TORONTO — Samantha Stasuik is no stranger to the travel industry and its challenges. After all, she’s been a travel agent for the past 23 years.
She wanted to see for herself the new health and safety protocols in one of her clients’ favourite destinations – the Mayan Riviera – with a stay at the Barcelo Maya Riviera.
Based in Ottawa with Uniglobe CBO Travel, the well-travelled Stasuik headed to Mexico earlier this month on one of ACV’s DIY fams, to check out the resort.
Stasuik travelled without insurance coverage for COVID-19. However she did purchase emergency medical for her seven-day trip, “just in case anything other than COVID happened,” as she puts it. She also quarantined at home for 14 days after returning from her ACV fam on Aug. 14.
This week ACV announced a new – and free – COVID-19 Coverage and Assistance Plan, administered by Allianz Global Assistance. All of ACV’s flight and hotel packages to 33 destinations in Mexico and in the Caribbean will include the coverage.
ACV first launched its DIY fams to Mexico, Jamaica and the D.R. back in June. Just a couple of weeks ago, the tour operator added DIY Cuba fams as well.
ACV’s Kristi Ellsmere-Ihasz says interest in ACV’s DIY fams is picking up for the fall. “We’re seeing more of the DIY fams getting booked for September and October,” says Ellesmere-Ihasz, adding that space is still available for agents who would like to check things out for themselves.
Ellsmere-Ihasz took one of the fams too, also to the Mayan Riviera, staying at AMResorts’ Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun. It was a mother-daughter trip and a graduation present for her 22-year old daughter who finished university in the spring. Ellsmere-Ihasz booked the fam on a Wednesday and flew out Friday, “so there was no time to think twice. But we are so glad we did it. I was a bit trepidatious but we never once felt unsafe.”
We caught up with both Stasuik and Ellsmere-Ihasz, to hear about their fam experiences.
“I do think that more agents should go, as they can give a more first-hand experience to people thinking of travelling,” says Stasuik, who was happy to share with Travelweek her feedback about her fam to Barcelo Maya Riviera.
THE BARCELO MAYA RIVIERA
Masks may hide the friendly faces of the staff at the resorts, but seasoned travellers like Stasuik know the smiles are there. “At all times the staff wore masks, from the maids to the servers and lobby desk personnel, to the guys raking the beach and making the drinks at pool bar,” she says.
And while many travellers (and more than a few agents) are more used to getting a welcome drink than a temperature check upon arrival, at least the new protocols offer peace of mind. In fact, says Stasuik, temperature checks, anti-bacterial gel mats and hand sanitizer is the drill for entry to every restaurant on property as well, plus at the stores in downtown Playa Del Carmen and at the ferry terminal and Cozumel storefronts.
Nothing got past Stasuik’s close watch, as she assessed the protocols for her clients. “The bartender at pool bar washed his hands each time he made a drink for a guest or took their used glasses,” she reports. “All the tables and chairs in restaurants and lounges were carefully measured for social distancing, as well as washed and cleaned everyday even if not in use.”
Guests are required to wear masks in all public places but, like here at home, you can take your mask off once seated in restaurants. And you don’t wear a mask at the beach or pool area since you can physically distance yourself, says Stasuik.
There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘death of the buffet’ post-pandemic, but Stasuik says the Barcelo Maya Riviera staff handled the whole situation with style, even at the buffet. “Once you sat down at the table, they would put the placemats on the table and then with tongs hand you your cloth napkin holding your utensils for eating,” she reports. “When you got your sugar they would bring it over and pass again with tongs. Wow.”
The buffet food stations were made to order, and staff used tongs to pass the food. “The fresh fruit was beautify displayed and covered with clear wrap that guest could pick everything up. So no messes.”
For entertainment, the ever-popular stage shows may not be possible with COVID restrictions but Stasuik still managed to take a snorkelling day trip via catamaran, again with all the proper protocols.
Stasuik says that in early August, when she was at the resort, capacity was at 11%. “Currently they are only going to fill hotel at a maximum of 30% to provide physical distancing for their guests.” All guests were wearing masks, she says, adding that the resort “would not let them in restaurants unless they had it on.”
NOW SAPPHIRE RIVIERA CANCUN
ACV’s Ellsmere-Ihasz says all the protocols were in place when she and her daughter stayed at Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun in July. “They did a really good job – there was hand sanitizing, temperature checks, anti-bacterial mats, Plexiglass shields, the works,” says Ellsmere-Ihasz.
