Fall 2007 Issue
'Lost' luggage could mean increased tourism for the City of Miami, says BU marketing professor
By Richard A. Webster
Chances are that the couple in the rainbow cabana-wear slumped in the terminal seats at the Miami International Airport, surrounded by a misshapen fortress of luggage, are recent cruise line passengers.
Chances are they disembarked that morning at 8 a.m. at the Port of Miami after a week-long tour of the Caribbean. After shuffling off the boat they probably had more than six hours to kill before their flight home. What better way to spend the intervening time than checking out South Beach or some of the local attractions, like Jungle Island or the Miami Seaquarium?
One problem: what to do with their mountain of luggage?
Each year approximately four million passengers disembark from cruise lines at the Port of Miami. Many have an average of six hours to kill before their flights and are eager to tour the city, according to Dr. Alex Sharland, associate professor of marketing at Barry University's Andreas School of Business.
That equation should add up to millions in revenue for local businesses. But until recently, the tourism industry has put little effort into figuring out how to mine this untapped market, he says.
"It's a question of commitment to the project. Is there the political will to get anything done and is it a priority?" he said "There are many other things that need urgent attention. This is almost icing on the cake. It is a complex marketing problem and people question if it is worthwhile chasing."
Sharland himself has been chasing the answers since 2005, when the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce commissioned him to examine the problem and produce a list of recommendations. As Sharland nears the end of his research, he says there are no easy answers.
"The Port of Miami is [not easily accessible]. It's not like you can walk 100 yards and be in the heart of the French Quarter like you can in New Orleans. You have to walk a mile across a bridge before you can get anywhere."
Sharland says his involvement with the port study began with a conversation with Vice President of Strategy for Carnival Cruise Lines Giora Israel, who is also a member of the board of advisors for BU's Andreas School of Business. Israel believed the cruise line industry at the Port of Miami needed to provide a fuller experience for its passengers and suggested Sharland lead a study to investigate possible solutions. Israel brought in the Port of Miami, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and Royal Caribbean to help fund and lend support to Sharland's study.
Sharland separated the project into three phases, the first of which looked at whether there was any interest among cruise passengers in exploring Miami in the span of time between disembarkation and their flight home. Sharland said the answer was a resounding yes and presented his findings to the New World Committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in 2005.
The second phase, completed last October, sought to determine where cruise passengers would prefer to spend their time and money. Sharland found that they were generally more interested in sightseeing and family-oriented activities than in shopping or visiting museums.
The third phase, which Sharland expects to complete by this October, asks what infrastructure improvements are required to allow cruise passengers to explore Miami upon their disembarkation.
The first obstacle that needs to be addressed is the luggage, he said. Passengers can't leisurely stroll down the beach or trek around Jungle Island dragging five large suitcases. So instead of spending money among the local merchants, many people go directly to the airport after they leave the ship.
On a recent visit to Miami, Houston resident Ana Palmer decided to spend a day strolling down the beach with her camera. She started off in South Beach and before she knew it she was staring at the port where she had taken a cruise nearly two years ago. It is approximately three miles from the port to South Beach.
"I walked from the beach to the port and back," Palmer said. "When I took my cruise, I couldn't have done anything because of my luggage. But if they had a place where you could check it, you could explore for hours."
While researching the facilities of other port terminals around the world Sharland said he found the answer to the luggage problem at the Port of Amsterdam. There an extensive locker system enables passengers to leave their bags for days while they travel the countryside. Such a facility would be ideal for the Port of Miami, but it's expensive.
Without the necessary funds to build a large-scale locker system, Sharland said the answer to the luggage problem lies with the airlines.
"The Port of Miami includes areas where airlines can check people in straightaway," he said. "As you get off the vessel you can check into your flight and check your bags with the airline. And you've just solved two problems: you're ticketed and your luggage is dealt with. Now you have people who are fancy-free [instead of people] stuck with their bags [who] can't go anywhere or do anything."
Port director Bill Johnson said American Airlines is currently the only airline that checks luggage at the port, but he is in discussions with others to make it standard practice.
"Before I arrived a year ago there wasn't much emphasis on customer service," Johnson said. "But I understand we have to be locked together with the tourism industry. We may be a port, we may be a 525-acre island, but we have to have strong bridges to link to the mainland."
Approximately 60 percent of cruise passengers have at least three hours to take in the local sights, according to Sharland's study, which means there is a pool of 2.4 million potential customers coming into Miami each year.
The next question that needs to be addressed is how to get people to where they want to go, Sharland said. Potential destinations, such as the Seaquarium or South Beach, would need to send shuttles or buses to the port for pick-up and possibly arrange rides to the airport. The logistics, however, of transporting thousands of passengers streaming off cruise ships would be complicated and require assistance from the city.
Barry Johnson, CEO of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, said that it's in the city's best interests to do as much as it can to bring as many cruise passengers as possible to its business community.
"We want to be able to grow tourism and commerce by finding ways to allow people to enjoy themselves longer in the city when they're here," he said.
After Sharland presents the findings of the third phase of his study to the Chamber, the Miami Downtown Development Authority, an independent organization tasked with revitalizing the area, will determine which of the recommendations should be implemented and how.
The agency would be wise, Sharland says, to look to the port as a potential driver for progress in the region and a boon for the tourist industry. And the only way to make that a reality is to enhance the overall experience for the cruise passengers.
"You have to have something more than just location and nice weather," Sharland said. "If Fort Lauderdale or Miami builds more cruise passenger-friendly facilities, people will continue to gravitate towards that. And we always have to keep in mind that unless something is easy and convenient, people won't do it. It's up to the city to see that vision through."