Caribbean Aviation: New Life in Paradise


Chris Kjelgaard interviews Cdr. Bud Slabbaert on his remarkable initiative to create positive change, consensus and cooperation among aviation, tourism and government stakeholders in many Caribbean nations, in order to drive new air transport links and new economic growth throughout the entire region.

In 2011, the BBC began broadcasting in the United Kingdom a new comedy-drama television series about heinous crime on the fictitious small island of Saint Marie in the Eastern Caribbean. Detailing the exploits of an eccentric but brilliant Detective Inspector on secondment from England, a locally based, smart and glamorous lady Detective Sergeant, two Police Constables – one of whom was an inveterate ladies’ man – and an irascible but ultimately kindly Police Commissioner as they endeavoured to solve seemingly impossible murders, the series rapidly became a big hit throughout much of the world.

Fast-forward five years and that BBC series, called ‘Death in Paradise’ and always filmed in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe, is ending its fifth season and a sixth season has already been booked. As one new episode of ‘Death in Paradise’ aired in March 2016, Aviation Times visited Sint Maarten – not too far from Guadeloupe and its near-neighbour Dominica – to ask aviation development executive Cdr. Bud Slabbaert about a remarkable initiative he has launched to foster cooperation among aviation and tourism stakeholders in the many Caribbean island nations and territories.

Slabbaert’s initiative is to create an intensive, three-day ‘Caribbean Aviation Meetup’ forum, which will be held in June on the beautiful, ecologically spectacular island of Dominica south of Guadeloupe. His strong hope is that the Caribbean Aviation Meetup will bring together all the people, all the will and all the other ingredients necessary to drive the formation of a Caribbean Aviation Industry Association (CARIBAVIA), whose prime goal would be to promote aviation and tourism growth throughout the Caribbean region.

Like ‘Death in Paradise’, the aim for the Caribbean Aviation Meetup initiative is that it will run and run. Unlike the TV series, however, the Meetup forum and CARIBAVIA, when established, will not represent ‘Death in Paradise’. In fact, for the aviation and tourism industries in the Caribbean, and for Caribbean national economies, these new initiatives are set to represent absolutely the opposite – “New Life in Paradise”.
Here is Chris Kjelgaard’s in-depth interview with Cdr. Bud Slabbaert.

Please tell us why you decided it was important to organise a ‘Caribbean Aviation Meetup’ aviation industry conference to take place in 2016. Did you have any input from others in deciding to pursue the initiative?

I have been thinking about the need for it for quite a while. Some time ago I saw what was missing and needed in the region. I have also seen positive developments that could be enhanced and should be promoted. But then again I don’t need to start a career and I’m not interested in starting a business. Rather, I’m at the age where one should try to help others by sharing the expertise and insights that one has. Yet I will only do so with people who are passionate and in situations where I feel it is worthwhile, or else I’m not going to waste my time and energy.

In November a visiting journalist from the UK encouraged me to be the founding chairman of a new association. I was very reluctant; I don’t care about being a chairman. I just want to make things happen. So, yes, getting a conference up and running made sense to me. But an association? Well, after mulling it around a bit more, I concluded that it would be beneficial for the region.

Have you had concrete support for the concept and staging of the Caribbean Aviation Meetup from stakeholders in the Caribbean aviation and tourism industries? Is any additional support from Caribbean and/or aviation industry stakeholders still necessary in order to obtain the maximum benefit for Caribbean nations from the Meetup?

I do get a great deal of encouragement via email, from the Turks and Caicos to Trinidad and Tobago, and also from as far away as Europe and Canada. That gives me even more motivation to give it all I can. The cooperation I receive from the Tourism Board of Dominica is splendid. I have plenty of ideas for additional features around the conference. If I find support for it, especially from sponsors, I can turn this Meetup into an event that will go beyond expectations.

With any start-up, one is always confronted by a wait-and-see attitude. As word gets out, interest and motivation to support or get involved increase. Also, as I conceive the Meetup, it will not be like all the run-of-the mill, “blah-blah” conferences. I run a three-ring circus with parallel break-out sessions. I don’t want to say that the delegates will leave the conference in ecstasy but I will make sure they’ll be very glad that they did come to Dominica and participate.

Why did you choose Dominica as the venue for the Caribbean Aviation Meetup, this June?

I have made some pitches elsewhere. But I’m not courting or doing rain dances or sun dances. For me no response simply indicates there is no interest. I received some unsolicited suggestions. I have a clear mind what I want to accomplish and how. It took only two days to receive a positive response from the Minister of Tourism of the Commonwealth of Dominica and I had a teleconference with the CEO of the Tourism Authority the next morning. What can be learned from that? The fastest eat the slowest and not the biggest eat the smallest! I will be confronted by some logistical challenges by holding the Meetup on the island of Dominica. But isn’t that what air transportation and related services are all about? Being able to face and deal with challenges will lead to strength!

