Katy Kennedy visiting a coffee plantation in Oaxaca, Mexico // © 2014 Katy Kennedy
Feature image (above): Santa Cruz Bay in Oaxaca, Mexico // © 2014 Thinkstock
Katy Kennedy attributes her love of Mexico to a favorite childhood travel memory. She was swimming in the Sea of Cortez when a giant Devil Ray jumped out of the water and sailed through the air like a bird. Since then, Kennedy has explored a majority of the country, and she continues to visit two or more times each year. She has worked as a travel agent for 25 years, and has been a Mexico specialist with Travel Store in Irvine, Calif., for 12 years.
Kennedy spoke with TravelAge West about Riviera Maya, a region beloved by her clients, as well as the nearby destinations of Huatulco and Oaxaca.
What is it that makes Riviera Maya so popular with your clients?
Riviera Maya is a pretty magical place. Not until you’re out in the water looking back at your hotel do you notice that there are other resorts around you. Unlike Cancun, they’ve allowed the natural foliage to stay, so properties are pretty well disguised.
And the majority of the properties are all-inclusive, which is a whole new animal from what it once was. There are no buffets anymore. All-inclusive properties have gourmet food, great entertainment, beautiful palapas out on the beach — everything is of a nicer quality. That’s what competition does.
Do you have any favorite resorts or hotels that consistently please your clients?
I have had great success with Karisma properties. They grow their own food, they fish their own fish — they even make their own shampoo, all in order to create an authentic Mexican experience. You have a real sense of place on these sites, and the service level is very high, which is much nicer than camouflaging the property as a European disco scene.
Is the Riviera Maya a good destination for all types of clients?
Yes, it’s great for the gamut: girlfriend getaways, families, friends traveling together and also romantic travelers. There are so many adult-only properties now, which appeal to the latter group — no kids, no hot dogs on the menu.
Riviera Maya, though not as developed as Cancun, is still a pretty established and known destination. Where do you send clients who want to get a bit more off the beaten path?
South of Riviera Maya is the Huatulco area, which has a true, jungle-like atmosphere with a number of villages. Your evenings here might very well be spent walking through town eating an ice cream cone, or watching performers or local kids singing — and you’ll be right alongside locals. It’s a real touch of Mexico. The resorts tend to be smaller, though some are still all-inclusive, and a little less expensive. The beaches are gorgeous. Puerto Escondido is close, and it’s a top-notch surfing destination — has been for years. Also, they now have nonstop flights out of Los Angeles, which has changed everything.
A little bit inland, there’s a new highway that connects to Oaxaca, which is a foodie capital, known for great spices, moles, homemade mezcal and more. The markets here are a photographer’s paradise.
What type of client would you send to the Oaxaca region?
This is definitely for my more adventurous clients, but also for those who are easier to please overall. There are some four-star boutique properties here, but it’s more about the authenticity. They’re going to experience something new.
What hotels do you recommend in the area?
I’ve been working with one hotelier in particular who keeps standards high. Some of the properties she oversees, such as Hacienda Los Laureles in Oaxaca, are hacienda ranch style, which is a perfect fit for some clients.
I also really like Las Palmas Oceanfront Villas and Casitas in Huatulco. There’s an infinity pool, a relaxed atmosphere and cooking classes by the pool. It has just a little something different.
What tips can you share with fellow travel agents selling this area?
It’s always good to learn as much as you can about the region, and you might begin with the resorts themselves. Almost all of them have online programs to familiarize you with their properties — AMResorts, Karisma properties, Paradisus and so on. Some will even turn around and give you referrals once you’ve completed their courses.
Webinars are another great opportunity. Pleasant Holidays, for example, just posted about two dozen webinars that agents can join to learn about different regions or hotel chains in Mexico.
Of course, it’s always better to actually go yourself. When I travel to Mexico, I’m not there for my own vacation; I often visit five or six resorts in one day. But not everyone can do that, so participating in online programs is another route.