“No guts, no story.”
Karisma Hotels and Resorts’ brand message in 2019 packed a powerful punch, setting travel partners up for success as 2020 was shaping up to be a big year for the vacation business.
But no one in travel could predict the devastation brought on by COVID-19, which, for a large portion of last year, brought global tourism to a near halt.
But demand for travel – in U.S. and Latin American markets, in particular – is back, Karisma sales leaders noted this week at the 14th annual Gourmet Inclusive Vacation Consultant Sales and Marketing Forum Awards (GIVC) in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region.
And the positive impact agents have had on driving the industry’s recovery has not gone unnoticed.
As Marilyn Cairo, vice-president of global sales at Karisma, told more than 200 top-earning producers on Tuesday (Sept 28), the phrase “no guts, no story” still applies to “everybody in the room” who has done their part to revive their industry.
“2021 is the recovery year we didn’t see coming,” Cairo said, addressing agents in a glitzy theatre from the main stage of Nickelodeon Hotels and Resorts Riviera Maya, a five-star, family-focused, all-inclusive property that opened on Aug. 1.
The cartoon-infused, ultra-glam hotel was homebase for this week’s GIVC festivities, which PAX has been covering on location.
It’s a good time to talk strategy, which Cairo shared with agents in a passion-filled presentation on Tuesday that included a breakdown of Karisma and Grupo Lomas’ “gourmet-inclusive” hotel portfolio and brand power, new hotels that are opening soon and tools that agents can use to rebuild business.
Adding to Cairo’s engaging stage presence, there were impromptu dances featuring iconic Nickelodeon characters, such as SpongeBob SquarePants (and friends), Dora the Explorer, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and others, as well as a live acoustic performance of Jimmy Buffett's “Margaritaville.”
The Margaritaville brand, for one, is something to watch this fall and winter season.
A new five-star Margaritaville Island Reserve Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic will bring the “it’s 5 o'clock somewhere” brand to ultra-luxe Juanillo Beach on Nov. 1.
The all-new Margaritaville St. Somewhere Punta Coco, Holbox Island by Karisma is also opening this December. With just 39 suites, this boutique resort, surrounded by natural beauty, is set to redefine laid-back island living.
It will be the first in Margaritaville's new boutique hotel collection St. Somewhere.
“Margaritaville is fun, it’s a state of mind,” Cairo said, noting an agent in the room who booked a group at the soon-to-be-unveiled Cap Cana resort without their clients even seeing it.
Live music, s’mores parties, sunrise breakfasts, margarita-infused popsicles, “Parrot Heads” (loyal fans of Jimmy Buffet and the lifestyle he promotes) and floating taco bars (yes, it’s a thing. A big thing) is the Margaritaville way.
Do agents have clients who embody this so-called “flip-flop” state of mind?
“The answer is you do,” Cairo told the audience. “We all do.”
GIVC attendees – in addition to experiencing Nickelodeon Riviera Maya, a 280-suite, oceanfront resort with swim-up pools in every room, themed penthouses and a sprawling “Aqua Nick” waterpark (a destination in and of itself) – got to taste Margaritaville Island Reserve Riviera Cancun for themselves after Tuesday’s presentation.
Was a floating taco bar spotted in the pool? You bet there was.
Canada on the scene
While Canada, due to its strict travel restrictions and delayed vaccine rollout, still lags behind the U.S. in its travel recovery – a point Cairo acknowledged on Tuesday – a contingent of experienced Canadian agents were still on the scene at GIVC 2021 this week.
“If there’s any silver lining to come out of this terrible time, it’s that people have learned that you must use a travel professional,” Sabrina Filatow, retail sales director for Canada at Karisma Hotels and Resorts, told PAX on Tuesday in the “Bikini Bottom Bar,” a beachside hangout with glowing jellyfish-shaped light fixtures at Nickelodeon Riviera Maya.
(This laid-back, oceanfront venue is inspired by the undersea city of “Bikini Bottom” where SpongeBob SquarePants and his friends live).
