It’s one thing to know that travel agent associations are lobbying the government on agents’ behalf. It’s another to actually hear it and see it in action.
TORONTO — Though Sandals Resorts International didn’t invent the all-inclusive concept with its first resort in Jamaica back in 1981, it is largely credited with perfecting it. Since the debut of Sandals Montego Bay, the resort giant has grown to include 24 properties and five brands across eight Caribbean islands, all of which include everything from airport transfers to premium brand drinks, inclusions that were practically unheard of in the early 80s.
But while its impressive expansion over the years has positioned the brand as a leader in the all-inclusive market, it also makes it more susceptible to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. More properties mean more closures and impacted guests and employees, a reality that Adam Stewart, Deputy Chairman, is currently navigating through with health and safety top of mind. Like most resort chains, Sandals was forced to temporarily shutter its properties during the onset of the pandemic in March, and is now slowly and surely resuming operations in a still-challenging and incredibly uncertain time for travel & tourism.
So how is the company faring thus far? We asked Stewart about the immeasurable impact of the pandemic, how the company has approached health and safety, and whether he thinks the all-inclusive concept – which Sandals has helped to perfect – has been forever changed.
Can you put into words just how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been to the company, and to tourism in the Caribbean overall?
Being in business for nearly 40 years, we have seen and faced a myriad of travel-related concerns from 9/11, natural disasters, global epidemics, and even the financial crisis of 2008. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is something I don’t think any of us could have imagined. Travel was certainly amongst one of the hardest hit, globally, and for those of us here in the Caribbean. But as history dictates, travel has a familiar resilience. It’s certainly given us an opportunity to look back at the industry and reflect and see how we’re going to bring peace of mind by building more trust with our consumers.
We have already made incredible strides toward a rebound in tourism, with each Caribbean island playing its role in over-communicating and rallying together to push through this as one strong team in just a few short months. Our teams across all our resorts have been working feverishly to ensure a safe return to vacationing, and we’ve seen great success with each resort’s reopening. We are optimistic when we see that people are itching to start travelling again, and we are beyond proud to be welcoming them back, island by island, to the resorts they can trust.
What was the immediate impact of the pandemic to Sandals and Beaches properties?
When this pandemic took us all by surprise back in March, we knew we had to focus first and foremost on accommodating our 15,000 team members in the best way possible. We are one team and one family, so we acted quickly to make sure every single team member was cared for. We retained all 15,000 team members at partial salary, maintained their health benefits, and provided multiple care packages filled with groceries and items needed to help them stay afloat. We stayed transparent in our communication and always acted in the spirit of kindness – values that my dad has instilled in me from the very beginning as the iconic Chairman & Founder of this company.
With incredible leadership from my father, we also helped out our surrounding communities by providing accommodations to healthcare workers treating patients in multiple islands, offset transportation needs for healthcare workers in Jamaica, donated funds and medical equipment where we could, and much more. While our resorts remained closed, we also took the time to enhance our product, manicuring the lawns, staff training and of course, adding additional health and safety measures in place so that we could welcome our guests back with the utmost confidence.
Can you walk us through the reopening process? What are the logistics involved with such a massive undertaking?
The first step in reopening was making sure that we had fully thought of every single guest health and safety touchpoint and amenity on resort, and how we could enhance our already industry-leading health and safety measures to give consumers the confidence they needed to return. After months of research, collaboration, preparation and working alongside each island’s government, we developed and rolled out our Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness and have been successfully reopening our resorts month-by-month. With these new protocols in full effect, we reopened Sandals Grande Antigua first on June 4th and currently have seven Sandals and Beaches Resorts open, with another two resorts opening now in September. All of our remaining resorts are slated to reopen over the next few months.
Can you provide a brief overview of these new health & safety protocols?
In a time where health and safety are now top of mind for everyone, we can confidently say that cleanliness and safety have always been our #1 priority. Our existing industry-leading practices have been enhanced to include several pre-emptive cleanliness measures set forth in our Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness, guaranteeing our guests peace of mind from a brand they can trust. These protocols involve several measures comprised of a triple-check system for cleaning and sanitation that encompass 18 key touchpoints – starting from the moment guests arrive at our airport lounges, through to the entire on resort experience, from arrival to dining, activities, fitness centers, butler service and well beyond the moment we say our goodbye. Across all resorts, we’ve implemented new at-home to in-room check-in and precautionary temperature checks, placed anti-bacterial gels and soaps in each guest room, further distanced our table set-ups in restaurants, bars and beaches, required team members to wear protective face masks at all times, set-up sanitizing stations all over the resorts, offered more daily scuba diving trips to maintain social distancing guidelines and so much more.
