The Interview: ‘The Caribbean will bounce back’, says Sandals boss

Managing director of Unique Caribbean Holidays Ltd Karl Thompson speaks to Katie McGonagle

Scoring a new, high-value booking would feel much like winning the lottery to many in the travel trade right now, so it’s easy to understand why there’s a tinge of pride in Thompson’s voice as he explains that for the past two weeks, revenue from new bookings has hit 60% of that in the same period last year.

It’s a sign of the times that this is a cause for celebration rather than a cause for concern, but Thompson insists the prospects for the winter-sun market are positive.

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“I think we will retain the majority of bookings for departures from October onwards,” he says.

“The Caribbean is a key destination for Brits over the winter. Obviously, July, August and September are questionable because we don’t know what the flying schedule is going to look like, but I do believe that we’ll retain the majority of the winter business.

“We’ve seen a healthy increase [over the past two weeks], and that’s on a fraction of the marketing spend we would normally have, so we’re really pleased and it gives us great hope for when there’s more confidence in being able to fly.

“I really do believe that it will bounce back pretty quickly. Clearly it’s not going to be the same and demand will be impacted, but I see it being relatively healthy. We just have to adapt to new ways that consumers want to purchase.”

Paying refunds

When the coronavirus crisis first hit, the priority for tour operator Unique Caribbean Holidays was repatriating clients from the Caribbean, while helping agents process the huge number of refunds and rebookings.

“I chose not to furlough the entire team,” says Thompson. “I kept half of the team on from day one to make sure that operationally and financially, we were set up to protect bookings and protect commission for travel agents on those bookings.

“We’ve had a really good retention level. From the start, we’ve been averaging 65% for bookings retained – that is, moved to another travel date – and over the past four weeks, we’ve been retaining 80% of bookings.

“It’s really encouraging, but it’s an awful lot of work, so I’d like to thank travel agents for their patience in working with us.”

Accommodation rates have been held for customers able to travel within two years of their original booking, provided they were happy to pay any difference in airfare.

Thompson also says the company has now processed all refunds due to direct customers and via agents.

“We have refunded every customer that has wanted a cash refund. We took that stance from day one – we didn’t issue credit notes, it was the full money due back.

“That’s millions of pounds. It’s not to the level of British Airways and Jet2, but in our own terms, it was an awful lot of money that we’ve had to refund.

“But I think that will help our relationships with retail consortia moving forward, because we have been working in the right manner.

“Of course, we’ve encouraged customers to switch to another travel date. But ultimately, if people can’t travel, we have been giving them that refund.”

Reopening resorts

Things are starting to look up for the Caribbean hotel brands.

Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa reopened to guests from the US earlier this month, while several reopenings are planned in Saint Lucia, Grenada and the Bahamas in early July and Turks and Caicos Islands at the end of July.

Initially, just a handful of resorts will reopen, with bookings “consolidated” to those that are up and running, but all properties are due to open by November 1.

Thompson says: “Just getting Antigua open was a big first step, and to see that customers were adapting to the protocols was a huge benefit. We’ve got some great feedback from guests.

“We have planned opening dates in that the resorts will be available to take international guests. The only challenge from the UK is the flying schedule.”

Sandals has also revealed new hygiene protocols across its resorts, with measures such as reducing the number of people on each airport transfer, setting up online check-in to avoid queueing on arrival, and stepping up the cleaning of rooms and public areas.

Thompson says: “All aspects of the resort have been looked at. The [measures] may differ by island; it depends on what the government decides has to happen.

“The face masks issue was a big one because you don’t want to go on holiday and sit on the beach with a face mask on. That’s not going to work, and that’s not what’s happened.

“[In Antigua], people are adapting to it. Some people are wearing them all the time if they want, others at selected times as they’re walking around the resort.”

Working with agents

Over the past week, agents have been invited to take part in virtual megafams around each Sandals and Beaches resort, with 83 agents signing up to the first Jamaica-focused session. During the lockdown, 175 agents have completed Sandals’ online training, and 100 have taken the course for family-focused sister brand Beaches.

“We’ve actually seen agents new to us making bookings for the first time during this period, which is a positive sign,” says Thompson. “We have been proactive in staying open and in touch with travel agents.”

Membership of the group’s Sandals Specialist or Chairman’s Royal Club schemes will be automatically renewed next year without the need to requalify, while free nights earned as part of the Sell & Go rewards programme have also been extended.

“I’d like to thank every single agent we’ve been dealing with over the last three months to protect our business,” says Thompson.

“In return we’ve been protecting their livelihoods and commission. It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship: we both need each other, and ultimately, I think we’ve probably strengthened our relationships even more over the past three months. We will be there to help agents recover as they will be there to help us.”

Unique trends

“We’ve seen people who have already booked honeymoons for next year upgrading to add their wedding – they can’t afford their £20,000 UK wedding any more and at Sandals, it’s free.”

“We’re seeing quite a few multigenerational bookings at Beaches as families look to go away together – last week, we took a £92,000 booking for a family to Beaches Turks & Caicos for next July.”

“Half of our bookings are for premium-class air travel, and this will increase because of the perceived need to social-distance on the aircraft – we’ve seen more people upgrading their flights.”

“Travel agents will be more flexible as homeworking goes from strength to strength – we’re improving things like our online availability calendar to help agents booking in the evenings.”

MoreSandals sponsors West Indies cricket team

Agent wedding: Behind the scenes at Beaches Turks & Caicos

Sandals and Beaches creates virtual tours for consumers in lockdown


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