Tuesday,  November 24, 2020  9:55 am

“Sanitizer is the new welcome cocktail”: 12 things we learned at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana's reopening

“Sanitizer is the new welcome cocktail”: 12 things we learned at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana's reopening
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Luis Nuñez shows me his hands and says his fingers are “punctured.”

It’s reopening day at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana, and after a flashy morning of cutting ribbons, big speeches and mask-to-mask mingling, Nuñez, a regional commercial director at AMResorts, is taking a timeout to explain what it’s like operating a chain of luxury resorts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reopening of this particular Secrets, for starters, is long overdue.

The DR eased entry restrictions for tourists on July 1, but the adults-only property that sits on 700-plus yards of divine beachfront was closed for nearly seven months just after finishing a $36 million U.S.-dollar reno in December 2019.

The work included adding 90 suites (bringing the total to 639), new dining spaces and bars and two new pools – a 52-metre-long Olympic-sized pool, for one, to compliment a lazy river oasis and connected infinity pool.

The new lazy river oasis at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana. (Pax Global Media)

Which brings us to here, a pandemic-era interview that's unfolding just beyond Secret’s chic and marble-ous lobby, in a swanky bar space, where the attention has turned to Nuñez’s fingertips.

All staff at AMResorts, he tells me, must now undergo a COVID-19 rapid test – a finger prick, once every 15 days.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Nuñez assures me, as I squint my eyes and focus on his fingers, expecting to see some serious aftermath of regular pinpricks.

(Nuñez tells me he’s just being dramatic. His fingers look fabulous, I can assure you).

Luis Nuñez, regional commercial director at AMResorts (who removed his mask for this photo).

But make no mistake: rapid testing the staff at Secrets, and at all resorts in the AMResorts family, is just the beginning.

The company, which operates eight brands (Secrets being the adults-only, “Unlimited Luxury” arm), has introduced a long list of COVID-19 prevention methods to meet the expectations of travellers and, above all, keep guests safe.

AMResorts’ CleanComplete Verification program, a “360-degree,” third-party approach to elevating hygiene and quality, outlines all the new protocols (there’s a lot, but you can view them here). 

But what does this mean, exactly? 

PAX is reporting on location in the Dominican Republic this week, investigating just how these measures play out and what impact they might have on the all-inclusive experience. 

We're also getting a closer look at Dominican's recovery strategy for tourism. 

Here’s 12 things we observed, and learned, during our stay at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana from Nov. 4-8. 

1. Reopening Secrets was important. Even the country’s President showed up.

The Dominican Republic closed its borders on March 23. AMResorts suspended operations shortly after and, as a result, many workers were let go. 

“It was a horrible process,” Nuñez recalls. “We went from bustling to being empty.” 

While its grand reopening was on Nov. 5, Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana, unofficially, reopened on Oct. 31. 

The relaunch has since led to re-employed staff, a gradual return of guests – mostly from the United States – and a newfound sense of optimism.

From left: René Grullón, Executive VP: Commercial, Banco Popular Domincano; Paola Rainieri, President of the Association of Hotels and Tourism of the Dominican Republic; Alex Zozaya, Executive Chairman, Apple Leisure Group; David Collado, Minister of Tourism of the Dominican Republic; President of the Dominican Republic Luis Abinader; Enrique Martinón García, President, Grupo Martinón; Alejandro Reynal, CEO, Apple Leisure Group; Samuel Pereyra, Banco de Reservas Administrator; and Martina Pepén, Governor of La Altagracia at the ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana.

Seeing Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader Corona unveil a plaque and cut the ribbon on Thursday, alongside officials, such as David Collado, Minister of Tourism, truly defined the role resorts play in a Caribbean country’s recovery. 

“Today, our country is a very safe country for tourists,” the President said, addressing travel agents in a virtual address. “Our government has put in place all the mechanisms that we have at our disposal so that all tourists from around the world can come and enjoy a unique experience.”

From left: Gabriel Felip Cotter, Group President, AMResorts® Global Operations; Luis Abinader Corona, President of the Dominican Republic. (Pax Global Media)

2. Sanitizer is the new welcome cocktail

At Secrets Royal Beach (and at every other AMResorts property), get used to lubing up your hands with alcohol-based sanitizing gel.

Staff squirt it, by the globful, each time you enter the grounds, or specific areas, such as restaurants, gyms and kids clubs.

Alcohol-based sanitizing gel is offered at entry points everywhere. (Pax Global Media)

After all that has happened since March, this a familiar routine. Hand-sanitizing stations are everywhere, luggage carts are routinely disinfected. Staff are wiping down tables.

There’s even an ultraviolet “microwave” used to disinfect room keys (or anything else you want zapped).

The room-cleaning procedures are very rigorous. I got a knock at the door and was greeted by three men wearing backpack tanks that looked like the Ghostbusters’ proton packs (it was a disinfecting team, in fact, conducting a “RoomCheck Verification.”)

It sounds overboard, but this goes a long way in feeling comfortable these days.

After a seven-month study, AMResorts found that “finding a good deal” is no longer the main driver for travellers, Nuñez explains.  

“It’s hospital-degree hygiene protocols,” he says.

This may explain why there’s a disinfecting mat for shoes at lobby entrances. Plexiglass separates front desk staff and bartenders from guests. And, of course, there’s non-touch temperature checks at key entry points.

Don’t worry, they’re still serving welcome cocktails in the lobby (but until you sanitize those paws, no sips for you).

3. People are vacationing in bubbles

During our stay, the resort was operating at roughly 20 per cent occupancy, which made social distancing from others really easy (Capacity, currently, is capped at 60 per cent).

