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During the age of COVID-19, seclusion and wide-open spaces are held in higher regard than ever before. But these hallmarks have long defined Amangiri in Canyon Point, Utah, according to Julien Surget, the five-star resort’s general manager.
“We encourage privacy, generosity of space, isolation and invisible service; Aman Resorts [Amangiri’s parent company] been doing that for 30 years as a brand,” he said.
Amangiri, which means “peaceful mountain,” hardly needs an introduction. Beloved by the rich, the famous and the most discerning of travelers, the five-star enclave sits on a spectacular, 600-acre swath of Utah desert. Juxtaposed against rust-red plateaus, mesas and dunes, the raw, concrete design of Amangiri looks startlingly beautiful. And beyond its lauded design, the resort also takes pride in its excellent service.
Still, despite its skyrocketing popularity, Amangiri could not avoid the devastation left by COVID-19 — at least, not completely. Starting in mid-March, the property closed for two months. In order to reopen safely on May 21, Amangiri played to its strength as a remote and intimate destination, in addition to implementing rigorous health and safety measures and other strategic processes. And on July 1, the resort revealed the new Camp Sarika by Amangiri, a collection of 10 one- or two-bedroom pavilions that redefine glamping.
TravelAge West spoke with Surget to learn more about how the resort has adapted to today’s tumultuous travel landscape, as well as why it decided to launch a major new product this month.
What has it been like managing Amangiri since the onset of COVID-19?We had a great couple of years, and we were well on our way to another record year — and then COVID-19 happened.
Since our reopening, however, the demand has been extremely strong, and there is a high level of confidence from guests and staff alike. We opened with a strong message of safety and caution, not with a message of celebration. We put two communications out to announce our reopening: a letter to our past guests in the region and one social media post to formalize the date.
It was well-received, and our guests’ pent-up demand to travel allowed us to get into a good, sustainable rhythm quickly.
How did your team determine Amangiri’s health and safety measures?We looked at it from three different angles: reduced capacity, social distancing and extra sanitation.
We lowered guest capacity to about 50-55%, which in turn enables us to lower the density of staff needed to serve the guests. This allows for better social distancing — not just in guest spaces, but also in staff areas. Of course, we also have to account for the well-being of the staff. Having happy guests but unfulfilled staff does not help us. They need to be engaged in the process.
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It’s worth noting that Aman, by design and in DNA, serves this moment we are all in. In certain ways, the learning curve of the reopening is actually relatively flat for us, albeit there are certain practices such as wearing masks and the extra, visible sanitation that we typically try to keep hidden from guests. In this case, we want our cleaning to be very evident.
We also do wellness checks. Everyone who comes on property is subject to a wellness check, and that includes guests. For staff, it is every day, twice a day; for guests, it’s on arrival.
Overall, we had to rethink a few things, but, for the most part, the Amangiri experience has not been overly compromised. And at the end of the day, we’re finding that our guests still want that same experience that they desired before this crisis happened. We have a responsibility as an operator to fulfill that expectation while reconciling today’s utilitarian requirements.
Overall, we had to rethink a few things, but, for the most part, the Amangiri experience has not been overly compromised. And at the end of the day, we’re finding that our guests still want that same experience that they desired before this crisis happened.
What has been the feedback from guests so far?It’s been great. The sustained demand that we have speaks of [the clients’] confidence and sense of safety. In certain ways, the experience has become more precious and more intimate now, and we notify guests in advance — at the booking stages well before they arrive — of some of the new practices we’ve put in place.
One such practice is that we kindly ask them to give privacy to other guests using a common area, and if they are the guests using a common area, we ask that they limit their time to 30 minutes. We’re appealing to their consideration and good manners. Our guests have always been great, but they’re even more considerate of others now, because that’s how they have to be.
What makes Amangiri an ideal resort to stay in today’s reality?No. 1 is the destination. The property sits on 650 acres. With the reduced capacity — we have anywhere from 60 to 70 guests on property — that’s about 10 acres per person.
Amangiri is also mostly outdoors, with fresh air. Most activities take place outside, and a lot of the dining is alfresco, too. The weather is incredibly beautiful right now. The last thing anyone wants is to be cooped up in a confined space, and we are anything but that.
Also, while the resort is not incredibly easy to get to, it’s also not that difficult in light of today’s travel world. Most of our guests are enjoying the road trips; we’re privileged to be within driving distance from strong markets such as California, Arizona and Utah. And by that, I mean within 12 hours, because, believe it or not, 12 hours is now considered driving distance.
Our guests are enjoying the journey as much as the destination. We don’t rely on only commercial airlift for our guests to get here. And, of course, we have a large portion of our guests who fly privately, anyway.
