Talent, entrepreneurial skill, vision and a willingness to accept criticism.
These are the traits that have enabled Grafton Beach Resort Ltd to be a leader in Tobago’s hospitality industry.
Trial and error, in an increasingly competitive service sector, and keeping up with technology also played a fundamental role in Grafton’s ability to survive three decades in business, said executive director Nalini Galbaransingh.
“So, we have had to survive, as do our partners in Tobago, whether it be the person down the street running the craft shop all the way to the large hotels and the banks,” she said of Grafton Beach Resort, which is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“All of us are functioning in very unique circumstances in Tobago. And it’s how you weather that storm with the people you are surrounded with that matters – good, bad and indifferent.”
Galbaransingh – the daughter of well-known businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh and the eldest of four – said Grafton Beach Resort, a three and a half-star property, was built on land her father acquired at Stone Haven Bay, Black Rock.
"The property was built, owned and is still owned by him," she said.
At its inception, Grafton Beach Resort was a deluxe, 104-room hotel and, today, it has proudly maintained its room stock.
The property is also equipped with a swimming pool, a pool for children, squash courts and spacious facilities for conferences, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other business and social engagements.
Its sister property – Le Grand Courlan Spa Resort – is located a stone’s throw away.
Galbaransingh said increasing Grafton to a four to five-star property is not on the drawing board.
"Grafton will remain a three-star, three-star plus property offering a high standard of service, value for money. It is a well positioned property in Tobago, but without a full overhaul of the property to the bones, it would be difficult to increase the property in its present form to a four to five-star property."
However, she said Le Grand Courlan Spa (currently three-star plus/four-star Caribbean), has the potential to reach that level "under certain conditions and positioning."
More than a decade ago, when occupancy rates in Tobago had reached about 90 per cent almost year-round, Grafton, at its peak, had a staff of about 350 employees.
Today, because of the global economic climate and challenges on the local air and sea bridge, over the years, Galbaransingh said staff fluctuates depending on the season and occupancy.
“We are about 125 at the moment depending on what is happening.”
Galbaransingh said the resort’s rooms are outfitted with satellite television and WiFi, which she expects be fully functional by the first quarter of 2020.
“The WiFi is improving because that is a must in a room, like a toilet and bed. Not even the TV anymore. You must have properly functioning WiFi.”
Galbaransingh said Grafton also has a “phenomenal” beach.
“People go to Pigeon Point but Grafton is the next best, if not one of the best beaches in Tobago.”
The resort, she said, is best suited for families and people on a mid-range budget in search of good accommodation, excellent customer service, value for money, good food and beverage options and amenities.
But Grafton is not a closed-off property. So, locals and visitors who may not wish to overnight at the hotel but want some fun and relaxation, can purchase a day pass to enjoy some of its amenities.
Galbaransingh said operating a small property in a small environment brings a certain level of intimacy.
This, she observed, has contributed immensely to Grafton’s success within the sector.
“You realise the effect you have on families. We have a 30-year longevity behind us whereby there could be a person checking in that is 30 years old and his parents would have honeymooned here.
“So, we are seeing a generational move of repeat clients coming through the hotel.”
Galbaransingh describes the resort as an extension of her own family.
However, she is not naive to the fact many people may not share that perspective.
“Not everybody will perceive it that way but it is what we hope to achieve when it comes to staff.”
Galbaransingh is also aware of the threat online agencies pose to resorts such as Grafton.
"Any online agency, like Airbnb, home away, real estate agencies and private rentals, globally and regionally, and local, is indeed a threat to any hotel, resort and hospitality entity," she said.
"Many of them are not mandated to pay taxes, the properties are not approved accommodation – and other entities – we do not have legislation in TT to be able to monitor them. They are not required to pay NIS, health surcharge, Green Fund taxes, hotel taxes, they are here to stay and we must make entities like them have standards and pay taxes like everyone else."
She noted, though, cities are putting their foot down.
"It's a state issue that must be addressed."
