This time of the year I read the tea leaves (oolong tea, thank you) to reveal the top trends in Caribbean travel and decipher how they’ll affect travel advisors. The teapot, please…
“People want ‘new’ or at least newly renovated,” says Fernandez, and that will only be more pronounced, what with almost 30,000 hotel rooms about to open in the Caribbean and Mexico (STR Global). Thus, a ramping up of massive makeovers that go way beyond the soft furnishings. “We practically gutted the rooms at Puerto Rico’s Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa,” says Sharlene Brenkus, director of sales & marketing.Other island resorts debuting dramatic upgrades include Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa and La Concha: A Renaissance Resort, also in Puerto Rico; Breezes Resort & Spa in the Bahamas; the Fairmont Hamilton Princess and Fairmont Southampton in Bermuda; The Bitter End Yacht Club and Guana Island, BVI; Morritt’s Tortuga Club and Grand Resort, Cayman Islands; Sanctuary Cap Cana by AlSol, the Grand Palladium Punta Cana Resort & Spa and Paradisus Palma Real in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; St. Barth Isle de France, now the Cheval Blanc St Barth Isle de France; Montpelier Plantation, Nevis…. This list could go on and on, and over the next few years, it will. Gently weathered is out; new and shiny rocks.
The new competitors include serious players: the reinvented Malliouhana, An Auberge Resort, Anguilla; RIU Palace Antillas, Aruba; AlSol Tiara Cap Cana (opens February) and Gansevoort Playa Imbert, Dominican Republic; Hyatt Zilara, Hyatt Ziva and Moon Palace Jamaica Grande, Jamaica; the Condado Vanderbilt and El Blok, Puerto Rico; Belle Mont Farm on Kittitian Hill, St. Kitts; Capella Marigot Bay Resort & Marina, Saint Lucia; and Sonesta Ocean Point, St. Maarten. There’s more to come, too (can you spell Baha Mar?).
New/renewed hotels = more choices, although many of these hotels share similarities. Their designs tend to be contemporary rather than traditional, with simple lines, frill-free furniture, white and earth tones, and oversized bathrooms. (The Condado Vanderbilt, with its Great Gatsby-era grandeur, is a stunning exception to this modernism.) Sure, people who love the Olde Plantation look can still find it, but hoteliers are betting that most of tomorrow’s guests will want their luxuries in 21st century trappings.Other “necessities” for now and the future include not just WiFi, but free WiFi, because its absence can be a deal-breaker. Thus, the costly Cisco Systems network that Palace Resorts has installed in Moon Palace Jamaica Grande (opens Feb. 1). Sandor Winkler, chief development officer, declares that the WiFi signal will be strong “from sand to portico.”P.S.: Saint Lucia plans to install hotspots throughout the island!
What of Marriott International’s offer of free WiFi to guests who book directly? (1) It certainly underscores the importance of free WiFi. (2) It also started a fight with ASTA. (3) If diminished agent sales offset some of the sales gains from free WiFi, Marriott may have to extend the freebie to rooms booked by agents.
Finally, new and reborn properties continue to weaken the wall between traditional and all-inclusive hotels. While traditionalists like Hyatt are entering the all-inclusive world, a la carte resorts are increasingly marketing meal plans. That raises other questions;
Stand-alone, one-of-a-kind villas have flummoxed many agents; just keeping track of them is overwhelming. Besides, observes Fernandez, “Most of our clients don’t want the responsibilities of a condo/villa. They want twice-daily maid service, facilities within steps of their room, 24-hour room service….”
That’s one reason many new villas, like those at Half Moon, A Rock Resort and Round Hill Hotel & Villas in Jamaica, are built by and within resorts. This is happening even at mid-market all-inclusives where villa kitchens are superfluous. The twist on this is tiny clusters of villas with resort amenities. In Anguilla, CeBlue Villas & Beach Resort, with only eight villas, has its own clubhouse, spa and fitness center, game room, concierge, babysitting service, excursions boat, and non-motorized watersports. Altamer in Anguilla boasts its own conference center and is adding a restaurant and marina despite having only three villas.
the girls just want to have food
More precisely, “gastronomy.” The boys want it, too, so, just for starters, Caribbean islands have created new food festivals: the Anegada Lobster Festival and this fall’s First BVI Food Fete, the Taste of St. Barths Gourmet Festival, the Saint Lucia Chocolate Festival (not brand new, but it’s growing faster than a chocoholic’s waistline), Anguilla’s Epicurea: Taste. Play. Smile., and on and on. This is not going away.
