Travelers of all ages are looking for soft adventure activities. // © 2013 Island Routes Caribbean Adventure
A Caribbean vacation typically summons visions of sun and fun — those images are practically hard-wired into our consciousness. But, the reality is that the region’s offerings are much more diverse. As a result, the modern traveler to the Caribbean is demanding unique, customized experiences. Many vacationers are looking to step out of the box of the standard resort vacation. We reached out to a mix of hoteliers, tourism board officials and tour operators to get a detailed analysis of present-day Caribbean tourism.
Corporate and Leisure Mix
According to John Hanratty, chief operating officer for Travel Impressions, corporate travel is making a comeback.
“With corporate travel on the rise for the first time in half a decade, travelers are once again mixing business with pleasure,” said Hanratty. “As expected, we’re seeing a proportionate increase in family tag-alongs and vacation add-ons.”
Travel Impressions is also observing growth in destination weddings, pre-booked tours, soft adventure and cultural tours.
“In some cases, all-inclusive guests are venturing off the resort more often,” noted Hanratty. “This trend is most easily observed on islands such as St. Maarten and Grenada, which are renowned for their culinary prowess and are, therefore, better positioned to lure guests away from on-property restaurants. On the other hand, many more off-premises tours and activities are now offered through resorts, so we could see this trend as a philosophical shift on the part of hoteliers who are now realizing the profitability in embracing the tourism culture of their respective destinations.”
Travel Impressions has also seen a shift toward high-end, luxury travel experiences.
“This shift is, to some degree, a reaction to the economic downturn,” said Hanratty. “The entire industry is responding to the demand for value, so luxury travel is becoming a lot more attainable for the average vacationer. Many mass market travelers are willing to pay a premium for five-star experiences knowing that meals, premium beverages, complimentary spa treatments and other amenities are included at a reasonable price point, which reinforces the market trend toward affordable luxury.”
Hanratty noted that adventure-seekers are traveling to Dominica and St. Lucia, enticed by lush, natural landscapes while not sacrificing the familiar amenities of a resort getaway.
“There are more travelers now who fall into the ‘been there, done that’ category than in years past,” said Hanratty. “This can be attributed to a generational shift. Whereas traditional visitors are often inclined to return to their favorite destination year after year, younger vacationers are working off checklists and are less inclined to visit the same place twice unless it truly captivates them.”
“We’re seeing a trend and a demand for more spacious suites,” said Carlos Del Pino, managing director at AlSol Hotels & Resorts, which has five-star hotels and resorts in Mexico and in Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic. “A big room projects comfort and luxury.”
Del Pino said there is increasing interest in the Dominican Republic from U.S. travelers.
“In the past, much of The Dominican Republic’s focus was on the European market,” he said. “We’ve seen a shift and the D.R. is now focusing more on the U.S.”
Del Pino noted a trend that is not particular to the Caribbean but affects travel worldwide.
“Given the trend toward e-commerce, today’s traveler has more information than ever right in the palm of his hand,” said Del Pino. “With the rise of social media, guests can access a lot of information in advance of their trip — even the name of the resort’s gardener. Travel agents initially fell behind technology, but they have caught up and realized how vital a role technology plays.”
A Little Romance
Dian Holland, Jamaica Tourist Board’s business development manager of the Western U.S., is a familiar figure to travel agents on the West Coast.
“As far as changing trends in market segments, we’re seeing a surge in multigenerational travel to Jamaica, with the grandparents picking up the tab,” said Holland. “There’s also an increase in blended families traveling together.”
Another market segment that is showing growth in Jamaica is destination weddings.
“I was recently having a conversation with some destination wedding planners, and they are finding that weddings are moving from Hawaii to the Caribbean,” said Holland. “There are two reasons for this — the Caribbean is less expensive than Hawaii, and it’s easier to fly in family members, especially if they’re concentrated on the East Coast. Hawaii also doesn’t have the all-inclusive resort option, so that’s harder on the budget.”
Holland has observed that all-inclusive hotels are leaving more space in their daily activities schedule. This, in turn, encourages guests to venture off the grounds of the resort and explore Jamaica.
“I advise the travel agents I work with to have clients ask the all-inclusive resort to prepare a takeaway lunch for them when they leave the resort to explore,” said Holland. “It may not be something the resort publicizes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.”
