“People won’t go on a vacation just because it’s safe,” Kevin Froemming, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Playa Hotels and Resorts told PAX, via video chat, in June, just weeks before the company began reopening its all-inclusive resorts after months of shutdowns due to COVID-19.
“They’re going to go on a vacation because it’s safe and because they’re going to be able to relax and have a great time.”
Guaranteeing a safe vacation without compromising quality and fun is, indeed, a balancing act for hotels as they kickstart operations amid the global pandemic.
But it’s a tightrope that Playa, which operates 18 all-inclusive luxury resorts in Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, is prepared to walk as the company welcomes back visitors with new and enhanced health and safety protocols.
Make no mistake: in the face of rising COVID-19 infections and government-issued advisories, travellers have never been more nervous to pack their bags.
But Playa, supported by a program called Playa Safe Stay, is confident that it has the tools and talent to put customers at ease while delivering safe, high-end experiences, just as it did before COVID-19.
It’s a promise the brand doesn’t take lightly.
“We’ve got one shot to get this right…” as Froemming told us in that interview over the summer. “…Travel agents, more than ever, are going to be held accountable for who they book these products through.”
On location in the Dominican Republic
With Froemming’s words in mind, PAX went straight to the source, visiting one of Playa’s reopened resorts – Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana – as part of a recent 24-day tour of the Dominican Republic.
The aim of our stay from Nov. 10-12 was to get a first-hand look at what all-inclusive vacations look like during the pandemic and see just how Playa’s twin-property has modified its operations to keep guests safe.
Hyatt Ziva (for all ages) and Hyatt Zilara (for adults) in Cap Cana (a posh, gated community located about 15 minutes from Punta Cana International Airport) reopened on July 1 following a four-month-long closure.
The mirroring, U-shaped property, which was built from scratch, is the latest addition to Playa’s family of all-inclusive brands – it opened in November 2019 following a two-and-a-half-year construction schedule.
In fact, it was just last January that PAX first toured the sexy compound, which boasts 750 ocean-facing suites (375 in each section, including swim-ups), 12 wow-worthy restaurants, and a 14,000 sq. ft. fitness facility, at Playa’s annual Spotlight Awards.
Who would have known, then, that the new build, still riding high on its launch, would have to close so abruptly due to a global pandemic? It’s a bitter pill that everyone working in the travel industry has had to swallow.
But take our word for it: the team at Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana isn’t bitter one bit.
“We’re happy to have customers back again,” Paola Gómez, the site’s director of sales and marketing, tells us. “The grounds are prettier than when we [first] opened. We’re ready.”
While everyone is “missing our Canadian market,” there’s an optimistic, moving-on attitude among the Playa team in Cap Cana.
And true to Gómez’s words, the grounds at Hyatt Ziva/Zilara have never looked better.
Gardens, shrubs, flowers and palm trees have grown up during the pandemic, giving the property a fuller, lusher, and greener feel.
The property’s cenote-inspired spa, Larimar, is also now open and running, offering a cave-like experience that has its own sky-lit lagoon, a quartz therapy room and Dominican’s first Himalayan Salt Lounge.
There's a wild waterpark – located at the front of the building, so it doesn’t compromise the ocean view – which boasts a lazy river with grotto cascade, water cannons and seven slides.
The property’s teen zone, “Time Capsule,” doubles as a hangout for action heroes like Deadpool, Batman and Wonder Woman; the kids club, “The Lost City of Anac Pac,” has its own treehouse (if only it allowed adults!)
But it’s Ziva and Zilara’s drop-dead gorgeous, five-acre beachfront – Juanillo Beach – that brings everyone together.
This prestigious and safe coastline of white sand, bendy palm trees and Windex-blue Caribbean water is, arguably, one of the most photogenic beachscapes in all of the Dominican Republic.
A “modernized approach” to cleanliness
But guests are absolutely returning, gradually.
The Ziva and Zilara sections in Cap Cana hovered at 20 to 30 per cent occupancy during our stay, with Americans and local Dominicans making up the bulk of bookings.
