Instant coffee at the mini-bar. Tiny bathroom. Overcooked lobster. Waiters who took eons to serve that tough lobster. Until recently I often encountered these and other irritants in Caribbean “luxury” resorts, but nowadays, “luxury has evolved,” declares Eric Fandek, sr. director of product development at Delta Vacations. And is he ever right.
For insights into how luxury is evolving, Recommend rounded up two executives at major tour packagers and three top-selling travel agents. Before we asked them about trends, though, we asked what “luxury” means nowadays.
Most of our experts divide “luxury” into two categories. For example, Chancellor of Travel Tom Varghese at Travel Tom LLC classifies Jade Mountain, Cap Maison, and the like as “ultra-exclusive.” Above all, he says, “luxury is about service.” So what about branded all-inclusives? Varghese says that’s where a travel agent must know the territory.
Kim Goldstein, travel consultant and honeymoons/weddings expert at Journeys Inc., says most of her luxury clients fall into one of two categories: “the ones who want true luxury—Grace Bay Club and Hermitage Bay—and those who are pretty high-end but want more of the all-inclusive arrangement you get at Zoëtry and certain Sandals properties, such as Grenada and Royal Barbados.” She cautions, “What’s high-end to one person is not high-end to another.”
For Paulette Darensburg, luxury travel advisor at Travel Leaders Group affiliate ProTravel International LLC, the top category of luxury is “ultra-luxury, with monogrammed linens and getting exactly what you want when you want it.” She mentions Amanyara in Turks & Caicos, Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, and Parrot Cay, also in Turks & Caicos, “because privacy is important.” Her second category includes properties like the Four Seasons Resort & Residences in Anguilla, Half Moon, and Grace Bay Club, which serve “high-end, often multi-generational clients.” She adds, “Overwater accommodations give all-inclusives a new appeal to high-end clients.”
The ID Travel Group divides luxury resorts in two. First, Island Destinations’ Ultimate Exclusives: hotels like Half Moon, Park Hyatt St. Kitts, Aman Resorts, Grace Bay Club and Villa Collection. The second group is the IDx Collection, which company president and CEO Maurice Bonham-Carter describes as “the best of full-service complete resorts.” These are mostly all-inclusives; they include eight Sandals, one Beaches, over 30 AMResorts, etc.
“Resorts were easier to categorize several years ago. Some focused on golf, others on spas, and so on,” says Fandek of Delta. “Now, we’re seeing a blending of that, and even hotels within hotels. Moreover, what each customer is looking for can’t be defined just by cost, so here’s where travel agents are invaluable: They listen to the customer.”
Today’s Top Luxury Trends
“Service comes first…because most of my clients view the Caribbean as a place where they’ll get special treatment,” says Darensburg. Varghese recalls how, instead of greeting him upon arrival with a rum punch and a hand towel, “Karisma’s El Dorado Casitas Royale gave me a glass of Champagne and a hand towel with my name on it.”
“It’s about the human element,” says Fandek, “and hotels have been doing a good job of customizing it.” For starters, “resorts keep adding options such as having a butler—or not.” Indeed, there are now so many options that “sometimes it gets a little confusing,” he admits, so that’s where a good agent matters. Varghese adds, “If a hotel arranges a private party or even a private Olympics for my clients, that’s what they’ll remember.”
“The trend, if there is one, is toward more uniformity,” observes Bonham-Carter. “There used to be more diversity in design. Some of the villas in the Turks and Caicos are spectacular, but are they particularly Caribbean? You don’t see the rich mahogany furniture that was in vogue 10 years ago. Many of these rooms could be anywhere.”
Darensburg agrees. “Everything is so contemporary, so streamlined, almost cold. They need to mix warmth with those crisp lines. And a sense of place. People don’t want straight traditional; at the very least, they want some Caribbean pops of color.” Adds Goldstein, “They want contemporary but with a sense that they’re in the destination.”
Other design trends? “People are all about the bathrooms,” declares Goldstein. Varghese mentions the freestanding tubs that are almost de rigueur now at luxury resorts. “Another big seller is the private pools and swimouts. Even if they don’t use them,” says Goldstein. Not only has this amenity allowed resorts to charge a premium for rooms with minimal views, but pile on yet more amenities and you have a trend that has caught Varghese’s eye: “Sometimes the best rooms are not on the beach, but behind the beach.”
“Today more of the resorts see the importance of wellness. People want to feel better, so cuisine is more healthy. People want to be more active, and spas are expanding,” says Darensburg.
“If you have a resort without a spa, you have a big problem,” declares Bonham-Carter. “Casa de Campo has redone their spa, and many resorts have upgraded what used to be just a small room with a bed in it. Also, today’s luxury resorts usually offer wellness programs, yoga retreats, vegan menu items, and substantial fitness centers. Ten years ago you might have had just a couple of machines with no view.”
“Nowadays the levels of cuisine are amazing at both EP and all-inclusive luxury resorts,” says Fandek. “They’re growing their own food on property, and who’s cooking
it and how it’s presented have reached gourmet-like levels.”
Whereas we once visited Caribbean resorts in spite of—not because of—the food, “people now expect the best of all cuisines, and high-end clients want their favorite food wherever they are,” says Bonham-Carter. He also notes the popularity of ‘nouveau Caribbean’—international cuisine with Caribbean flavors.” (See recmd.it/CaribbeanCulinary.)
Varghese is impressed by the popularity of chefs’ tastings: “C/X at some Blue Diamond resorts, the chef’s tasting in the wine room at AMResorts, and the 21-course tasting at Azul Sensatori.” He’s also noticed more cooking classes at all-inclusives as well as at EP resorts, and he’s finding better spirits in mini-bars, not to mention a martini shaker with Belvedere vodka and cranberry juice.
“My clients want to experience more of what the locals are doing,” says Darensburg, who serves many high-end travelers who prefer EP hotels. “Resorts, therefore, are trying to find more experiences to offer these wealthy, worldly clients, such as cooking classes at the Four Seasons Nevis. Learning experiences can also mean seminars in rest and relaxation, and hotels need to do even more of that.”
Bonham-Carter sees a trend toward local involvement in the community. “Families want their child to spend a few hours in a school that gets support from the ID Travel Group Foundation, and they want to go fishing with a local, not just from a dive boat.”
By contrast, “My clients are into experiencing the destination, but just to a small degree,” says Goldstein. “The majority just want to do a day or two out touring, and they want it to be simple, with all the details taken care of.”
Luxury for Families
Varghese points to the proliferation of multi-bedroom units for multi-gen groups. “When my family has rented villas or vacation homes, my wife has ended up working. But give us a multi-bedroom unit with good butler service at Beaches Turks & Caicos, and that is a real vacation.”
Goldstein says, “It’s easy to find luxury resorts for adults, but there’s still lots of space in the Caribbean for high-end family resorts.” She predicts, “Karisma and AMResorts will come in pretty strong with that.”
Postscript: The day after I talked with Goldstein, I learned that Bahia-Principe has rebranded its adults-only resort on Cayo Levantado to a family-friendly resort. Someone is listening to our travel agents.