According to Holland, Port Antonio, Jamaica, is an up-and-coming resort area that is attracting a specific type of traveler.
“There’s been a tremendous refurbishing and reopening of hotels in the area, such as GeeJam, Trident and Kanopi House,” said Holland. “Port Antonio will become a destination of its own with special appeal for high-end travelers. One way to put it is, ‘If you need to ask the price, Port Antonio isn’t for you.’”
Adventure at Any Age
Richard J. Doumeng wears two hats in the Caribbean. He is the president of Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association and the managing director of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas.
“At Bolongo Bay, we don’t have a kids’ club anymore,” said Doumeng. “The fact is, it’s so expensive to get to the Caribbean, parents are not interested in just dropping off their kids — they are here to do something as a family. We’re also seeing more travelers bringing their families along when they attend a corporate event and then booking pre- and post-convention travel.”
Doumeng has observed that there is a subset to this group.
“For their post-event travel, these corporate travelers with their families are often choosing to move from the event hotel to one with more attractive rates,” he said.
Doumeng has also seen a change in the mature market.
“Surprisingly, these mature travelers over 50 are sometimes more adventurous than younger travelers,” he noted. “They are opting to learn or experience soft-adventure options such as sailing, snorkeling or paddleboarding. Partly this is because older travelers have more expendable income. We’ve also noticed that instead of sightseeing tours, our guests are shifting to tours that are experiential.”
The booking window in the Caribbean has remained small.
“About 25 to 30 percent of our guests book during the same month as their stay,” said Doumeng. “They are either looking for a deal or booking on impulse. Even more than a deal, guests are looking for value-added options, such as a free sunset catamaran cruise, which we have always provided free when guests book seven nights.”
“One of the biggest trends we are seeing at Jewel Resorts and our Caribbean properties is multigenerational travel,” said Michele Olivier, regional vice president of sales and marketing, resort division, Aimbridge Hospitality. “The all-inclusive concept at Jewel and the wide offering of amenities make it very easy for families to travel, stay and play together. We actively train travel agents and promote multigenerational travel to our agent community via webinars, personal visits and fam rates.”
Olivier has also noticed that health-conscious travel is on the rise, with guests welcoming the addition of fitness centers, healthy cuisine, resort spa programming and exercise classes. Sports and resort activities, including golf, are proving to be popular among families.
“Golf is becoming much more mainstream and family-focused as a sport and an added benefit when people are booking travel vacations,” said Olivier. “We have taken this one step further and include greens fees at our Runaway Bay Golf Club in our all-inclusive programming at all three Jewel Resorts in the Ocho Rios, Jamaica, area.”
Time to Splurge
“Upselling in the Caribbean is on the rise, and we’re encouraging travel agents to upsell with more emphasis on experience than price point,” said Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International and CEO of Island Routes Caribbean Adventures. “In talking with partners, we’re seeing a recession frustration. We’re coming out of a recession and people are looking to splurge. We’re responding to that with suites that are better than they have ever been, and with the introduction of Club Sandals, a refined level of concierge and butler services.”
Destination weddings at Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts are on the rise and Stewart has observed that travel agents are playing a larger role in the planning process.
“We are seeing an increased number of couples planning every aspect of their destination wedding and honeymoon with their travel agent before arriving to the resort,” said Stewart. “This includes dinner reservations, off-site excursions and special add-ons such as private candlelight dinners on the beach.”
Sandals has responded to this increase in involvement with its “Your Wedding, Your Style” program, which offers clients more options to participate in every aspect of the wedding-planning process.
In addition to destination weddings, the Caribbean is reporting a surge in special-interest travel.
“At Island Routes Caribbean Adventures, we’re seeing increased interest in visiting places of worship and culinary tours throughout the Caribbean,” said Stewart. “Our tour inventory has been expanded to include safari tour products showcasing the indigenous animals, hiking tours and voluntourism activities that enable guests give back to the community.”
Today’s vacationer to the Caribbean is traveling in different configurations, from multigenerational family groups sharing a villa to corporate conference attendees bringing along their spouse and kids to enjoy pre- or post-event travel. Maybe it’s true that some things never change — but you will never hear anyone say that about the Caribbean, where tourism development often forecasts broader changes throughout the world.