What are your main aims and expectations in organising and promoting the Caribbean Aviation Meetup conference? What kinds of topics do you expect to be discussed at the Meetup?

Repeated conferencing on old issues and not getting anywhere is not my thing. I want learning experiences, wake-up calls and game-changers. Some of the topics may seem to be on a given subject. Others may appear to be ‘close encounters of a third kind’. But in my head I can foresee how it will all come together. You wouldn’t want to know everything I have in the back of my head, but trust me that it is all geared toward positive outcomes for everyone who will be gathering for the event in Dominica, not least for those people from the host country. I could give you a list of the topics I expect to be discussed, but instead I would rather give you two discussion models. One is that I want most of the sessions to be in a ‘Town Hall Style’ with audience involvement. For the other model, I aim to create case studies and workgroups; they will be introduced to a situation and then it will be up to the group to discuss and find solutions.

What kinds or organisations and participants are you expecting to attract to the Caribbean Aviation Meetup, and what do you hope they will gain from their participation?

There will be a couple of hundred years of expertise and experience from different backgrounds on stage and to interact with. If this was an event with one theme or for one limited interest group, any learnings and outcomes might only have related to that one theme and they might be small and unimportant from the overall perspective. So I’m conceiving the conference from an overall perspective and I aim to widen horizons. Widening horizons also means bridging gaps, crossing over and reaching out.

So instead of attending five conferences geared toward limited themes, one may find oneself better off finding solutions and networking within a much wider overall perspective. The sessions may act as eye-openers: if anyone wants to go into details or deals on a smaller scale, this could be done in the corridors, so to speak. Well, in the Caribbean, it may be done more on the terrace near the water than in the corridor!

Do you think Caribbean aviation and tourism stakeholders may take any substantive, permanent actions as a result of any learnings and/or consensus obtained from the proceedings and round-tables organised for the Caribbean Aviation Meetup? If so, what actions do you expect they will take?

Absolutely. I am creating the conference in a way that is deliberately aiming for results. It will not about what is said, it will be about what is agreed and what is decided. I am strategically selecting speakers and subjects. I see no need for speakers polishing up their egos: I prefer those who share, present food for thought and offer solutions. Whining and complaining is also undesired, we need results. I intend to create synergy and networks among all those who will attend. I will encourage the delegates to find solutions for existing issues and find new ways and opportunities. I expect that they will recognize the opportunities, but I hope also that they will actually follow up with actions. What will those actions and results be? Ask me next year when I can present a 12-month review. It’s in their hands, not mine.

Is media coverage of the Caribbean Aviation Meetup of any importance to what you plan to achieve by staging the Caribbean Aviation Meetup?

At smaller conferences media relations is often a stepchild. In my view, media relations and coverage are essential, because through the ears and eyes of independent journalists, tens of thousands of readers or viewers will be able to read, see or hear what was said. The words of the speakers and the reactions of the delegates will get out far and wide. Publicity is also important to the sponsors, who would like to see some attention as a return on their investment.

If the Caribbean Aviation Meetup this year performs to your expectations in terms of sharing information, understanding different viewpoints, and creating learnings and consensus, do you foresee the event being held again in the future? If so, what do you think would be the optimal frequency at which the event should be held? Would you expect the Caribbean Aviation Meetup to be held in the same Caribbean nation every time?

If an event is successful, it creates a brand and a demand. We would miss an opportunity if we did not follow up and repeat. It should be held annually. As to where, I would suggest, “Don’t change a winning team!” But as I mentioned before, for me it is not a business. Just consider me the pioneer who got things moving and we’ll go from there.

You have told us one major hope for the Caribbean Aviation Meetup is that it will act as an important catalyst in the creation of a Caribbean Aviation Industry Association, CARIBAVIA for short. What kinds of organisations and stakeholders do you think should be members of the association? What would CARIBAVIA’s main goals and activities be, and how would it pursue achieving them?

Who said I hope for it? I am convinced of it! I just hope that others will see the sunrise and don’t wait until the sunset. In principle any person, business, organisation, or authority should be involved who has a stake in promoting convenient, comfortable air transportation which will not only benefit interisland links but also will serve the tourism and hotel industries by offering international connections. Considering that tourism can represent as much as 85 percent of the economies of many Caribbean islands, we have to nourish, protect, and improve that source of revenue and streamline an industry which has a major impact on the economy of these communities.

The association, as an umbrella organization, should be advising, mediating, accommodating and promoting activities. And it should build bridges within the aviation industry and reach out to the needs of other stake-holding industries. It will be challenging for it to deal with all the various interests in various jurisdictions. But it is an art to unite and leave the differences in place. Mind you, we may be talking about aviation, but we’re all sitting in the same boat. We can either rock that boat or make it fly.

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