The experience, now, is supported by Playa Safe Stay, a “modernized approach” to cleanliness, sanitization and personal space, that was unveiled in May.
The program features a long list of pandemic-era must-dos, such as placing sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas, disinfecting luggage and shoes upon arrival, checking temperatures at entry points, cleaning surfaces routinely, and requesting masks in common areas.
Social distancing is promoted using markers on floors in lobbies and elevators, by spacing out furniture and by installing glass shields at check-in desks and at buffet stations.
“We’re focused on keeping everything sanitized without effecting the guest experience,” says Gómez.
Frankly, if familiar and necessary COVID-prevention protocols shock you to the point where it ruins your vacation, then you shouldn’t be travelling in the first place.
Easy-to-follow measures are to be expected, and respected, by now. No one can say they’re “new” to the pandemic.
The guests we observed at Hyatt Ziva/Zilara Cap Cana, for the most part, seemed to be just fine with following new rules and procedures.
A creative spin on pandemic-era service
But there’s things that Playa does, beyond traditional methods, that puts a creative spin on pandemic-era service.
There’s the facial-recognition button, for one.
Essentially, all staff, in addition to masks, wear buttons that display a picture of their face, alongside a description of their mood, so you have a better sense of who you’re interacting with – beyond the face coverings.
It’s a simple, yet effective, move that makes Playa’s “service from the heart” all the more personable.
QR codes – barcodes you point your phone at to reveal information – are utilized everywhere, from restaurants (where menus are digital) to the check-in desk (to replace paper pamphlets).
These codes also assist with reserving cabanas, for example.
Safe dining, from a distance
Paper menus in restaurants are still available, though, if you’d like one.
The diverse dining experiences at Hyatt Ziva and Zilara Cap Cana are still incredible, despite a few minor adjustments.
For instance, given the low occupancy, the restaurants aren't open all at once.
They rotate days, so while you may not be able to dine on Italian, French-Polynesian, Indian, Caribbean, Mongolian-Asian or Paleo-friendly fare all in one night (yes, between the two sections, you can access all of these flavours, and more), you can expect new options the very next day.
When you arrive at a restaurant, you sanitize your hands and wait a few minutes while your table is sanitized and prepared. For the safety of others, it’s advised to wear a mask until you’re seated.
Pre-set tables are a thing of the past now – napkins, placemats and glasses, for example, are set as groups arrive. Tables are spaced out, too. Venues never feel crowded.
Silverware is also disinfected and now sealed in a plastic package, which you need to rip open at every sitting.
It’s an extra step, yes, but nothing – seriously, nothing – has touched that fork and knife before you have.
“Room service is a whole new experience”
The contemporary, spacious, colour-zapped suites at Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana now come with a Safe Stay room seal as proof that rooms have been sanitized, and have remained untouched, leading up to your arrival.
“Room service is a whole new experience,” adds Gómez.
The room service at Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana was always stellar as kind staff, prior to COVID-19, would enter your room and set a pleasant dining space for eating.
And the staff are still very kind, except they now deliver food in a sealed takeout bag, leaving it on a stool outside your door while standing from a safe distance.
“It’s almost like Uber Eats,” as Gómez puts it.
The cutlery that’s included is wooden (bamboo), offering an environmentally-friendly disposable option.
The new delivery format, while it sounds impersonal on paper, is actually a welcome change.
No longer do you have to scramble to put clothes on when there's a knock at the door and room service arrives. A friendly peek around the doorframe is all that’s required.
It’s just like being at home.
And guests, actually, can make Ziva and Zilara their home, if they want to, through Playa’s Extended Stay – Work and Learn From Paradise program, which offers long-term stays at reduced rates (starting at $129 USD/per person) and perks, such as laundry service, spa treatments and personal training sessions.
But whether you call it a holiday or a workcation, a safe stay at Hyatt Ziva or Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana guarantees breezy relaxation and a good time, as always.
Temperature checks, hand sanitizer and masks, while necessary and important, will be the last things on your mind.
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