Business

Dolphin Cove — A Jamaican business success story

BY AL EDWARDS

Friday, December 10, 2010    

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THE decision to list Dolphin Cove on Jamaica’s Junior Stock Exchange has elicited much interest, as 80 million ordinary shares are on offer at an invitation price of J$3 per share. The authorised share capital of the company is 432,426,376 shares as it seeks to raise J$240 million, with PanCaribbean Financial Services handling the public offering.

Dolphin Cove, founded and operated by husband and wife team, Stafford and Marilyn Burrowes, has become one of the major entrepreneurial success stories over the last decade and in that time it has undoubtedly risen to become the country’s leading tourism attraction.

The fact that the offer is now overwhelmingly oversubscribed spells not only a ringing endorsement of the Burrowes’ management team but the faith and confidence reposed in a venture that continues to go from strength to strength and is attracting international recognition.

The early years

In February 2001, Dolphin Cove opened its doors, just across the road from Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios. Stafford Burrowes transformed the family home into a three-acre marine park with initially four dolphins as the star attractions. He was far-sighted enough to later include a nature trail as well as other fish, but the drawing card was the invitation to come swim with the dolphins.

The Burrowes didn’t just begin this venture on a whim. They undertook extensive research, visiting other dolphin aquariums, and taking inspiration for what would be ideally suited for their property back in Jamaica.

They were fortunate in that the PJ Patterson administration and the government investment agency Jampro, headed by Patricia Francis, sought to expand the country’s tourism product and invited renowned Spanish hoteliers to set up shop in Jamaica. The increased room stock bode well for Dolphin Cove as well as the fact that there has been a 43 per cent increase in the number of cruise ship passenger arrivals between 1999 and 2008. Tourists would serve as its core revenue stream.

Pan Caribbean, headed by Donovan Perkins, believed in Dolphin Cove and realised its potential, coming on board as financier. The Burrowes brought in dolphin trainers from Guatemala, struck deals with cruise ship operators, pitched to the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) and importantly, paid attention to local patrons. The natural ebullience and effervescence of Marilyn Burrowes played an invaluable part in bringing guests to Dolphin Cove. She has a natural disposition for public relations. In business as in life, one can never discount a good start, and Dolphin Cove got off on the right foot. There were detractors who scoffed at the idea that people would pay good money for a day with the dolphins in Jamaica. The Burrowes proved them wrong.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, one year after opening the Burrowes were already thinking of expansion. They acquired a long-term lease on some property on the Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay with the intention of bringing Dolphin Cove to the country’s second city.

Expansion

In 2003, the industrious husband and wife team re-invested profits in acquiring adjacent lands in Ocho Rios (bought from the UDC) to expand the original facility and added new structures to it with an eye to the increased tourist arrivals and growing demand. The attractive new facility was opened to the public in 2007. “If you build it, they will come,” goes that famous line in the classic baseball movie, Field of Dreams. And so it was the case for Dolphin Cove.

“Go West”, goes the saying, and the Burrowes certainly did that. With an attraction strategically located at the halfway point of the country and in the very heart of Jamaica’s tourism hot spot, development began last year on 23 acres of National Housing Trust (NHT) lands between Montego Bay and Negril. In September 2010, Dolphin Cove Negril was launched. As Jamaica’s tourism product has grown, so too, have the Burrowes’ attractions. Their vision had become a reality with the expansion financed by the profits accrued over the course of a decade. They have prospered as a result of prudent management together with astute audacity.

The question remains then, why go to the Junior Jamaica Stock Exchange and why now?

Speaking with Caribbean Business Report from the Wyndham Hotel in New Kingston, Dolphin Cove’s President and Chairman Stafford Burrowes explained.

“We have always looked to the future and recognised that Jamaica’s tourism industry is growing. It has slowed down since the recession to some extent, but as Ed Bartlett has pointed out, it is poised to grow. The new cruise ship terminal in Hanover means additional business for us. Then there are planned additional hotel rooms with the second wave of Spanish hotels set to start construction soon. We want to make our facility near Lucea, close to the Fiesta hotel, a world-class attraction park. Fiesta is now up to about 1,100 rooms with a further 800 suites coming on stream in the near future. This is good news for Dolphin Cove. Essentially we want to be in a position to deal with all the opportunities that are coming along. The incentive of not having to pay taxes for five years as a result of listing on the junior exchange was also a factor in us going this route.”

Dolphin Cove’s chairman also made clear that the senior management team would now like to make some improvements to the Ocho Rios property and acquire some more real estate in that area in anticipation of the completion of the new highway. This will go a long way in bringing in more guests from Kingston and increase the number of locals going to Dolphin Cove. Cruise ships do not dock on Saturdays and Sundays, and so the parks now have the additional capacity which can be accommodated by locals coming up for the weekend.

Looking back on those earlier days of Dolphin Cove, Stafford Burrowes recalls the lengthy process and drawn-out periods of getting environmental and other relevant permits approved. Though tedious and frustrating, the structures have complied with all the regulatory requirements with no questionable incidents invoking the wrath of environmental and local government officials. Stafford Burrowes sees this as good for the country as it ensures that things are done right and above board.

It took three years to build the facility and get the engineering right. Starting with just four dolphins, Dolphin Cove now has 20 — four and can supply its new facilities with home-grown mammals, reared and raised at its various parks. Four calves have been born in the last 18 months which means that the company doesn’t have to rely on imported stock.

Going beyond dolphins

The Burrowes were smart enough to recognise that not everyone who comes to the park wants to have an experience solely with the dolphins, so they broadened the scope of the attraction with sharks, stingrays and a nature trail that showcased an assortment of animals.

