Crisis and Opportunity in the Caribbean

Three heavyweight all-inclusive companies weigh in on how they didn’t miss a beat during the current economic downturn.

By: By Mark Rogers

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Click here for more on SuperClubs rebranding.

Click here to view a photo tour of the new Sandals Emerald Bay.

The Details

Sandals Resorts International


Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts


Sandals Teams With Martha Stewart for Themed Weddings

 Another major coup for Sandals Resorts International is the recently announced partnership with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

“We met when she came to Beaches Turks & Caicos,” remembered Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, chairman and founder, Sandals Resorts International. “I find her a very warm lady, devastatingly creative and with a good sense of humor.”

“Sandals Weddings by Martha Stewart” comprise six different themes starting at $1,500. Themed Sandals Weddings by Martha Stewart can now be booked at any of the 18 Luxury Included Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts across the Caribbean. (When booking at a Beaches resort the product would be referred to as “Beaches Weddings by Martha Stewart.”)

It seems that with each passing year the crowded all-inclusive resort field strives to either fine tune or recreate itself. This year was no different, especially in the Caribbean. As the economy presented real challenges to doing business, three companies embraced the Chinese concept that crisis and opportunity are opposite sides of the same coin. Three charismatic leaders, Butch Stewart of Sandals, John Issa of SuperClubs and Alex Zozaya of AMResorts stepped into the fray to take challenges head on and to make bold decisions across the board.

Surprises From Sandals

// (C) 2010 Christian Wheatley

Former Four Seasons to become a Sandals
// (c) 2010 Christian Wheatley

Last fall, the travel world received a surprise when it was announced that the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay property in the Bahamas, which was shuttered in May 2009, had been bought by Sandals with the intention of transforming it into Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas. A second surprise was the ultra-quick intended reopening date of Jan. 22.

“Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas is a great fit for the direction we’re going in,” said Gordon “Butch” Stewart, chairman and founder of Sandals Resorts International. “The property has a beautiful Greg Norman golf course with the most dramatic views I’ve seen on any course. I’ve talked to golfers who have played it, and they say ‘I can’t tell you how spectacular it is.’”

Although golf is not included in the all-inclusive rate, Stewart promises that there will be special offers on the course during the resort’s first six months after opening.

“The original property is probably more formal than our traditional style,” said Stewart. “We’ve had to ‘Sandalize’ it.”

According to Stewart, in order to accomplish this, the company has knocked out the old pool to create a new, larger pool with two Jacuzzis, a fire-pit seating area in the center and a swim-up bar. Flanking the pool will be misting columns and cabanas equipped with Wi-Fi access. Stewart noted they were putting in a traditional British pub called The Drunken Duck, additional entertainment, a pizzeria and a Sandals white-glove barefoot restaurant, which combines sophisticated dining on the beach with the option to kick off your shoes and relax with your toes in the sand.

The new Sandals Emerald Bay is set along a one-mile stretch of white-sand beach. The all-suite resort will have a selection of 190 luxury oceanfront accommodations. Guests also have the option of nine one- and two-story beach bungalows on the water with spectacular bay views.

“Although I haven’t physically seen the property, I’ve spent about two hours on the Web site going over room descriptions and layouts to see where rooms are located,” said Barry Posner, owner of Redondo Beach, Calif.-based Ultra Vacations & Honeymoons.

Posner is no novice — he has been selling Sandals since 1982.

“I think it’s the missing piece for Sandals,” he said. “It’s luxurious and upscale. The fact that they’re charging for golf is not that big a deal. Golfers tell me, ‘We pay for golf everywhere — we’re used to it.’”

Sandals Emerald Bay is also one of the brand’s Luxury Included properties, meaning butler service extends to the pool and beach. Guests at Sandals Emerald Bay, Great Exuma, Bahamas will have a choice of six restaurants; a PADI certification program, a Red Lane Spa with 22 indoor treatment areas and six outdoor areas; and 13,000 square feet of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space. The resort will also have the 17-acre, stand-alone Emerald Bay Marina by Sandals, the first-ever marina for any Sandals Resort. The deepwater marina has 133 slips and is equipped to accommodate and service yachts up to 300 feet in length.

