This year the act of predicting Caribbean travel trends feels like betting on a ball game where they’ve changed the shape of the ball. We don’t know the future course of the Zika virus. We can’t yet determine when American travel to Cuba—and Cuba’s infrastructure—will truly be normalized. We can’t foresee the outcomes of negotiations between dozens of Caribbean governments and developers. Or the weather forecast for the next few years, regarding both hurricanes and east coast winters, like the weirdly warm one we just had.
Nevertheless, some patterns that will directly affect Caribbean travel—and travel advisors—in 2017 and beyond seem as clear as the Caribbean Sea on a sunny day:
Cuba: Revolution II Has Begun
Last year Apple Leisure Group CEO Alejandro Zozaya told me, “We’d love to have our [hotel] brands there… Ideally, [the government] would open Cuba up so the people-to-people category would be gone completely.”
Certainly, restrictions on American travel to Cuba have contracted, what with the expansion of people-to-people licenses, scheduled flights via eight U.S.-based airlines, the easing of booking and paying, new cruise ship itineraries, the acceptance of F.I.T. people-to-people trips, and the entry of Marriott-Starwood, and (yikes!) TripAdvisor. The blockade will continue to crumble.
However, don’t play taps for Apple Vacations’ Cuba tours. Or anyone else’s. After all, many curious Americans view Cuba as a cultural more than a beach destination, so you’ll be booking clients on guided tours for the next few years, if not longer. As the “people-to-people” requirement disappears, tour operators may simply add a few days at a beach. Eventually, new resorts will reverse the current rise in prices and attract a new category of American travelers: people who want an affordable beach vacation rather than cultural enlightenment. Meanwhile, the sweet spot for many cultural tourists with high net worth will be private, customized tours such as those offered by Abercrombie & Kent, Cuba Explorer, and Friendly Planet.
Multi-Gen Groups Want…Kitchens
In September Recommend ran a feature on why and where many multi-generation groups are renting Caribbean villas and condos rather than traditional hotel rooms. Sure enough, one month later, when I was a panelist at a CHTA (Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association) meeting, one word kept coming up in conversations: “kitchens.”
Some multi-gen families want them so they can cook most of their meals; others hire a chef. Still others want kitchens for preparing breakfasts, snacks and maybe lunches, but they go out for dinner. However they use their kitchen, it saves them money and it allows them to share more moments as a family, not just as part of a distracting restaurant scene.
Agents who can knowledgeably book residences as well as rooms will have an edge. So will the many resorts and developments with condos and villas, because these residences are often easier to understand and sell than one-of-a-kind villas. In addition to the options in the September story—Casa de Campo, The Abaco Club on Winding Bay, Grand Cayman Island’s Caribbean Club, Provo’s Seven Stars Resort & Spa, the Four Seasons Resort and Private Residences Anguilla—look into Half Moon in Jamaica, Blue Residences Aruba, The Landings Resort & Spa on Saint Lucia, and St. Kitts’ new Christophe Harbour development.
The Sharing Economy Invades the Caribbean
That’s why, at that CHTA meeting, sharing economy experts, including an Airbnb executive, were invited to address a ballroom full of hoteliers. Airbnb’s Shawn Sullivan boasted that Airbnb now has 40,000 listings in the region. That’s more than 40,000 rooms, because many of the listings are for multi-bedroom homes.
What does this mean for hotels? Dr. Jim Hepple, CEO of the Aruba Hotel and Tourism Association, showed how it’s affected his island: “Between 2010 and 2015 the percentage of visitors staying in ‘other’ accommodations rose from 10 percent to 33 percent. This comprised 75 percent of our growth.” Ouch. Moreover, said CHTA president Karolin Troubetzkoy, “Airbnb is not just competing for guests, but for airline seats.” In fact, the Aruba Tourism Authority and Airbnb just signed a memorandum of understanding.
So why are brands from A to Z (e.g., Azul to Zöetry) investing in the Caribbean? Back to Aruba: Although 8 percent of visitors from the U.S. and 16 percent of Canadian visitors now book through Airbnb-type websites, said Hepple, “the sharing economy is competing most with the value hotels.” Therefore, clients you book into luxury resorts are unlikely to opt for someone’s home in a local community.