“When we expanded with the new lagoon we considered what else could we do. We came up with a boardwalk and a Pirates Village. The Pirates Village, I must say, was inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean movie that was running hot at the time. We created what we call Little Port Royal, using our own Jamaican history for inspiration. We put in other revenue streams like shops, an ice cream parlour, and a photography processing station.

“Our animal behaviourist who came out of Sea World in San Dieago had set up shark encounters in other Caribbean countries. So we had him set one up for us right here at Dolphin Cove. It is very popular, I must say,” said Stafford Burrowes.

To sufficiently accommodate the dolphins, it was necessary to excavate the sea floor so that they could attain the required depths. This meant that the Burrowes had plenty of sand on their hands and so with the land bought from the UDC for expansion purposes, they created their very own beach right under a cliff. This beach has proved useful for the cruise ships that come into Ocho Rios.

Increased cruise ship visitors

It is anticipated that there will be a 50 per cent increase in cruise ship berthing capacity in Jamaica arising from the commissioning of the new Royal Caribbean Port of Call at Falmouth. This new port will be able to accommodate the biggest cruise ships in the world which can carry up to 6,000 passengers. The new Falmouth port will see the world’s largest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Sea and its sister ship that was launched last month, berthing in Jamaica, which means even more business for Dolphin Cove.

It is also looking extremely well on the stop-over arrivals side with a 78 per cent increase in the room count on the island between 2000 and 2009. According to Stafford Burrowes, in 2009 there were 28,074 hotel rooms in Jamaica, almost half of which were built in the last 10 years as part of the “Spanish Invasion” (with the likes of Riu, Secrets, Fiesta, Bahia Principe and Iberostar).

“When the cruise ships come in we get about 1,000 visitors a day to Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios. It is a big property with 15,000 feet of ocean frontage, so visitors don’t feel crowded.We sell our attraction to the cruise ship companies along with Dunn’s River Falls, so the guests are spread between us and Dunn’s River Falls which is just across the road. All-in-all, it is a complete package which is there to be enjoyed. Visitors can take a canopy ride over the dolphins at our park in Ocho Rios. There are plans to open a restaurant on the private island we bought, with the intention of expanding the facility at Ocho Rios.

Out in Hanover where we have a lot more land, we will be offering camel rides which should be a lot of fun. Our stingray section is now open to the public and before the end of the year we should have the sharks there. We are hoping to introduce a crocodile and alligator pen as well as an ecological tour through the mangroves.”

World-renowned celebrities have visited Dolphin Cove on their travels to Jamaica: Mark Walberg, Jane Seymour, Hulk Hogan, Annie Lennox and Ben Stiller, just to name a few. Sometimes they request that the lagoon be closed off to the public for privacy purposes. In fact the JTB uses Dolphin Cove for promotional purposes.

Verve and vision

Dolphin Cove is a Mom and Pop venture undertaken with verve and vision that has seen the Burrowes turn their business into arguably the best attraction in the region. This was accomplished by hard work and continually re-investing profits to expand into other tourism enclaves throughout the country. They started with a US$1-million investment and have recouped that many times over, re-investing in real estate to expand. They have put in place an impressive board of directors consisting of the doyen of Jamaican insurance, R ‘Danny’ Williams, former senior partner of the venerable law firm, Myers, Fletcher & Gordon Noel Levy, rum czar and managing director of Lascelles deMercado, Billy McConnell, and family members Gregory and Dean Burrowes. The company has grown as much as possible without saddling itself with burdensome debt, opting to go the way of equity.

“We looked very closely at how many dollars are earned per room every year from each individual hotel. We discovered what we earned from a Riu in Montego Bay and Negril was 10 times less than we did from Ocho Rios. The remarkable thing here is that it is the same demographic profile. We did the same thing with Super Clubs and Sandals and they had the same pattern. The question is, why weren’t they getting more business in Negril than Ocho Rios? Well, it is real obvious. Negril is a four-hour drive and one doesn’t want to spend that length of time on the road. Then you have high transportation costs, food and beverages and the rest of it. We have set up close to the location of the new major hotels near Montego Bay because that is where the new rooms are going up, and it makes sense to put a Dolphin Cove attraction in close proximity to the hotels. We feel it is going to be a bigger facility than the one we have in Ocho Rios. Our business in Ocho Rios sits on about seven acres, whereas we have 23 acres in Hanover with the spend there being around US$5 million.”

Things are looking up for the Burrowes. The Tavistock Group’s US$3-billion Harmony Cove project is once again being discussed, and here again Dolphin Cove expects to benefit from this huge tourism venture which will be larger than The Bahamas’ Atlantis resort. Only last week tourism minister Ed Bartlett predicted a four to five per cent increase in tourist arrivals this winter season with an overall 7.7 per cent increase in stopover and cruise ship arrivals for the third quarter.

“This is the best performance for any period within the last five years,” declared Bartlett. Jamaica is said to have earned some US$1.48 billion from stopover and cruise ship visitor arrivals for the July to September quarter this year, representing a 2.2 per cent increase over the comparative period last year.

Yesterday, Bartlett returned from a trip to Canada and announced that Jamaica will now see 72 flights a week from Canada which should spell 500,000 visitors a year in the next three years from that country.

Dolphin Cove in Hanover boasts the largest dolphin lagoon in the world. The Burrowes have inextricably linked their fortunes to those of Jamaica’s tourism industry, and that industry is set to thrive and expand in the near and distant future.

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