“This hotel is booking better than any new resort we’ve opened,” noted Stewart. “We’re off to a tremendous start.”

In 2009, Sandals also announced plans for its first non-all-inclusive hotel, set to premier in Kingston in 2012 or 2013. The 250-room hotel will have banquet facilities, a shopping center and 25 private apartments that, according to Stewart, could come into play in the rental pool.

“It’s called Sandals City and is situated on the best and most prominent hotel site in Kingston,” he said. “We’re going to run with this and see how it goes.”

Stewart also revealed that the company is looking at a site in Castries, St. Lucia, for a second Sandals City property. In Jamaica, Stewart has had the old Port Antonio Dragon Bay hotel property for years (the films “Cocktail” and “Club Paradise” were both filmed there). Up until recently, development had been stymied by inadequate air access and a pot-holed highway.

“Now, there’s a new road and plans to welcome commercial flights, so Dragon Bay is back in play,” said Stewart. “We’re working actively on it.”

Looking back over 2009, Stewart had this to say: “When your back is against the wall, you learn how to do things better — I like a steep learning curve.”

SuperClubs Simplified
Last November, SuperClubs garnered the spotlight when it officially consolidated its five hotel brands in Jamaica into three brands (Rooms, Breezes and Hedonism resorts). The Grand Lido and Starfish brands vanished in a puff of smoke to be reborn as Breezes properties. Starfish Trelawny Resort & Spa became Breezes Resort & Spa Trelawny; the Grand Lido Braco property is now called Breezes Rio Bueno Resort & Spa; and Grand Lido Negril Resort & Spa has rebranded to Breezes Grand Negril Resort & Spa and is now Breezes’ flagship Jamaica property.

“The change has been extremely smooth,” said John J. Issa, SuperClubs chairman. “I anticipated the odd hiccup, but it’s been seamless. Maybe it’s something we should have done long ago. We had too many brands for the number of hotels we had. Our products were too complex, and simplification was in order.”

The Grand Lido brand has been a part of the upscale all-inclusive landscape for 20 years, and it was only natural that some agents balked at the recent change.

“We had a lot of loyalty from agents and lots of high-season support,” said Issa. “But we found that the high-end traveler was less likely to travel off-season in order to save money. So rather than dilute Lido further, it was better to rebrand.”

The changeover from the Grand Lido Negril Resort & Spa to the Breezes Grand Negril Resort & Spa consisted of tweaking the overall all-inclusive amenities available. The property has eliminated complimentary manicures/pedicures, in-room dining (except in its 28 suites) and complimentary laundry services. The quality of the cuisine and service has not changed, and no physical alterations were made to the property. The staff-to-guest-ratio also remains intact. Issa noted that rates at the former Grand Lido properties will drop approximately 10 percent.

The opposite is true with the Starfish Trelawny Resort & Spa, now Breezes Resort & Spa Trelawny. With the rebranding, the resort has risen in stature to become one of SuperClubs most inclusive properties, with such amenities as the Kids Club, glass-bottom boat rides and snorkeling trips now being included in the cost of the vacation instead of being offered as various add-ons.

In an effort to further streamline the Breezes brand in Jamaica, SuperClubs made the decision to close Breezes Montego Bay. According to Issa, the Montego Bay property no longer met the quality standards of its sister properties.

“We’re catering to the largest part of the market — the upper end of the middle market,” said Issa.

Without naming names, he noted that SuperClubs was not competing with the mega-room, all-inclusive resorts along Jamaica’s north coast.

“When you compare the number of rooms, we’re boutique hotels compared to them,” he said. “And we have acres of beaches compared to their two small man-made beaches.”