Besides, travel advisors can and will continue to counter the growth of alternative lodgings by adding value that sharing economy sites can’t match. This includes being able to knowledgeably recommend (recommend—good word!) villas and condos at resorts with beaches, spas, sports, restaurants, entertainment, concierges, child care, and other amenities that make a vacation a vacation (see “Multi-Gen Groups Want…Kitchens,” above).
Caribbean Hotel Rates May Decline
As noted above, this is not necessarily because of competition from Airbnb et alia. In October of a year when Caribbean hotels struggled to match 2015’s RevPar figures, STR reported that hotel construction in the Caribbean is up almost 19 percent over 2015. More supply (more than 32,000 rooms in the works) when demand is touch and go can’t be good for hotel rates, so is there any silver lining to this cloud? There is: An outsized proportion of the rooms in the pipeline—about 25 percent—will be bona fide luxury accommodations.
Luxury Replaces Beachfront
This isn’t new—just look at the villas of St. Barths—but it sure is expanding. As Adam Stewart said at SOTIC, “prized beachfront lands are going or gone.” More and more hotels will be built perpendicular to the finite shore, so designers will compensate with more fabulous accommodations far back from the beach. A partial list of examples I’ve visited this year includes the high-style Zen Oasis section at Club Med Punta Cana, CHIC Mansion at CHIC Punta Cana, the Butler Village Honeymoon Romeo & Juliet Sanctuary One Bedroom Villa Suites with Private Pool at Sandals Ochi, etc. Candidly, this means more upselling opportunities.
Food, too, Replaces the Beach
An exaggeration, but certainly gastronomy has trickled down to the middle class, becoming one of the criteria many people now use when choosing a resort. “Travelers want to know the story behind what they’re eating,” said Jazz Poulin at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s annual State of the Travel Industry conference in September. “They want to know where that tomato comes from (recommend.com/news/the-luxury-travel-buzz-at-sotic).” He was talking about Luxury Retreat’s elite clients, but now this even holds true for people who, when they’re home, order from Domino’s Pizza. Thus:
• There’s been a proliferation of food festivals sponsored by countries (see recommend.com/destinations/caribbean-bermuda/saint-lucia-s-chocoholics) and, more recently, even single resorts, from exclusive Peter Island Resort & Spa to Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort.
• On the subject of Poulin’s tomatoes, farm-to-table is huge, so tourists want more agritourism experiences, from the Guadeloupe Islands’ Maison du Cacao (locavore chocolate: a trend within the trend) to CuisinArt Resort & Spa’s greenhouse farm.
• As long as there are cooking shows and videos, visitors will gobble up cooking classes such as the new 10-day(!) workshop at Amanyara and excursions offered by TruBahamian Food Tours and Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tours.
• The arms race to attach names of international chefs to hotel restaurants continues—Atlantis Paradise Island alone lures guests with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Nobu Matsuhisa, Todd English—but the experiential travel trend has also created a demand for Caribbean food in the Caribbean (what a concept!). The result: More local ingredients, local chefs, and Caribbean fusion. That’s why the Four Seasons Nevis now offers Authentically Nevisian Taste of Place, and the Barbados Food and Wine Festival just relaunched as the Barbados Food and Rum Festival.
• A few years ago gastronomy, which used to pair well with Lipitor sales, fused with the wellness movement, emphasizing ingredients that are not only organic, but amenable to people on gluten-free, vegan, lactose-free, heart-healthy, or low-carb diets, as evidenced by BodyHoliday-Saint Lucia and Grand Palladium Palace Resort, Spa & Casino (recommend.com/destinations/wellness-at-all-inclusives-that-get-it).
• P.S. The food-wellness marriage has replaced the beach at Kittitian Hill’s Belle Mont Farm, which has the world’s first edible golf course. That’s for you hard-core foodies.
Experiential Travel Won’t Dent All-Inclusives
As you know, they’ve learned to thrive on it by selling day-trips beyond the gates and offering onsite jerk shops, patois lessons (even at Mexican-owned Moon Palace Jamaican Grande), and cultural performances.
If you need any more proof that all-inclusives can succeed despite the experiential buzz, look at the booming empires of Bahia Principe (it just opened its 14th property in the Dominican Republic), and AMResorts, which will even debut a Dreams Resort in a la carte Puerto Rico, of all places. As they say on Wall Street, “The trend is your friend.”