UK holidaymakers, and their agents, continue to drive bookings and prices at Sandals’ 15 resorts. Ben Ireland spoke to Karl Thompson, UK managing director of the operator

It’s good news for any travel company when your average selling price is going up by 8%.

For Unique Caribbean Holidays Ltd, Sandals Resorts International’s UK tour operation, the figure for the last year reflects a number of trends in the market and changes in the behaviour of its guests.

UK managing director Karl Thompson says this is due not just to a weak pound but also to customers choosing to upgrade flights, pick higher category rooms such as butler suites, and bolt on extras before they travel.

“At the end of last year, we launched Sandals Extras, which includes tours and excursions, spa treatments, candlelit dinners and airport lounges, which are all commissionable for agents, and we’re doing the same thing with weddings,” says Thompson.

On average, customers buy two add-ons, such as an Island Routes tour, an airport lounge, a spa treatment or a private candlelit dinner. Such add-ons are worth around £200-£300 per booking.

Thompson says the success of this model in the UK will prompt Sandals to introduce it in other EU markets.

Sandals Foundation Reading Road Trip

Beyond the beach

The changing nature of the all-inclusive holiday has also played a role. “Where people once wanted to fly and flop on the beach or by the pool, now guests are looking for unique experiences and want to see more of the destination,” says Thompson, who highlighted ziplining in a Jamaican jungle and driving a speedboat around the coast of Saint Lucia among available excursions.

Voluntourism, such as a Reading Road Trip tour through the Sandals Foundation to help local children learn to read, is also growing in popularity. Thompson says Sandals’ twin-centre island-hopping packages have been particularly popular in the last year, as have wellbeing-focused holidays, which Sandals caters for through spas, fitness centres and activities such as beach yoga, aqua aerobics and volleyball.

Meanwhile, weddings, honeymoons, vow renewals and anniversaries, which account for 30%-40% of Sandals’ UK business, are 10% up following agent webinars last autumn.

Weathering the storm

Sandals’ position in the high-end market has helped it to weather some of the Brexit storm, says Thompson.

“Customers who book our higher-category Club and Butler suites are largely unaffected by the uncertainty as they have more disposable income and still prioritise their annual holiday, even though it may cost more than previous years,” he says.

The location of Sandals resorts, outside the EU, also helps, Thompson adds, as holidaymakers seek “peace of mind” outside the eurozone with firms that are fully bonded and secure.

Among Sandals’ biggest achievements of the last year was consolidating in-house tour operator Unique Caribbean Holidays, where business is 15% up.

“Our first year was a huge challenge because we were transitioning into launching our own in-house operator,” he says. “But I am extremely proud of how far we’ve come. We were able to re-secure all the relationships we had with agencies and build new partnerships.”

He said 1,630 agents booked with Unique Caribbean Holidays in its second year, 658 of whom made their first Sandals or Beaches booking.

Sandals Halycon Beach river pool

Agent support

To support agents, Sandals’ business development managers, two of whom have been appointed in the past year, offer a “personal consultancy service”, host fam trips and, in 2018, trained 3,121 agents through masterclasses, in-store training and webinars. Sandals has also relaunched its agent booking portal, expanded its admin team and made flights available two years in advance.

“Agents have always been very important to us,” says Thompson, who claims Sandals’ Sell & Go and Chairman’s Royal Club are among the “best rewards programmes in the industry”. More than 600 agents stayed at a resort through Sell & Go last year, while 150 agents
were hosted at the Cricket World Cup as part of Sandals’ sponsorship of the West Indies team.

New advancements at resorts have given agents more to sell, especially for repeat visitors to the Caribbean.

The Caribbean’s longest river pool has been introduced at Sandals Halcyon Beach in Saint Lucia and 50 suites added at Sandals Royal Barbados, while flagship resort Montego Bay, in Jamaica, has undergone a multimillion-dollar refurbishment including the addition of an Over-the-Water Wedding Chapel, another of which has been added at Ochi Beach Resort, Jamaica.

In Saint Lucia, a fourth Sandals property is planned next door to its Sandals Grande St Lucian Spa & Beach Resort, while the Cap Estate golf course in Saint Lucia, which it acquired last year, will undergo a refurbishment under the guidance of ex-professional Greg Norman.

“There’s always something new and exciting in the pipeline,” says Thompson.

Such enhancements have helped Sandals keep attracting UK customers, its second-largest source market after the US.

A big part of that is down to relationships with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which can now be packaged up with connections in Manchester from Aberdeen, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Exeter, Isle of Man, Inverness, Jersey, Newcastle, Leeds Bradford and Southampton.

Montego Bay, Jamaica

Eco-friendly actions

Sustainability has also been front of mind, says Thompson, who explains: “A lot of travellers are keen to know what action the company they’re booking with is taking to be more environmentally friendly.”

Last year, Sandals removed plastic straws and stirrers from all its resorts, and that is now being extended to Styrofoam. Thompson said eight of its 15 resorts have Master EarthCheck Certification and the others have Platinum, Gold and Silver status.

Its charitable arm, the Sandals Foundation, leads environmental and conservation initiatives including the creation of two coral reef nurseries in Saint Lucia.

The foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and estimates its health, community, conservation and education projects have helped about 850,000 people in the Caribbean and values their impact at $56 million.

MoreSandals and Beaches Resorts recruits BDM for UK

Big Interview: Karl Thompson, managing director, Sandals UK

Q&A: Marsha-Ann Brown, head of romance, Sandals