Darville champions tourism on the Long-Island front
Not all of the nation’s tourism champions are deployed in the bustling Nassau/Paradise Island metropolis. There are many on the frontlines in far-flung Out-Islands, fighting to service a niche market of guests looking for a simpler, slower, island vacation experience.
You will find one of them about 13 miles south of the Deadman’s Cay airport on an Island she refers to as a’baby’in the tourism industry–Long Island. Shavonne Darville, co-owner and manager of the Gems at Paradise Private Beach Club, may have just the right combination of the financial skills and instinctive Bahamian hospitality necessary to make a small hotel in an idyllic though isolated location work.
“You’re presented with a lot more challenges than you are in Nassau, just simply by infrastructure not being available,”Darville said.
It was not an’a-typical’story for Out-Island hoteliers, Darville said. She explained that just as a matter of simple practicality, utility operators in small communities might have to special order parts when they go down, for example. The result is that”the likelihood of repairs getting done in a timely fashion is not the greatest.”
“To this day, 2011, we still have to supply our own water,”said Darville, who added that the resort still does not have access to Cable, and DSL and Vibe were only available a few years ago. In fact, when the project started just over a decade ago, the resort owners were not sure they would have access to direct dialing. Fortunately it was in place when Gems opened its doors in 2000.
But do not for a second take Darville to be a complainer–these realities are challenges inherent to some out-island operations–and what story about a champion is complete without hurdles and obstacles to overcome?
“You have to have tremendous fortitude. Tremendous,”Darville advised those thinking about heading to the island frontiers to open a resort of their own. On top of everything, she is also vice president of the Bahamas Out-Island Promotion Board and vice president for Out Islands on the Bahamas Hotel Association.
Many hoteliers in the Islands are struggling to keep their doors open after the economic downturn of the last few years, Darville said. The financial training as a Certified Public Accountant and risk specialist may have prepared her well to make the financial and management moves Gems at Paradise needed to survive the low periods.
The resort went through an inventory assessment recently, with Darville making modifications to rooms to re-balance those in the’hotel’sector and those available for long-term leasing, the CPA turned hotelier said. She also pays close attention to labor costs–the greatest cost factor she faces–so she, like many small operators, uses independent contractors when possible.
Another example of the accountant emerging came as Gems sought the right food and beverage mix. Darville knew that a full-fledged restaurant would initially have competed with the five-or-so established restaurants in the Clarence Town area, and that a Gems restaurant would need an amount of local support to remain viable.
So Gems started out as a bed and breakfast. Many of the villas have their own kitchen now, and the resort maintains a large kitchen/dining area. As a special offer, the manager also said a cook is available for guests who want to have their own parties catered, and to prepare food for the creative meal plans the resort offers.
Some of her Canadian guests, she said, stay for months, and Gems enjoys a high repeat visitor rate, Darville said. The small resort’s guests have come from as far as Russia and Poland, though the majority is from the North American market. Domestic tourists cannot be excluded from the mix, however, as Darville said that in the past about 50 percent of visitors were Bahamian. After the economic downturn, she said much of the local market fell-off.
Darville’s connection to Long Island comes through her mother and her husband. After marrying a Long-Islander and moving to the island, she explored teaching and education, but due to her qualifications, she said Ministry of Education officials questioned how long she would stay in a teaching position. Gems at Paradise was her and her family’s answer.
Although she is from the city, Darville does not seem to miss it too much.
“When I wake up and I look out and can see such clear water in great variation…the cleanliness of the air, the quietness, the solitude–this nature,”Darville said,”it makes you really appreciate the gems that we consider our Bahamas.”
“And one of the greatest benefits in today’s world is you’re basically in a crime free environment in a day and time when its unheard of to be able to keep your doors open and not be looking over your shoulder.”
The manager said much of her motivation comes from her family and knowing that you only had yourself and each other to depend on to be successful. She pointed out that if Gems didn’t work out, she couldn’t just send a resume over to the mega-resort down the street–there isn’t one. She also said that knowing the challenges and successes of small hotel pioneers like Nettica Symonette, Donna Jean-Turnquest, Sammy Thurston and Jeff Birch were a source of succor for her.
Darville had a good laugh when asked if she enjoyed what she did.
“On any given day the answer is yes,”she said, but confessed that the precise moment of the day the question was posed might influence her answer. Still, she concluded,”You have to love what you do.”