Do you think some or all of these new protocols will be a permanent fixture at your resorts? If so, which ones?
What travellers today are predominately looking for in addition to safety and cleanliness, is something that Sandals has always offered since day one – privacy. There has been more of an emphasis placed on exclusivity, privacy, and seclusion and that’s what our brands were built on since 1981. Because we built our resorts on such expansive grounds, because we have these sprawling beaches and we have the beauty of the Caribbean trade winds, we’ve always used our natural assets to create the utmost privacy for our guests. That being said, our resorts have made very minimal adjustments to adhere to social distancing guidelines, for example. While we did further distance our table set-ups in places like our restaurants and bars, including pool chairs and beach chairs, they have always naturally been placed apart to give couples the feeling that they are the only two on resort. For us, we’ve actually elevated the experience for the consumer so they can enjoy their stay in a more private setting, in a way that we’ve never done before. In our world, we are going higher on exclusivity, and that’s what we are going to continue to push as permanent.
It must not be easy rolling out an entirely new safety program company wide. What has been the biggest challenge when implementing these new protocols?
We pride ourselves on having one of the most comprehensive training programs within the industry and passionate team members across all islands that were up for the challenge. Our team was eager and more than ready to get back to doing what they love, which started with strategic training on our Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness. Over the past few months, all our team members have been certified on all protocols and all our enhanced measures. Before reopening a resort, logistically we brought our team together 6-weeks prior to opening so that they could become well versed in all practices. We’ve had role playing modules in each department – dining, watersports, entertainment, you name it – so that our team can perfect their craft for the real guest experience. Fully immersing themselves in the experience on-resort is important to us because when our guests arrive, it’s our job to make their vacation as frictionless as possible. It is not easy to change your everyday ways, but at Sandals, we’ve built a brand that people trust, and it’s because we go through these great measures to always put the customer first.
Have guests been receptive of these new protocols? What’s been the feedback so far?
We have been extremely pleased to keep hearing an overwhelmingly positive sentiment from our valued guests. We have gone to great measures through our Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness and continue to be humbled by the rave reviews we are receiving. These on-the-ground reports on our cleanliness program are so encouraging, and we are thrilled that this has been such a smooth success. I am fortunate enough to live in Montego Bay, so I’ll often go by our two resorts there, Sandals Montego Bay and Sandals Royal Caribbean, and talk to our guests – from a distance, of course. I have seen the utmost joy coming from both resort team members and our guests, who are able to relax and enjoy their vacations knowing we’ve taken extra steps to safeguard their stay. I can confidently say that with all of our great amenities, warm Caribbean hospitality and Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness in place, guests can expect the same 5-star Luxury Included experience we’ve always been known to deliver without compromising any aspect of their vacation.
Buffets play such an important role in the all-inclusive model. Do you think eliminating buffets will deter vacationers from booking?
While buffets are such great options for guests looking to some spend extra time enjoying resort amenities and eating on their own time, Sandals and Beaches Resorts has always prided itself in being Luxury Includedâ, giving guests the opportunity to dine at up to 21 gourmet restaurants at a single resort. Through our 5-Star Global Gourmet dining program, guests can dine anywhere they want depending on whatever they crave – whether that be quick authentic jerk chicken at the outdoor Jerk Shack, fine French cuisine at La Parisienne or an individual gourmet pizza from Dino’s eaten poolside. Guests looking to enjoy our elevated buffets can still do so! While we no longer offer self-service at buffets, our guests can still enjoy a delicious meal that will just be served by an attentive staff member instead.
In your opinion, do you think the pandemic will forever change the way people vacation?
One thing we’re hearing from our guests about this pandemic is that they have a newfound appreciation for travel and vacation. A deeper gratitude for culture, food, and entertainment. Especially now after spending so many months pent-up inside. This pandemic also has travellers looking more intently at health and safety measures when deciding where to vacation. But for us, that’s always been a hallmark and our Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness take things a step further. We pride ourselves on exceeding expectations, now more than ever. As the resorts created for two people in love, we’ve been social distancing for years – because privacy and luxury go hand in hand. Our amenities were always built for couples and that’s how we’ve designed our resorts – from private plunge pools, Tranquility Soaking Tubsä for two, overwater hammocks and swings, private cabanas serviced by personal butlers and so much more.
If you can take one positive thing from this pandemic, what would it be?
We vowed to our core that we would come back stronger and better than ever before. To be able to see that resilience and commitment from our incredible team members has been hands-down the magnificent bright side in all of this. Our staff is incredibly happy to be back to work – doing what they love. Couple that with guests having such a thankfulness for travel and that’s the winning combination. The future is looking brighter and brighter at Sandals and Beaches Resorts indeed.
To read more about Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness, click here.