Meanwhile, resorts keep debuting their own culinary events (e.g. the Chef’s Table Events at The Reefs Resort & Club in Bermuda, Peter Island Resort’s Grilling and Smoking Classes). They’re also using chefs as marketing tools: While El Blok on Vieques boasts James Beard Awards semifinalist Jose Enrique (at a hotel with only 22 rooms!), a Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina press release devotes one paragraph to the new spa manager but three to the new chef. Most telling is the new Belle Mont Farm on Kittitian Hill, for whom food is, to a great extent, the resort’s raison d’etre. The grounds, including the golf course, are an organic farm where signs on ripe fruits say, “Pick Me.”
Resorts will pay more and more attention to food allergies and diets, too, as demonstrated by the flexibility of kitchens from tiny Guana Island to large Barcelo resorts. Speaking of which, will the increasing numbers of travelers whom Fernandez describes as “wanting to find local restaurants” hesitate to book all-inclusives? Despite having dramatically improved their restaurants, the all-inclusives may feel increasing pressure to offer dine-around or modified meal plans.
You’ve heard this song a lot lately, and now the music’s even louder, with the Learn to Sail packages at Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina and Peter Island Resort & Spa, Copa Marina Beach Resort’s Adventure Package, Red Sail Sports’ growing JetLev fleet, the boom in ziplines and submarines, and oddities like Bonaire’s Divi Flamingo Beach Resort snorkeling program for children—at night. Starting in June, Club Med Punta Cana will team with Cirque du Soleil in its acrobatics classes, while Jakes in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, has added a Fitness Retreat to its
Off-Road Triathlon. What? The triathlon wasn’t tough enough?
Of course, experiential travel isn’t just about sports. Belle Mont Farms encourages guests to interact with local farmers (it’s even fostering an off-site jump-up), and cultural attractions from Nassau Island’s Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation to the entire colonial city of Santo Domingo are being resurrected. More and more islands have also taken to marketing “Carnival” events that occur well beyond Carnival season.
Might the new emphasis on heritage, social and cultural experiences create a conundrum for self-contained all-inclusives? Resorts have responded by offering more and more activities beyond the hotel beach (these are good times for Island Routes and Chukka). Still, observes Fernandez, most of her clients “just want to sit on a beautiful beach.” Of course, Jakes, Belle Mont Farm, thousands of restaurants, and the entire city of Santo Domingo are hoping that that sentiment isn’t unanimous.
smart travelers get smarter
Clients have learned that “last-minute deals are for rooms no one else wants,” says Fernandez, so they’re planning further in advance. “We also see clients traveling on the fringe of a vacation period…. For example, one family is taking a Christmas holiday January 5th to 10th because the kids don’t have to return to college until the 12th. They’re saving thousands.” That family represents the future: Between smarter consumers and yield management pricing, off-season is no longer very “off.”
agents may matter more than ever
After all, new and expanding hotel operators require good partners. “We are not using price as a sales value [so] our product’s extra value needs to be explained,” says Kevin Froemming, executive v.p. and chief marketing officer for Jamaica’s new Hyatt all-inclusives. Echoing that, Winkler of Palace Resorts says, “We’re an expensive product and we’re content heavy, so we need agents to explain us to travelers.”
oh yes—amenities like breakfasts and transfers
Especially breakfasts. “Some [a la carte] hotels are starting to pare back their full breakfast in favor of a continental breakfast,” observes Fernandez. “Clients notice that and are not happy about it.” The takeaway: In 2015, these will be amenities worth bargaining for.