Can you tell us more about the new Camp Sarika by Amangiri? Why launch a new product in the midst of a crisis?The camp has been an idea, for a number of years now, of the hotel owners to offer a luxury camping experience at Amangiri. The timing of Camp Sarika’s opening was completely coincidental, but I guess it fits the history of the hotel, which opened in the midst of the financial crisis in 2009. We’re two for two now.
We decided to push the original opening back by a month or two. As I mentioned earlier, we were sensitive not to reopen Amangiri as a celebration, in deference to all of the trauma throughout communities. So, we opened July 1.
A couple years ago, Amangiri’s owners met a company in South Africa that designs and builds luxury tents. Together, they came up with a hybrid product that is basically a tented pavilion. Through the design, it evokes the camp feel, with beautiful canvas walls, draped ceilings and an incredible fly sheet that’s stretched across the structure. Every pavilion comes with a private pool and a private fireplace. By concept, it’s an immersive experience to the outdoors, but within an extremely controlled environment.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Amangiri (@amangiri) on Jul 16, 2020 at 7:01am PDT
A post shared by Amangiri (@amangiri) on Jul 16, 2020 at 7:01am PDT
We added 10 of those pavilions; some are one-bedroom, and others have two bedrooms. And with the added pressure to the business this would bring, we felt it was appropriate to double up on amenities, and we built a common building that has a restaurant, a lounge, a pool and a couple spa suites. Essentially, Camp Sarika became a resort within a resort; it’s about a five-minute drive from Amangiri. But guests staying at the camp have full privileges and access to the main hotel.
The response has been fantastic. We have bigger room accommodations; we have bigger product now, too. The two-bedroom pavilions are almost 2,000 square feet. We never had multibedroom accommodations at the hotel; we do have a four-bedroom villa that guests can rent, but there’s only one.
Camp Sarika is the perfect experience for the moment that we are in, because of the autonomy and the isolation.
Have any other experiences launched this year?We’ve introduced a couple new experiences this year. With some of the off-site activities that were typically popular now either unavailable or reduced in availability, such as Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley [currently not open to the public], we scratched our heads and came up with some fun things.
We’ve introduced a new guided Jet Ski tour that’s on Lake Powell, as well as whole e-bike program. One of our activities on property is a via ferrata (assisted rock climbing), and into last year, we’ve debuted new routes, which we’re exploring now. Also, we have developed another 6 or 7 miles of hiking trails on property, now totaling 12 miles or so that are all interconnected.
Giving guests the opportunity to do things on their own — not just guided experiences — is important.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Amangiri (@amangiri) on Nov 7, 2019 at 7:33am PST
A post shared by Amangiri (@amangiri) on Nov 7, 2019 at 7:33am PST
We’ve identified new areas for hiking, which are guided, because a lot of those more popular destinations are either unavailable, or guests are turned off by them because of the fear of crowds or the fear of congestion. But we’re not seeing a lot of crowds.
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Have room rates changed at all during COVID-19?When we first opened the hotel in May and during the first couple weeks of June, we definitely held back a little bit on rates, based on demand. But we quickly realized that the demand was there, as well as guest satisfaction.
We don’t set the rates — the demand sets the rates.
Can you speak to the evolution of Amangiri's relationship with advisors?Especially for our reopening, we’ve worked closely with advisors.
This crisis has affected so many people in different ways. Small independent contractors, such as travel advisors, took a hit on their businesses. They were left with no income coming in, and commissions were going back out. For a couple months, we paid their commissions upfront when booking, because booking a future stay in December didn’t help them much.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to have a complete, seamless alignment with the travel agencies. Ultimately, we are collaborating and need to convey the same messaging to the client who wants to visit Amangiri.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to have a complete, seamless alignment with the travel agencies. Ultimately, we are collaborating and need to convey the same messaging to the client who wants to visit Amangiri. In fact, the wellness tests (checking the temperature of guests at check-in) was at the suggestion of a travel agent partner. We can all learn from each other.
Clients are also more and more valuing the ‘advisor’ part of ‘travel advisor.’ They’re leaning on them much more than in the past, because they trust that advisors have their best interests at heart.
Do you have any advice for advisors in selling Amangiri today?The most important thing is education. During the shutdown, I did so many webinars, virtual tours and presentations. I even did rock climbing while on a live feed. Understand what the product is and what we are all doing to keep everyone all safe.
Especially in the luxury tier, there are very controlled ways of traveling right now to keep everyone safe. But if something doesn’t sit well, ask questions and get answers.
How far out should advisors be booking stays for their clients?We’re pretty much fully booked about a month and a half out. That being said, it’s extremely fluid. We always have last-minute cancellations; plans change, and, unfortunately, people get sick. So, what we’re doing is keeping waitlists of potential guests and general inquiries. When we get a cancellation, we immediately go to our waitlist, which often includes reaching out to an agent rather than a direct client.
If someone is interested in a stay and there’s no availability in the system, it’s still worth a phone call.