When Gordon “Butch” Stewart opened his first hotel in 1981, he and his small group of industry outsiders knew very little about running a hotel, which, in hindsight, was probably a good thing. With little preconceived notions about what a resort should be, they were able to see far down the road to what it could be.
In the early days, Sandals sales team’s biggest selling point was that the rooms included a hair dryer, something no one else was doing at the time. That seems laughable now, but Sandals continues to set the industry standard offering luxury inclusions that, on paper, should never have worked in the business.
The tourism industry in Antigua & Barbuda remains very seasonal, opening in November/December when cold weather in source markets sets in, and running until April/May, when many of the resorts and restaurants on island have to shut down for the summer months. The entire island feels the hit and it can be especially hard on tourism workers who only have guaranteed employment for only part of the year.
Sandals Grande Antigua, however, remains open all year round thanks to the impressive marketing team which has put the Sandals’ brand front and centre before consumers making it as synonymous with the Caribbean as Bob Marley and Fidel Castro.
The resort chain’s marketing arm, Unique Vacations Inc (UVI), garnered 1.5 billion impressions in 2016 through sweepstake promotions on TV, radio, online and print. With giveaways on game shows such as Wheel of Fortune, Let’s Make a Deal, and TV shows Dr. Oz and Steve Harvey, Sandals keeps its brand in the public consciousness.
Through these and other advertising efforts, every minute of the day, somewhere in North America a Sandals commercial is running.
On the front lines of the battle for tourists’ dollars, however, are a dedicated ‘army’ of Sandals Business Development Officers (BDOs). They travel through snow and sleet, rain or shine, from big cities to small towns in rural USA to meet with travel agents and train them on how to sell Sandals and Beaches resorts.
Fortunately for those BDOs, Sandals is one of those products that sells itself. With 5-star gourmet dining, that allows guests to sample international cuisine at every resort, unlimited scuba diving, some of the most incredible rooms on some of the best beach properties in the Caribbean, and all included with guests never having to pull out a wallet on property, everybody wants to visit a Sandals resort.
In November 2016, Sandals officially opened Over-the-water bungalows at its Royal Caribbean resort in Jamaica. While made popular in Fiji and Bora Bora in the Pacific Ocean, over the water suites were near-impossible to build in the Caribbean for reasons including the tides, environmental regulation, and hurricanes as impediments.
But through feats of engineering and the perfect protective cove of the Montego Bay lagoon location, Sandals has been able to add something unique to the Caribbean’s tourism product.
Disrupting the all-inclusive game
There was a time when “all-inclusive” was a bad word in the luxury travel industry, invoking images of a vacation little more luxurious than a camping trip, with a hotel that had one main restaurant, more akin to a cafeteria, where all guests lined up with plates to have every meal. If you wanted a more intimate a la carte experience there would usually be the add-on restaurant where you could have a decent dinner, for extra of course.
Sandals changed the all-inclusive game, which is why it refers to its offerings as luxury-included©. At the Grande Antigua property, guests have up to eight sit down restaurants at which to dine throughout their stay plus a few other eateries like its popular Café de Paris for quick bites and a coffee.
Sandals continue to push the envelope in what it offers its guests and wherever it enters the market it pushes up the entire industry’s standards. Today, its luxury-included hotels attract an upper middle-class clientele who, 30 years ago, would never have chosen an all-inclusive hotel.
Catering for the millennial traveler
As the demographics of travellers continues to evolve, so too are the offerings of Sandals changing with the times. Presently, one can find a good mix of mature 50-somethings celebrating a 30th wedding anniversary at the property with millennial newlyweds on honeymoon. While catering to these diverse needs presents a challenge, Sandals continues to find ways to meet the needs of as wide a category of its customer base as possible.
Millennial travellers, without the financial wherewithal of their baby boomer parents, are known to save money by finding cheap accommodation with the help of apps like Airbnb and seek out unique experiences and adventures while on vacation. Sandals has remained relevant to this group through its hip Island Routes brand which takes guests off-property to see the various islands where the resorts are located. Adventure tours including from kayaking, snorkeling, ATV rides, and zip lining are available for through Island Routes for guests staying in Antigua.
All Sandals resorts have included Wi-Fi which, for the social media-savvy traveller who has to keep everyone at home updated through Twitter and Instagram, has become as much a necessity these days as bathroom facilities.
In that vein, the resorts chain has launched a Sandals and Beaches App packed with detailed information about each property in the palm of one’s hands, moving away from having to turn to a resort newsletter to know which restaurants are open tonight. In a second phase of app capabilities, users will be able to upload photos taken directly to integrated social media accounts, book restaurants and spa treatments, make requests of their butlers, and use an interactive property map to get step by step voice directions from point A to B.
Young travellers, just starting their married lives are still very interested in meeting other people, and even though the couples-only resort chain is primarily designed for two people in love, opportunities for social interaction must be etched in to each resort’s fabric to meet these needs. The romantic and communal fire pits found at Sandals Grande Antigua allow couples to meet up and sip a drink together after dinner while listening to the waves gently crash on the beach or soaking up the silver moonlight.
The most important characteristic of millennial travellers from a business perspective might be their loyalty to novel travel experiences over any particular hotel or brand. Many won’t visit the same place twice. With that in mind, Sandals has been aggressively pursuing new properties as well as upgrading older ones, making it very difficult for anyone to say “been there, done that” as there is always something new on the horizon. As of 2018, there is an expected doubling of Sandals Barbados and new properties for Tobago, Mexico, and St Lucia are in the pipeline, keeping completing the Sandals series just out of reach of guests. •