribbean and Chukka are going to have a Renaissance' because 'we were forced to stop and look at what we can do better. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'
His sole focus at Chukka will be negotiating and closing deals.
Melville said the timing was perfect to bring in O'Sullivan. With Chukka still coming out of COVID's ravages, 'It would be impossible for me to develop all these leads and still be involved in the day-to-day operating responsibilities. It's not like the hurdles are over. But where there's adversity, there's opportunity.'
He and O'Sullivan are attending this week's Florida-Caribbean Cruise Conference in Panama City, Panama.
Expansion to Barbados
Besides Jamaica, Chukka also operates in Belize, Grand Turk, the Dominican Republic and, as of this year, Barbados.
There, Chukka won a 25-year concession to operate Harrison's Cave, a site of national significance. It just reopened in July and Chukka is shaping a whole destination experience including food and beverage; Mount Gay Rum is sponsoring the newly added rum tastings. Chukka is confident they will double previous average daily numbers.
This will serve as a 'proof of concept' for what Chukka aims to take across the Caribbean (though not Mexico), partnering with destinations that could benefit from investment, expertise and Chukka's customer-enticing reputation. Properties would be branded or managed by Chukka.
'We've all been to underutilized historical sites that you just stumble on,' O'Sullivan said. He cited an early 17th-century house that's part of a massive government-run site with historic buildings and archaeological excavations.
'As a historian and a cruise tourist and a shore excurions provider, I'd never heard of it. I was just blown away,' he said.
Melville and O'Sullivan have compiled a list of some 26 — and counting — properties of interest. In November, they plan to visit four islands and up to nine or so possibilities.
Among Chukka's investment criteria are destinations that draw at least 800,000 but preferably over 1m combined cruise and resort visitors annually, roughly balanced cruise/stayover visitation and characteristics that make the asset one-of-a-kind, potentially destination-defining.
'Not another beach break or water park'
'Not another beach break, not another water park,' O'Sullivan said. 'They should be cultural or historical or have an iconic look and feel and the opportunity to develop additional tour product.'
For example, he said, it could be interesting if Puerto Rico wanted to create a full-day experience at El Yunque National Forest.
'Wherever there's a local desire from government or the private sector to develop an asset, this would be Chukka assisting local assets, our way to improve what's in the Caribbean, not Chukka coming in and taking over,' O'Sullivan said. 'It's looking for opportunities to develop a relationship.'
'We're not an American-style park builder looking to build hundreds of parks,' Melville added, and 'We're not interested in collecting tickets at your gate. We know assets and how to turn them into a full day excursion with great stories, and how to maintain and improve them.'
'Knowing what has legs'
Years of experience taught Chukka 'what has legs and what doesn't,' he continued. 'Having made mistakes over the last 20 years has put us in the situation of knowing what has legs, what to invest in, what has potential. This eliminates a lot of the risk from these projects.'
Chukka aims to close at least five to six deals over the next two years and to be in 10 countries — double the number currently — in the next three to five years.
O'Sullivan said every island has a beauty waiting to be showcased.
'If somebody has an idea, we'd love to look at it.'