Sandals offer so much more than luxury on their all-inclusive holidays, managing director Karl Thompson tells Sam Ballard
Picture paradise and it probably looks like a Caribbean beach. Miles of perfect sand, palm trees swaying in the wind and cocktail in hand. What more could you ask for? Add an all-inclusive resort into the mix – offering stability regardless of a fluctuating pound – and you begin to see why Sandals Resorts have such enduring popularity.
“With lots of uncertainty looming around Brexit in the UK, most people now want to make sure they are protecting their money and are getting the best value when they are spending,” Karl Thompson, managing director of Sandals, tells ABTA Magazine.
The company, which was founded in 1981, has become synonymous with luxury Caribbean holidays in beautiful resorts. It’s a proven formula, with repeat bookings at 40 per cent. But, in an environment where consumers want to know more about a destination and, if possible, do good while they’re there, how has Sandals developed over the last four decades?
Thompson explains: “All-inclusive holidays have changed dramatically over the years. At one time people just wanted to fly and flop next to the beach or the pool, whereas now guests are looking for unique experiences and want to see more of the destination that they are visiting, as well as showing an increased interest in wellbeing and voluntourism holidays.
“Through our excursion company, Island Routes Adventure Tours, guests can book a range of different adventure experiences such as driving their own Mini Cooper through the jungle in Jamaica or sailing their own speed boat in convoy around the coastline of St Lucia.
“Lots of guests also want to give something back to the local community, so programmes like our Reading Road Trip – a group visit a local school to help children with their reading and writing skills in partnership with the Sandals Foundation – are extremely popular.”
The community angle perhaps isn’t the first thing that comes to mind with an all-inclusive resort. However, Thompson points to the fact that the Sandals Foundation, the company’s charity, is now 10 years old – having been set up by deputy chairman, Adam Stewart – and has donated millions in aid to the region.
“Over the last decade, the Sandals Foundation has funded projects in areas including health, community, conservation and education,” Thompson adds. “To date, the Foundation has supported projects valued at more than $58 million, which have impacted 850,000 people across the Caribbean region.
“The launch of the Women Helping Others Achieve programme in 2016 has been a key part of the Foundation’s work, covering a wide range of programmes designed to empower Caribbean women through a mix of education and mentoring support. The Foundation has assisted in the running of two women’s centres in Jamaica to provide support for young and vulnerable mothers and pregnant teenagers, as well as one in The Bahamas. GrenCrop in Grenada is another scheme which teaches female farmers to become more self-sufficient, teaching them key skills like customer service and accountancy as well as practical and physical skills.”
The work that the company does extends to environmentalism, too: all resorts are accredited by EarthCheck, the green tourism body. Eight Sandals resorts have achieved Master status while others have Platinum, Gold or Silver. The Sandals Foundation is also helping to fund two coral reef nurseries in St Lucia, where 2,000 new corals have been bred to replace damaged reefs.
All of these initiatives help deliver the company’s agency sales team deliver a strong message. The company recently hired two new business development managers in the north of England – taking the team to 11 – and has homeworkers taking calls until 11pm every night.
“We invest a lot in training agents to ensure they understand the Sandals and Beaches products to help sell them to clients,” Thompson explains. “We deliver regular, in-depth face-to-face Sandals and Beaches training masterclasses, provide marketing resources and host agent fam trips. Our Selling Sandals Facebook page is used to promote offers and trade incentives, encourage bookings and share new product updates. We work hard to enhance our systems for agents – we’ve relaunched our booking portal and added new functionalities like a flight price availability calendar. We also have out-of-system-range flights so agents can now sell Sandals and Beaches Resorts packages up to August 2021.”
With April 2019 closing the second year of operation for Unique Caribbean Holidays Ltd – the company’s relatively new in-house tour operator – Thompson reveals that numbers are strong, with 27,500 passengers booked via all channels.
“We are about to enter into our third year as our own tour operation and we’re delighted with how business is continuing to grow, with trade business 15 per cent up,” he says.
“We operate a fantastic rewards programme for agents, which is one of the best in the industry. This includes Sell & Go nights, where agents can earn free nights at our resorts for every single booking made, regardless of room category (one night for Luxury room bookings, two nights per Club room booking and three nights per Butler room booking).
“We also have the ‘Chairman’s Royal Club’ for top selling agents, which celebrates agents who sell more than 100 rooms per year. Members receive extra benefits including getting their Sell & Go holiday requests processed up to one year in advance, the chance to use their Sell & Go nights to add an extra room for immediate family if they are travelling at the same time and Island Routes excursion credits to use in resort.”
That commitment to the trade is boosted by strong product enhancements – the flagship Sandals Montego Bay Resort in Jamaica has just undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation project that includes three new restaurants, a new over-the-water bar and a new over-the-water wedding chapel seating 40 guests. A similar chapel has been opened at Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Jamaica, which seats 56. Given that “romantic” business – weddings, honeymoons, renewals, anniversaries – accounts for 30-40 per cent of UK business, puts it in good stead in a market that could potentially become more turbulent as Brexit develops.
It seems that for many of us, paradise is indeed a Sandals resort.