“Travel agents are making a difference,” Filatow said.
The pros who were invited to GIVC 2021 included agents who participated in the 2019 event and others who have demonstrated “dedication and growth” during the pandemic, Filatow said.
“They’re an important part of our brand as we grow,” Filatow said. “They are our strategic partners for life.”
Wedding groups are selling
For Suri Pillai, who is new to selling Karisma, attending GIVC for the first time allowed him to form relationships with reps that “resonate” with him as he builds an exciting new business.
Prior to the pandemic, Pillai owned and operated Discount Coach Tours, which specializes in coach tours and river cruises in Europe, Asia and Africa.
That business “died” when COVID-19 hit, Pillai said, which forced him to rethink his business model.
After consulting with tour operators and hoteliers, Pillai switched gears last year and jumped into the destination wedding business.
In August of 2020, he launched “Wed IN Destination” (Wedindestination.com), an online travel retailer.
“We launched on Aug. 31 at 5:00 p.m., and by 6:59 p.m., we had our first lead. In under two hours,” Pillai told PAX.
With the help of a small team, Pillai now has 42 wedding groups booked – representing some 1,800 people – who will start travelling this November, through to March next year, and 22 per cent of that business is with Karisma, he said.
“It makes me nervous because COVID is still evolving, but I’m going for it. They’re booked,” Pillai said.
On choosing partnerships: “The brands I work with are now important to me,” Pillai added, saying that GIVC has “set the bar really high” as far as conferences go.
“I can’t do this job without actually going to the properties”
Vanessa Martinez of Unforgettable Escapes, too, had to modify her operations during the pandemic to keep her travel business afloat.
When her Canadian clients stopped travelling, she formed a partnership with the Jamaica Wedding Professionals Association, which enabled her to provide travel services to planners on the island.
That strategic move has since expanded to the U.S. market and Martinez, now, has exclusive partnerships with wedding planners in Texas, New York and New Jersey.
“It really made a difference throughout pandemic,” Martinez told PAX at GIVC, which marks her first trip since COVID-19 hit.
Being in destination again, watching sunrises on the beach, and interacting with likeminded colleagues has been “really emotional,” she said.
“Although I made changes to my business in order to survive, coming to destination is something that was missing,” Martinez said. “I can’t do this job without actually going to the properties.”
Being invited by Karisma to attend GIVC, even if Canadian agents haven’t had the same opportunities as U.S. agents have had, reflects a type of partnership that Martinez values.
“They realize the situation we’re in,” she said, expressing appreciation for Sra. Dolores Lopez Lira and Sr. Jose Luis Martinez, the highly-respected founders of Mexico-based Grupo Lomas, which owns several properties in Karisma's portfolio.
“What they give back to their country is so special and incredible. You don’t always see big corporations do what they do. They teach by example. They don’t just say things, they actually do it,” Martinez said. “They are so willing and open to working with us.”
Her message to all the Canadian travel agents working in this “incredible industry?”
“It saddens me that we’ve been hit so hard, but hang in there,” Martinez said. “It’s going to get better.”
And the awards go to….
GIVC 2021 wrapped last night (Sept. 29) with an awards dinner and ceremony at El Dorado Royale, where awards in 36 categories were distributed.
Among the Canadian agents who received awards were Deanna Beatty of Romance and Foodie Travel (who was recognized as a top Nickelodeon seller) and Sierra Aquino of Wellness by the Waves, who won in the “Top Selling Agent” for Canada category.
Aquino, unfortunately, couldn’t make it to GIVC, so Filatow and Cairo accepted the award on her behalf.
“It’s a true honour to have the recognition and passion for a market that has gone through so much,” Filatow said in an acceptance speech, noting how she, herself, hadn’t left Canada for almost two years until now.
Aquino, alongside other Canadians agents, have been resilient and “fighting tooth and nail” to get their business back, Filatow told the audience.
She also noted that Aquino once called her to say that the year that COVID hit was meant to be her top year.
“It’s a real honour to be here in her absence to accept this award on her behalf,” Filatow said.