Big Interview: Karl Thompson, managing director, Sandals UK

Caribbean resort operator’s trade sales have grown on the back of upgrades to resorts since last year’s hurricanes, Karl Thompson tells Ben Ireland

“Unfortunately, hurricanes are a natural occurrence and are part and parcel of life in the Caribbean,” says Sandals and Beaches’ UK managing director Karl Thompson.

The acceptance that the natural disasters are unavoidable has helped the company bounce back from the impact of Maria and Irma last autumn, which between them caused more than 200 fatalities in the Caribbean and tore through homes – and holiday resorts – across many islands.

In fact, its top-performing resort this year – Sandals Grande Antigua – was one of the resorts affected by the hurricanes.

Worst-hit was Beaches Turks and Caicos. Yet 12 months on, the family-focused resort has reopened after three months of repairs “better than ever before”, with new restaurants, new landscaping and upgrades to accommodation and public areas in all five resort villages.

Thompson admits that fewer customers were able to visit the Caribbean in the final quarter of 2017 but says the main challenge had been the immediate handling of customers. He praises the wider travel industry, including airlines, tourist boards and agents, as well as Sandals’ staff, for pulling together to help.

“Each of our resorts have to be built to the necessary standard to withstand violent storms, so we do as much as we can to prepare for events such as these,” he says.

“Our staff on each of the islands and in the UK are all thoroughly trained to manage such events. All you can do is be ready for it, keep all communication channels open and learn from the tough situations, so that each of the learnings are used for next time.”

Trade focus

But Sandals is looking forward, not back, and travel agents are a big part of that plan – they account for more than half of sales to the all-inclusive resorts. “The trade is vitally important to us and always has been,” Thompson says.

The biggest change in recent years has been the introduction of in-house tour operation Unique Caribbean Holidays in April 2017. Trade sales of the operator are 20% up this year and an extra £150,000 has recently been invested in joint sales and marketing campaigns with agencies, which Thompson says has “driven successful return from travel agents”.

Over the last 12 months, Sandals’ commitment to third-party sales has been enhanced through a new air allocation tool and availability calendar to allow agents to view varying prices against preferred dates, a tool which has just been extended to display dates up to mid-2020.

Call centre opening hours have been extended and are now available from 9am to 11pm thanks to a team of homeworkers being taken on. Business development managers have also set up Facebook pages to make themselves available to agents via social media. “This has meant that agents can continue to speak to our expert advisers when they need to,” says Thompson.

Resort trends

After Sandals Grande Antigua, the next best-performing venues have been the two Sandals resorts in Barbados, including Sandals Royal Barbados, which opened in December 2017.

Thompson says: “Barbados will always do well given the fantastic airlift we have from Manchester and London. As a destination, it continues to be a firm favourite with the British market and both of our resorts match the quality that our customers are looking for.”

Sandals operates 16 resorts across six islands: Jamaica, Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada and Saint Lucia. An emerging trend is the twin-centre holiday, with a “strong increase” in holidaymakers booking to stay at two resorts. Barbados and Grenada twin-centres are particularly popular.

“Many people are now choosing to get married at one Sandals resort and then honeymoon at another,” says Thompson.
“They’re often on different islands, so we have seen a trend for island-hopping holidays.”

The romantic market (weddings and honeymoons) represents a third of Sandals’ annual sales from the UK. Between January and July this year, it saw a 19% increase in wedding bookings alone.

“These are highly lucrative bookings for our trade partners,” Thompson adds.

New product

A new wedding offering, Aisle to Aisle, was introduced for couples to customise their celebration. It offers nine ‘inspirations’, which couples can mix and match or tailor; wedding cakes, for example, can be flavoured, gluten-free or vegan. New menu options have been added, as have bespoke videography and photography options, including the use of drones.

Other introductions in the past 12 months include 12 Over-the-Water bungalows at Sandals South Coast Resort in Jamaica and the launch of Sandals Royal Barbados, which has 222 concierge/butler suites. The new resort was a place to try ‘Sandals firsts’, such as a rooftop infinity pool, four-lane bowling alley, two concept restaurants and a barber’s shop.

Meanwhile, Sandals Montego Bay, which opened back in 1981, introduced a conference centre this year and plans are in place to open Sandals’ third Over-the-Water wedding chapel and an Over-the-Water bar, Latitudes, by the end of the year.

Resorts including Sandals Royal Bahamian and Sandals Royal Barbados are also now offering luxury private airport transfers in Rolls-Royces and BMWs.

Also in the pipeline is a fourth resort in Saint Lucia, with building work due to start this year. And Thompson says Sandals “can promise some exciting developments in the coming months”.

Excursion choice

Sandals is keen to generate business for the islands on which it operates and, as such, has evolved its Island Routes excursions programme, which guests typically use twice per stay. Tours include swimming with pigs in the Bahamas and exploring Jamaica in a Mini Cooper.

“We think it is important for guests to experience the very best that each Caribbean island has to offer, including the beautiful surroundings outside of our resorts,” says Thompson.

In a further demonstration of its commitment to the Caribbean, Sandals has signed a deal to sponsor the West Indies cricket team.

Thompson says the message to agents is that Sandals holidays are robust, as demonstrated by its ability to build, grow and innovate – even if resorts are hit by a hurricane.

More: Sandals boss hails success of new in-house tour operation

Two Sandals Jamaica properties to offer luxury airport transfers

Sandals Montego Bay to build over-sea wedding chapel

Sandals promotes Leah Marshall to director of sales


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