Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) President and CEO William D. Talbert III discusses the growth of luxury tourism in Miami

What are the key trends in Miami tourism today?
Today Miami is one of the top luxury destinations in the world, which we couldn’t have said in the past, when we were just a local vacation spot. Miami is now in the same league as other global cities – London, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo. With all the high-end hotels and the infrastructure we’ve developed – the cultural facilities, the airlift – we can support the growth in this segment. The advantage of being a luxury destination is that it makes us recession-proof; the luxury consumer travels during tough times, they shop and dine, so even when there is an economic downturn this segment continues to flourish.
Tell us about the profile of the luxury traveler. From which countries are they arriving?
We saw a record 14.5 million visitors in 2014. In 2013, for the first time in our history, we had more international visitors than domestic. No other city in the U.S. can say that. Those international visitors represented 70 percent of the visitor spend, while 96 percent of our visitors come by air. A third of all of our customers come from Latin America, with Brazil as our number one international market. It took Brazil 25 years to be-come our first billion-dollar international market, and within four years it will likely double to $2 billion.
Miami’s international community is a great attraction for foreign visitors and enhances the cultural offering. For instance, during the 2014 World Cup, Miami was one of the few cities in the world where you could find restaurants, bars and clubs, representing each of the nations competing in the Cup. During the event, in Miami, you could find match-viewing parties being hosted by Argentine grills, German and British pubs, Italian and Colombian restaurants.
In which markets does the GBCVB conduct outreach to attract more visitors to Miami?
We have offices in 46 cities around the world, including  India and China. In terms of opening new offices, we are looking to the Middle East, possibly Doha, Qatar. Doha allows us to better connect with Asia. Qatar Airways, which recently started direct flights to Miami, connects to 11 cities in India and seven in China. We are also presently working to establish relationships with other international carriers, including Emirates and Japan Airlines.
How do you balance the needs of the luxury segment with the affordable tourism market?
We focus on luxury, but the developments around town are quite diverse. You can never have too many luxury brands, but you are also seeing that different mid-range brands are coming in. The luxury segment drives the rest of the local tourism industry. People want to go where the rich and famous are, whether it’s movie stars, professional athletes, or captains of industry, so luxury becomes an important aspect of attracting all visitors to Miami.
How is the GMCVB working to promote the meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions (MICE) segment?
We have staff dedicated to promoting the MICE market and that is also thanks to the growth in luxury tourism. New high-end hotels are be-ing constructed, such as SLS Lux and the EAST – both located in Brickell – and they will further add to the existing luxury hotel offerings in Miami.
We are also the exclusive sales agent for the Miami Beach Convention Center, which is currently undergoing renovation and expansion to foster more business tourism for the destination.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing Miami’s tourism sector today?
Streamlining procedures. Since 96 percent of our visitors come by air, we need to make it easier and more efficient for them to get to, from and through the airport. I’m referring here to the customs process. If a tourist is visiting from, say, Qatar, when he arrives to Miami, he has been on a plane for 15 hours. To spend that much time on a flight to come to a luxury destination, and have to then spend an additional two to three hours being processed at customs is not beneficial for the Miami brand, or brand USA for that matter.
We are continuously working with the U.S. government to address this matter, in particular how to improve staffing. Miami International Airport (MIA) has recently purchased automatic passport control (APC) equipment, which helps speed things up tremendously.
How would you comment on the quality of customer service within tourism and hospitality?
Tourism is the number one employer in this city, so jobs are very much at the center of what this industry is all about. To maintain our status as a top global destination, we constantly need to work on our customer service. Five years ago, the GMCVB implemented a number of initiatives intended to improve the quality of service in tourism-related industries.
We have a program, Miami Begins With Me, established in partnership with the Miami Dade College Center for Service Excellence, which provides service training to individuals and organizations. We partnered with MIA to establish the Miami Begins with Me Customer Service Training Institute at the airport to provide training for taxi drivers and airport employees.
 Customer service remains a key challenge for us because there is such a large transient population in Miami. On the other hand, the fact that we have so many five-star hotels and establishments means that those businesses set a precedent for service quality that trickles down to the rest of the sector.
Beyond the nightclubs and beaches, what are some emerging tourist attractions within Miami?
What is great about Miami is the city is constantly evolving. It is no longer all about South Beach, although the beaches are still a significant draw for tourists. Today we have places like Midtown, the Design District and Wyn-wood, neighborhoods that were previously warehouses and industrial lots, being converted into edgy, artistic hubs. These have become new attractions, not just for tourists, but also for locals, affirming Miami’s niche as an ideal place to live, work and play.
We are witnessing the re-emergence of a great downtown, with new buildings under construction and a rich offering in terms of dining, shopping, arts and entertainment, as well as our diverse heritage neighborhoods. What we must realize is this is not a zero-sum game. As new developments crop up, Miami’s attraction as a destination builds and the pie just keeps expanding for all involved.