Montego Bay's Janice Allen has a sharp elbow and the first person likely to feel it is Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett as the freshman People's National Party (PNP) senator tries to create space for herself within tourism and western city politics.
Thus far, Bartlett has commandeered the tourism world, virtually without any challenger since 2016 when the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wrested control of government from the PNP.
Since then, the tourism minister has loomed large on everybody's list of top performers in the Andrew Holness Administration. And the figures were there to support it. Until, of course, the onslaught of the novel coronavirus pandemic which pulled the proverbial rug from under his feet.
Not that Allen is underestimating the much-experienced minister. In true sporting manner, the golf-playing aspirant accords the affable Bartlett his full respect, but feels she has much to contribute to Jamaica's top-earning industry.
In one of his parting shots after losing the September 3, 2020 General Election, Dr Peter Phillips, the PNP leader, tapped Allen to be spokesperson for tourism and the choice was endorsed by Mark Golding when he took over the reins from Phillips.
“It is no cliché to say that my entire life's experience has been preparing me for this day,” Allen says with an air of certainty. “I have worked in marketing Jamaica, tourism policy formation and becoming involved in the political machinery across the 63 constituencies, all of which have given me deep big-picture perspectives on how to handle the tourism portfolio.”
Politics and tourism have featured together in her life from as early as she can remember. Her father is the recently departed Glover Allen, two-time PNP councillor for the Granville Division, St James. Her mother, Veronica “Winnie” Allen, a political and community activist, gave birth to her on “a PNP campaign trail”, and an aunt was constituency secretary to Francis Tulloch, a former tourism minister.
High profile PNP personalities
“So to say politics is in my blood is an understatement,” she tells the Jamaica Observer in an interview. “My parents operated a chain of Livity restaurants in MoBay and the high-profile PNP personalities used to come there a lot.”
The young Allen and many of her cousins spent a good deal of time with their grandparents and she recalls that one of them worked as a part-time housekeeper for an American couple who were involved in tourism and came to Jamaica during the winter, giving the inquisitive child the possible first exposure to the industry.
The girls — her siblings are Michelle Allen, a teacher, and Nicole, an attorney — helped her grandmother to sell baked products in Granville. Their parents saw to it that they learnt the value of work by having them serve in the restaurants.
Her early recollections of Granville was of a different time, “not the bad Granville which people speak of now”. Everybody knew each other and the district was a hive of cultural activities. She remembers the good times during summer when some German tourists used to come to Jamaica and go into the communities teaching the German language to the children.
School was Barracks Road Primary, later renamed Corinaldi Primary, then on to the Montego Bay High School where everyone saw signs of the leader to come. It first came in second form when she was summoned to the principal's office to be told that she had to cover her natural hair.
“I argued vigorously against that, asking why the children of other ethnicities were not being asked to cover their hair. I won that argument. I was quite bold, somewhat of a rebel and would speak up on behalf of other students in the school,” Allen recounts with laughter.
After MoBay High, her parents sold the business and migrated to Florida in 1988, saying things had got bad economically in Jamaica. “As big thinkers, they had taken many chances, not all of which had met with success. They were patriots and planned to return to invest in their country.”
Wanted Tiger Woods to play golf in Jamaica
Allen spent two years at the Miami-Dade Community College and then pursued a marketing and international business degree at the Florida International University (FIU) before completing her master's degree in business administration with a marketing major at the University of Massachusetts.
“While in Miami, I worked in my parents' restaurant outside of school hours, learning the rudiments of running a business. That is why service comes naturally to me. Customer service is my thing because I learnt it,” she says. “That, too, was pointing me to tourism.” But she yearned to come home.
Not waiting for graduation, she rushed back to Jamaica upon completing her degree in 1997, with her parents following a year or two later. As a young girl, Allen had heard stories about golfing at Fairfield, near Granville, and she later played at Ironshore, becoming a big fan of the American Tiger Woods. Among her ambitions was to be the one to get the golfing superstar to visit Jamaica. That, however, was not to be.
Back in Jamaica, she joined the Ministry of Tourism as executive assistant to Minister Francis Tulloch. That fully immersed her in tourism. She worked in policy development and interacted with all the other government agencies, learning to appreciate how government works, and noted that she met some “amazing” civil servants, including Permanent Secretary Jennifer Griffiths, then an urban planner in tourism.
Allen worked with start-up firm Mossel Telecommunications and later Digicel, where she worked as project analyst and dealer administration manager — the person responsible for developing the dealer network — which gave her great insights into interacting with communities. A year later, Cable and Wireless recruited her to be mobile marketing manager.
In 2005, she joined the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) as destination marketing manager, gaining greater understanding of how to market Jamaica. That built on her abilities in policy development, thereby “deepening and widening my grasp of tourism”. Next it was Jamaica Promotions Corporation (Jampro), the one-stop trade and investment clearing house, where she became film commissioner.
Traversing all 63 constituencies
In 2011, she established a marketing consultancy firm, and when the PNP won the election in December that year, she was hired to do consultancy work in communication for the party, which allowed her to travel to all 63 constituencies of the island. She moved on to become advisor to Tourism Minister Wykeham McNeill, before heading back to her beloved Montego Bay as regional director for the JTB.
In 2018, Allen established a company called Forge Consulting, keeping the name from Forge and Allen, an ironworks company set up by her father and her siblings in Granville. The consultancy firm specialises in tourism training that prepares Jamaicans to be provide exceptional services to the industry.
It is that rich and varied experience that the senator hopes to bring to the table as a possible future minister of tourism. And she is undaunted by the gutting of the sector by the pandemic. If anything, she is looking forward to the challenges it poses, she says.
“I have many learnt great lessons from what failures I have encountered in life. I have seen that you don't always get what you want out of your plans, and that you should not do things just because you love it. You have to be practical, listen to advice, be patient, pay heed to timing and be critical,” she philosophises.
She sees herself as the kind of minister who would seek to balance the many facets of tourism, but pay great attention to ensuring that the Jamaican people maximise the benefits from tourism.
“I'd like to see the ordinary worker invest in tourism and not just exist all their life as a mere wage-earner in the sector,” she declared, seeming to throw down the gauntlet to the current minister.
And Minister Bartlett thought he had, had enough on his hands with the novel coronavirus pandemic.