Atlantis on the 'bubble' for late 2020 re-open

• Eyes 'Vacation in Place' for pre-year end return

• Phased ramp-up with earliest bookings Dec. 1

• Resort stands ground on redundancy payments

File pics of Audrey Oswell, Atlantis

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Atlantis is targeting a phased re-opening before year-end 2020 by creating a COVID-19 free "bubble" for guests via the 'Vacation in Place' model, it was revealed yesterday.

The Paradise Island mega resort's plans were detailed in leaked notes from what appeared to be a briefing held yesterday morning by Audrey Oswell, its president and managing director, for senior management executives to update them on the property's plans.

An Atlantis spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by Tribune Business yesterday, but this newspaper was able to confirm via independent sources that the notes were genuine and an accurate account of what had been discussed at the 10.30am meeting.

While The Bahamas' largest private sector employer has yet to settle on a precise re-opening date, the notes stated that present plans call for this to be before year-end. The Atlantis website is presently accepting reservations from December 1, 2020, which - while not providing complete certainty as to when it will return - may give a further insight into its long-awaited re-opening timeline.

Ms Oswell said the phased re-opening strategy, which was designed during Atlantis's multiple aborted attempts to open during summer 2020, remains in place. Not all employees will be brought back to work for the re-opening, with the ramp-up in staffing dependent on booking volumes and occupancy levels.

Recent lobbying and protests by some Atlantis employees were further discussed at yesterday's meeting, but Ms Oswell declared that the resort "won't declare any employee redundant" until it has assessed the strength and timing of any tourism rebound.

She added that Atlantis wanted to be in a position to bring all roughly 8,000 workers back if demand required rather than be forced to recruit new workers, and incur additional training costs. However, staff who refuse to comply with the resort's plan to test all workers for COVID-19 weekly during the first four to six weeks post-reopening will not be called back.

Atlantis' re-opening will be based on the creation of a virus-free "bubble" through the 'Vacation in Place' model that was unveiled by Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, when he announced plans for a November 1 tourism restart that eliminates the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all visitors arriving in The Bahamas.

Such a strategy will mean Atlantis guests will, at least initially, be confined to the resort property in a move that is likely to annoy taxi drivers, straw vendors and outside retailers/restaurants that heavily depend on the Paradise Island resort's visitors in their own businesses.

However, Atlantis will likely regard this as essential to protecting both its guests and workforce from COVID-19, with visitors to receive rapid antigen tests for the virus on both the fifth and ninth days of their vacation if they stay that long. It is proposed that guests will cover the costs associated with their own tests.

The Atlantis meeting's outcome seemingly provides a glimmer of hope for the resort's workforce, the Government and wider economy and tourism industry that one of the latter's two mega resort 'flagship' properties may be finally inching towards at least a partial re-opening almost seven months after COVID-19 forced it to close its doors.

The 'Audrey meeting notes', seen by Tribune Business, state: "We do not have an opening date announcement as of [to] the exact date but it will be before the end of the year.

"Re-opening does not get us to the end of this, but it's a start to getting back up and running. We will open in phases with limited portions of the entire resort to re-open in phase one. As business demands grow, we will open more and more of the resort offerings and bring employees back to work."

The earliest booking date of December 1, as indicated by Atlantis' website, suggests the resort may miss the Thanksgiving holiday weekend that traditionally represents the start of the winter tourism season but is seeking to return in time for Christmas and New Year.

Its re-opening would likely boost confidence throughout the Bahamian tourism industry, possibly encouraging other resorts to announce and bring forward their re-opening plans, especially since Atlantis and Baha Mar - as the two largest resorts - drive airlift capacity and seat demand that benefits access to the entire destination.

There may also be some movement on the Baha Mar front, with the booking engines for its Grand Hyatt and Rosewood properties giving an earliest reservation date of November 22 - around the Thanksgiving holiday. However it, too, has yet to confirm its re-opening, and it is possible not too much should be read into this either.

"We are working closely with the Government, and we have the same goal: To open Atlantis as quickly as possible," the meeting notes said. "We understand how important we are to the country, and want to open fiscally responsibly and safely.

"Working with the airport, the Government and the medical professionals, we have the Prime Minister's blessing and the minister of tourism's. The Vacation in Place concept will be the approach for re-opening Atlantis."

The meeting notes said that once guests comply with the Government's COVID-19 requirements, and produce both a negative PCR test and negative antigen test upon their arrival in The Bahamas, they "will be able to come to the Atlantis bubble". Visitors will then have to take further antigen tests on the fifth and ninth days of their visit if they stay that long.

"We will be testing every team member weekly for the first four to six weeks to protect the bubble," the meeting notes added. "Employees who refuse to be tested will not be permitted to return to Atlantis."

Turning to the demands from some employees for their full severance pay, Ms Oswell said that while "there is much chatter locally on this topic" Atlantis was sticking to its position. "We are within the confines of the Government's emergency order, " the notes said.

"We will re-open as quickly as possible and won't declare any employee redundant until we know the business demands. We would prefer to be in a position to bring employees back to work than hiring new people and process the training and on-boarding."

The meeting notes also referred to a "hold-up" in paying furloughed Atlantis employees their newly-reduced $100 weekly unemployment benefit, blaming this on the National Insurance Board's (NIB) delay in sending the payment.

In a separate note, Atlantis employees were informed they will start receiving their vacation pay increments this week. This will take the form of five days' vacation for members of The Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union's (BHCAWU) bargaining unit and non-union hourly employees, and four days for all others.

In addition, members of the union bargaining unit will each get an extra $500 lump sum from the Health and Welfare Funds attached to the hotel industry pension funds. However, some Atlantis workers said they were not vesting too much hope in the resort re-opening pre-Christmas due to rising COVID-19 infection rates in both The Bahamas and its key US source markets.

Dave Beckford, a former contender for the BHCAWU presidency and a furloughed Atlantis employees, said: "I'm not going to put too much hope in Atlantis or any hotels opening up. It's still wait and see. When you look at what's happening in the US they don't have much control over the virus, although there are probably a lot of people that want to get away and travel.

"However you look at it, it takes away the prospects of great enthusiasm for the sector's opening up with cases increasing here, increasing in the US. We ain't certain what the hell is going to happen next. When it seems like you're making progress in suppressing the virus, it goes right back to the beginning."