The past year was a challenging one for the travel industry, one that led many hotel and resort companies to reevaluate their strategy for reaching clients. Some cancelled or postponed construction of new properties; some scrapped renovation plans; some cut costly services and amenities in hopes that reduced room rates would lure vacationers afraid of the economic crisis out of hiding.
In the middle of all this stood Sandals—not just standing, but standing out. And for good reason. Amid all the cutbacks and doomsday predictions for the travel industry, Sandals Resorts continued its strategy of increasing the luxury element of its guests’ experience. It moved forward with plans for grand new properties, rolled out new celebrity-designed packages and continued to court travel agents with FAMs and incentives—a winning formula, according to Recommend readers, who voted to award Sandals a total of fiveReaders’ Choice Awards this year. From Sandals’ wins for Best Resort/Hotel Chain for Spa (five times consecutively), All-Inclusive (with four nods in a row), Honeymoon/Romance (a decade of wins in this category), and Best Resort/Hotel Chain in the Caribbean—an award it’s won eight times in a row—not to mention Best All-Inclusive Resort Chain for Travel Agent Support, which it’s won five years consecutively, it’s clear that the chain’s luxury strategy has paid off.
rewarding experiences “It really comes down to the quality of the product,” says Kevin Froemming, president of Unique Vacations, Inc., the worldwide representative of Sandals Resorts. “From a travel agent standpoint, the most important asset that a travel agent has is its customers, and the best thing an agent can do for its customers is provide a product that makes the customer happy.” So it’s not surprising that travel agents singled out Sandals for so many awards. After all, he says, “we do that better than anyone.”
In part, that’s because Sandals resorts blur the lines between the traditional all-inclusive experience and the traditional luxury EP resort experience. “We see it from a standpoint that there should not be a separation between all-inclusives and non-all-inclusives. Customers don’t choose a destination based on whether they’re staying at an all-inclusive or not an all-inclusive. They’re looking at the price for the value.” Elements of Sandals vacations like premium liquor, gourmet sit-down restaurants and partnerships with respected names like Beringer wines and Pevonia spa products, all help to build that value into a product that’s a successful sale through both economic booms and busts.
But it’s not just about the client, Froemming emphasizes—the brand’s success owes much to the support of loyal travel agents, too. “We really do appreciate the support we get from travel agents, and we’re grateful for all they do for us,” he says. So grateful, in fact, that the brands have implemented practices like their no-discounting policy, which ensures that travel agents can take full commission on their Sandals sales with no risk of having to rebate part of it back to the customer to compete with a discount agency. “We don’t allow that,” Froemming says. “A lot of people give override commissions, but if you have to end up giving half that commission back, what is your real profit on that product? We have a no-exceptions rule: we don’t care who they are or what they are, we will not allow anyone to undercut our prices for travel agents.”
They’re also committed to giving agents the chance to experience the product for themselves with a full schedule of FAMs that brought thousands of agents to Sandals properties in 2009 alone. “So when they come back, and they’re sitting in front of their customer having a conversation about where to go, they can say, ‘I was just down there. This is the best, and here’s why.’”
moving forward Looking into 2010, Froemming says, “We’re going to continue on our quest to educate travel agents. It’s not a one-time shot for us—it’s a philosophy.” That’s partially because the product keeps evolving. For instance, agents who visited Sandals Regency La Toc Golf Resort and Spa in St. Lucia years ago, need a refresher on the Millionaire Suites, villas set on a bluff offering 180-degree views to the ocean with private plunge pools that debuted there last year as some of the most luxurious accommodations the chain has yet offered. And that’ll be even more true in the new year, thanks to the Sandals Emerald Bay property scheduled to open Jan. 22 on 500 acres of land in the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. “We’re going to need to do everything we can to make sure that travel agents can get down and see that property—train on it, visit it, touch it, feel it. In 2010, agents will see a continued commitment to more training and more education.”