The tables at the restaurants, and the loungers on the beach, were well spaced, and there are no watersports for now: “Too many touchpoints,” she says. Menus are contact-less with QR codes.
At turndown, the remote control was wrapped in plastic and presented alongside two mints, and a little package of handwipes. “It was really cute,” she said with a laugh.
Everybody working at the resort wore masks, and so did the guests when they were in public spaces. Ellsmere-Ihasz says she’s been wearing a mask right from the beginning of the pandemic, so wearing one at the resort didn’t faze her.
Talking to the housekeeping staff, Ellsmere-Ihasz found out that the turnaround time for getting each room ready has doubled, from 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Albeit with capacity at only 30%, there are fewer rooms to turn over.
Like Stasuik, Ellsmere-Ihasz was able to do an excursion – a bike tour with cleaned bikes and sanitized helmets. “You can tell they’ve gone through every potential scenario,” she says.
Most importantly, Ellsmere-Ihasz confirms that the resort had atmosphere. “There were lots of things to do, there were pool activities, that sort of thing. There’s just a lot fewer people. And that’s what you want right now.”
FLYING WITH AIR CANADA
Canadians have gotten used to wearing masks. That bodes well for post-pandemic travel. Because as Stasuik and Ellsmere-Ihasz can testify, your mask will be on your face from your arrival at the airport, until you get to your room at your resort.
With her flight booked out of Ottawa, Stasuik said she made sure to fill out Mexico’s online COVID questionnaire before departure.
Air Canada’s CleanCare+ includes care packages for passengers with a mask, hand sanitizer, napkin wipes, a small bottle of water and a bag of pretzels. As per Air Canada’s protocols there was no meal service, and the flight crew wore medical gowns, masks and sometimes a visor and gloves.
Stasuik surrendered her health forms upon arrival in Cancun, had another temperature check and disinfected the bottom of her shoes by stepping on a gel mat.
The airport experience for departure at Pearson felt very safe too, said Ellsmere-Ihasz, adding, “If anyone’s wondering where all the hand sanitizer went, it’s all at Pearson.”
“CHANGE OF SCENERY, CHANCE TO RE-ENERGIZE”
Is Stasuik glad she went? She says that while she knows that things will be different for a while, “I am glad I got away for some sun and a change of scenery and to re-energize.”
She adds that she felt “very safe” in the Mayan Riviera, ad would consider bringing her kids on the next trip. The 14-day mandatory quarantine, while do-able, is still a “major hurdle the travel industry has with clients,” says Stasuik, echoing the concerns of many agents.
A 30-day extension for the 14-day mandatory quarantine was announced on Aug. 28. The current mandatory quarantine rule is now set to expire on Sept. 30.
“Many of my clients would travel but [they would] hesitate not so much over COVID but because of the 14-day quarantine [mandate] currently in place,” she says.
Ultimately, says Stasuik, “Travel is possible.” And building on the experiences of past outbreaks like H1N1 and SARS, “steps are being implemented like never before.”
Adds Ellsmere-Ihasz: “I felt less anxious going on our trip than to our grocery store.”
ACV THANKS AGENTS
On Aug. 28 and 29 ACV launched its 2020-2021 winter program, first to the trade, then to consumers. The program includes 700+ resorts to 42 sun destinations. There are more than 30 new resorts, newly added LGBTQ+ friendly resorts and 30 semi-exclusive, and 3 exclusive to ACV resorts. For the first time ACV will also be offering RIU Plaza Hotels in cities around the world.
ACV’s Managing Director, Nino Montagnese, told agents attending the virtual show on Aug. 28: “ACV always puts safety first. We’ve been working extremely hard to ensure that we’ve implemented new policies, procedures and tools to help give our customers confidence to travel again.”
He says ACV was “the first to offer as much flexibility for any client when their travel plans were affected. And we were the first to offer excellent rates to our travel agent community, to allow you the opportunity to explore the health and safety measures we and our hotel partners have put in place.”
Montagnese also gave a heartfelt shout-out for ACV’s retail partners amid the pandemic’s extremely challenging conditions for the travel industry. “The entire team at ACV thanks you for your dedication to our company, and to your industry. We will be better and stronger, and we will do this together.”
The tour operator’s new COVID-19 Coverage and Assistance Plan administered by Allianz Global Assistance applies to bookings must be made on or after Aug. 31, 2020 for travel Sept. 4, 2020 – April 30, 2021 to applicable destinations. The list of destinations is here.
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