Despite the odds, Galbaransingh regards Grafton as a safe place for all of the woes taking place in the world.
“And we are still surviving, actively looking at the past, learning from the present and planning for the future.”
Galbaransingh said the resort has managed to stay on the cutting edge of the industry through renovations, ongoing education and training programmes for staff and investing in technology.
“We look at technology actively every single day because we are not competing necessarily in Tobago or the Caribbean.
“Every destination is competing on a global level and if we are not cognisant of that, on a daily basis, then it would be remiss of the company and those that are responsible for it to take technology and use it to our benefit.”
Galbaransingh – who has been executive director for the past 14 years – said a seamless, inter-department network and an effective social media platform are also key ingredients in remaining competitive.
“In 2019, if you don’t have a properly functioning property management system, which is how the different departments talk to each other, you are very far behind.
“If you don’t have your social media platforms at least functioning – because it all costs money to advertise and build content – then no eyes are viewing you.”
Galbaransingh said it all boils down to an awareness of one’s business ethos and responsibility as an employer and member of the community.
“So, all kinds of people will tell you all sorts of stories about Grafton, myself, managers, who they think we are, but we have never missed a payroll.
“I have heard stories from other properties where all kinds of things have happened, and it saddens me because we would never do those things.”
Saying Grafton stands for much more than just some buildings on a piece of land, Galbaransingh said in the resort’s existence it has given thousands of people an opportunity to be employed and be part of a global career.
“Hospitality and tourism is the world’s largest global employer and it can take you around the world.”
She said employees are the lifeblood of their operation – people who started laying pipes in Grafton, in the early years, are still on the payroll, today.
Those who joined the resort as barmen and housekeeping staff are now managers of other properties on the island, in Trinidad, the Caribbean, or further afield, in New York, Dubai and London.
Some have even become heads of tourism organisations in Asia.
“They are grateful, as we are, because for all of them their learning platform was Grafton. It is a reciprocal thing and they have gone through the ups and downs with us.”
Galbaransingh said she is especially heartened by the success of a former employee, who was head-hunted to Trinidad, worked in several hotels and then migrated to Canada to pursue his MBA.
And Grafton has hosted many celebrities over the years.
“We have had Shakira come and do all of her rehearsals, pre-show in our conference room, cleared the parking lot, backed in a 40-foot container and forklifted her entire set through the windows,” she said of the Colombian star's visit for the Plymouth Jazz Festival in 2008.
The hotel has also hosted the actors and crew for a Colombian television show, which filmed in Tobago for four months, some years ago.
Britain’s Prince Edward, Miss Universe 1999 contestants (held in Trinidad), several celebrated jazz singers and members of the men’s British field hockey team (before the 196 Atlanta Olympics), all stayed at Grafton.
As part of the resort’s 30th anniversary, members of the hotel's management team recently held a simple cake-cutting ceremony in which they shared some of the accolades they have received over the years.
Galbaransingh said other activities are being planned to commemorate the milestone.
“Finances are always a challenge but I want to realistically do a lot of things in-house.
“We actually had a guest write a review recently saying they expected far more of a celebration and we are using October, the entire month, to celebrate.”
One of the things being considered, Galbaransingh said, is a plan to have managers serve the employees.
She added other activities in the pipeline are yet to be signed off on.
“We can’t shut down in order to do one function. So, we are trying to roll out things so that everybody gets to participate, whether it be a luncheon, certificate-giving ceremony or plaque distribution. It is really about honouring the staff.”
Galbaransingh said she has high expectations of her staff, especially when it comes to customer service.
“I always say to people take a little bit of my tenacity, my stubbornness even. For me, there is no reason why you have to be rude to a guest.”
She said her parents have always “driven into me,” the importance of being kind.
“We have so many ills in this world. But we have so much opportunity and it would be remiss of us, if it is also to channel for my staff, and whoever comes through the doors, the opportunity of a job and be able to have an impression on the person that comes to stay. My vision is just to reinforce what makes us good and kind.”