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Business intelligence hits the beach

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism deployed a business intelligence system to increase tourism and gain a better understanding of vacationers.

A new business intelligence (BI) system is helping the islands of the Bahamas break tourism records.

More than 5 million people visited the Bahamas in 2005, spending more than $2 billion -- two new records for the government-run Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, based in Nassau. BI helped the government and hoteliers better understand visitors and develop unique marketing programs to increase tourism, according to Gary Young, Director of Research and Development. Before the system, the Bahamas had lots of data about tourists from the required visitor immigration cards, but it wasn't very accessible. The country had been entering and analyzing every 20th paper card with an antiquated IBM punch-card system.

"We had an old IBM sorter from the '60s," Young said. "The last time it broke, we had to go to Romania to get another one."

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Rather than seek out another technological relic, the Bahamas decided to upgrade its systems and its process with the help of Greenville, S.C.-based Indusa Global. The certified software solutions provider helped the Ministry of Tourism implement a BI system and updated its process for managing immigration cards, said Jo Ram, Indusa's chief operating officer and vice president of product development. The country had a lot of good data but wasn't using it effectively, she said.

The immigration cards, collected on arrival and departure, generate the primary data for the system, Ram explained. Visitors must provide basic contact and travel information, such as the airline they used and their hotel. There's also an optional set of questions, which most travelers answer, as well as a request for an email address. This information is combined with other data to get a rich profile of visitors, Ram said.

"We get data feeds from a lot of different sources – U.S. postal code data, census data and Nielsen data," Ram said. "All this data goes into one database from which you can pull reports as to where a person is coming [from], where they're staying, age group, income level."

Indusa built the new BI system using an SQL Server database and front-end reporting tools from South San Francisco-based Actuate. Indusa has developed the system over the last few years, Ram said, phasing in such features as analysis cubes, enhanced reporting and, most recently, dashboards.

Visitors' personal data, such as name and social security number, is kept private and is accessible only to immigration. But sanitized data is made available to the Ministry of Tourism and to "promotional boards," made up of hoteliers and marketers, which promote tourism in different regions of the island. Hoteliers can access anonymous data about guests at their properties, including what ZIP codes visitors came from, the reason for the visit, and the average length of stay. It's an exciting proposition for these businesses, Young said.

"You can do so much with this data," Young explained. "Hotels can view their top-producing ZIP code and plan marketing activities around that."

For example, Young said, one promotional board saw that more West Coast honeymoon couples visited the area than East Coast couples did. The apparent rationale was that West Coast couples wanted to go somewhere far from home, rather than to Hawaii or other closer destinations. This knowledge allowed the board to market honeymoon packages specifically to soon-to-be newlyweds on the West Coast.

The Ministry also uses the data for overarching tourist initiatives, such as wooing and maintaining major airlines. There used to be only one airline offering a direct flight from New York City, Young said. After using the data from the system to prove that many visitors came to the islands from New York, the Bahamas convinced more airlines to offer direct flights there.

The government has also benefited from increased data capture and analysis, added James Ram, president of Indusa. The finance department uses the system's numbers for budget estimates, while local law enforcement has been able to tighten security. In a recent incident, someone who had committed a crime elsewhere flew to the Bahamas. Once the alert went out, law enforcement was able to use the system to quickly trace the person to his hotel, where he was arrested, Ram said, adding that before the BI system was in place, it could have taken six to eight weeks to unearth the data that led to the capture.

In addition to these big wins, much of the system's success has been "small victories," Young said. Using the email addresses collected on cards, a small hotel was able to launch a targeted email marketing campaign, which was discussed at a recent promotional board meeting attended by Young.

"They were waxing eloquent about the fact that they ha[d] 300 inquiries based on this email blast and got 20 or 30 bookings," Young said. Much of the system's success has been similarly anecdotal, he added, as more granular historical statistics haven't been easily accessible for comparison. But it's a vast improvement from the past, he said.

"It's difficult to quantify right now," Young said. "But we had more than 5 million visitors [last year] for the first time and this is the first time spending has been over $2 billion."

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