When SuperClubs recently completed a sales blitz in the U.S., the company found that over the last 12 months there had been a tremendous amount of turnover in agents. As part of the process of getting new agents up-to-speed, Issa tells agents to look for numerous SuperClubs fam trip opportunities.

“These agent fam trips don’t have to be an organized trip,” said Issa. “If an agent can provide the airfare, we invite them and a companion to come on their own fam.”

Issa encourages agents to get in touch with their district sales manager to make arrangements. Issa is also thinking outside the box when it comes to Hedonism. He likens the brand to Hard Rock Cafe, which in his words, “Started out as a little hamburger stand in Picadilly.”

“I think the brand has potential to grow,” said Issa. “We’ll keep our Hedonism resorts on the beach, but we’ll also explore opening Hedonism hotels in major cosmopolitan centers.”

The Rooms brand is also dear to Issa’s heart. He laughed when he said, “Rooms are so easy to operate — why did we ever have to invent the all-inclusive?”

Although Issa is keeping mum about future Rooms properties until the paperwork is signed, he hinted that agents can expect to see the brand grow.

Zoetry Seizes an Opportunity
AMResorts was already well-known as an all-inclusive resort company when it launched the Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts brand in December 2008 with the opening of its flagship property, Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. This was followed by Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, and Zoetry Agua Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic; as well as the first Zoetry Collection property, Golden Bear Lodge & Spa Cap Cana, in the Dominican Republic. Ideally, Zoetry properties will be 120 rooms or smaller, although Alex Zozaya, AMResorts’ CEO and president acknowledged that if the right property became available, he’d go higher on the room count.

“We saw two opportunities that led to the creation of Zoetry,” said Zozaya. “From the customer’s standpoint, the market had a certain appetite for wellness and Zoetry provides green, guilt-free luxury.”

“We strongly believe that there is a niche for green, responsible, luxury travel,” he added. “Another important aspect is that everything is included under our Endless Privileges program, which is really a high-end, all-inclusive plan.”

Zozaya posits that the more sophisticated the traveler is, the more they are looking for a learning component in their vacation.

“Time is valuable to these guests, so learning during a vacation is important to them,” he observed.

Guests at Zoetry can learn about various aspects of wellness. Zozaya maintains that guests will also interact with the local community and achieve a real sense of place. The second opportunity Zozaya saw was a byproduct of the real-estate boom that predated the economic crash of 2008.

“People would tell me that Zoetry is a great idea, but can you make a profit from boutique hotels that cost $600,000 to $700,000 a key?’ I told them no, I can’t.”

Zozaya had another plan. He noticed that many major real-estate developments included a boutique-size hotel. When the market went south and the hotels were under-utilized, he saw an opportunity to take them over and create Zoetry from the existing infrastructure.

“Instead of taking four years to open our first Zoetry hotel, we opened our first hotel in year one,” he said.

Zozaya tweaked the concept even more when he purchased what is now The Golden Bear Lodge & Spa Cap Cana: The Zoetry Collection. The hotel didn’t fit the Zoetry profile, since it wasn’t green, and it didn’t provide a wellness angle.

“Golden Bear is about golf and relaxation, so we created the Zoetry Collection. The collection comprises properties that are managed by Zoetry , where guests can expect the same quality and luxury experience as a Zoetry hotel, just a little less green.”

Zozaya admitted that there’s opportunity for some confusion about the two designations. Fam trips will be plentiful, and Zozaya invites agents to contact their district sales manager for special agent rates.

“Our biggest competitor is the vacation home and villa market, the kind of places people rent with a maid and butler,” said Zozaya. “These travelers want to feel at home, and they value their privacy.”

The next Zoetry to open will be a second Cap Cana property called Zoetry Pearl Sands.

“This will take some time, since it will be the first Zoetry hotel built from the ground up,” said Zozaya. “We expect it to open in early 2011.”

Zozaya is also looking to expand the brand to Costa Rica and Panama.