One observation: small groups and couples appeared to form personal bubbles and stuck to familiar areas. The same faces were often spotted in the same places, by the pool or on a terrace, each day.

Pro tip: booking Preferred Club suites grants access to exclusive pools, amenities, and private lounges, which can assist in staying away from crowds and carving out your own piece of paradise.

The Preferred Club Lounge. (Supplied)

4. There’s full. And there’s pandemic full.

Capacity at restaurants is capped so people can spread out. 

This, occasionally, can sometimes hinder your ability to get into eateries at peak hours because venues are “full” (pandemic full – meaning, there’s empty tables, but they can’t seat you there because it isn't safe). Most resorts are doing this.

So, it’s advised to reserve a spot in advance. (But still, even with a little wait, everyone is eventually accommodated).

The French cuisine at Bordeaux, ps, is ooh-la-lovely.

The French cuisine at Bordeaux restaurant is ooh-la-lovely. (Supplied)

There are physical menus, if you want one, but QR codes (barcodes you point your phone at to reveal content, like menu items and reservation systems) are the new norm.

And, oh, the buffet at fountain-facing La Riviera Restaurant still standsexcept it's now touchless (staff serve you). 

The buffet at La Riviera Restaurant still stands, except the staff will serve you. (Pax Global Media)

5. Masks are hard to enforce (but people are trying)

All staff at Secrets (and all AMResorts sites) take masks seriously. They wear their masks indoors and outdoors, at all times. This was consistent. 

Guests complete a health declaration form at check-in, confirming a virus-free wellbeing, and agree to follow prevention methods, including the recommendation to wear a mask in common areas when possible.

Staff at Secrets (and all AMResorts sites) take mask wearing seriously. (Pax Global Media)

Most guests wore masks when walking from A to B (and in a resort with low occupancy, it was easy to space out from those who, at any point, were seen not wearing masks).

There are social distancing markers on the ground in various locations.

There are social distancing markers on the ground. (Pax Global Media)

Some guests improvised when in a pinch. One woman had a towel wrapped around her lower face while leaving a pool area, signalling a creative solution (and possible fashion trend) to covering her mouth.

Masks are an important layer of protection. Everyone needs to wear them. But people will, by nature, slip up. And most won’t wear masks when eating or drinking.

The takeaway: people were trying and doing their best.

6. Rapid testing is the new dove release for weddings

To think of all the upgrades that groups were negotiating a year ago: coffee service, projector access; dove releases at weddings.

Now? Rapid testing included!

“A lab comes to the hotel,” says Nuñez of the latest upgrade for meetings, weddings and large groups.

Will every hotel guest soon receive a rapid test? Nuñez hopes there’s a vaccination before we get to that point.

Weddings at Secrets, now, also include add-ons such as PPE equipment and customized masks that say “bride” and “groom.”

7. Dominican is trying to get rapid testing approved for Canadians

One of the biggest travel barriers for Canadians (with exception to Albertans, maybe) is Canada's 14-day quarantine order.

The Dominican Government is currently in talks with Canada about providing free rapid tests to tourists so they have one to present when they return home (with the goal of reducing quarantine time).

Dominican is currently in talks with Canada about providing free rapid tests to tourists. (Pax Global Media)

The DR receives more than 900,000 Canadian tourists annually in normal conditions, so this development could play a role in Canada’s travel trade recovery.

Your move, Mr. Trudeau.

8. The luxury resorts are doing well

“There’s an advantage to being a luxury property,” says Nuñez, noting how of all the AMResorts properties that have reopened, it’s the ones charging the highest daily rate that are performing well.

All Junior Suites (non-Preferred Club) at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana (Supplied)

Finding the right staff-to-guest ratio is still complicated, however, as occupancy fluctuates.

“Most properties are just trying to cut losses and break even,” says Nuñez. 

9. Travellers are covered just for showing up

As part of the Dominican Republic’s Responsible Tourism Recovery Plan, tourists arriving on commercial flights and staying a hotel receive free travel assistance that includes coverage for medical emergencies related to COVID-19 until Dec. 31, 2020 (for now).

Has Secrets Royal Beach reported a case? “Not yet,” says Nuñez.

But the airport in Punta Cana has and, just like the protocols at hotels, infected guests are isolated in designated rooms and cared for at local hospitals – paid for by the government. (Click here to learn more). 

10. COVID testing at Punta Cana airport happens at random

Travellers to Dominican must submit a Traveler’s Health Affidavit (American Airlines, in our case, gave us this document in paper form at Charlotte Douglas airport before departure). 

Visitors do not need to show a negative PCR to enter the country. But three to ten per cent of arrivals are tested, at random, via aleatory breath test. There are thermal cameras, too, checking temperatures. 

Visitors do not need to show a negative PCR to enter the Dominican Republic. (Pax Global Media)

PAX wasn’t selected for testing. In fact, recognizing that there are Caribbean countries with stricter rules (ie: some require a negative test upon arrival), the whole process felt rather relaxed.

There’s a sense that the Dominican Republic has accepted the fact that this virus is going to be around for a while, and it’s calculating its investments, risks and strategies accordingly by using the layers of protection that we've grown accustomed to. 

“If [COVID-19] is not caught at the airport, it will be caught at the hotel or at some point in the vacation process,” says Nuñez.

For more on Dominican Republic’s entry requirements, click here.

11. Tourism is improving, but people are stressed

The first 25 days of October showed an uptick in Dominican’s tourism numbers. August saw just 12 per cent of total tourists compared to 2019 (by October, it was at 24 per cent, also compared to last year). In September, it was up by 50 per cent.

The country has a long way to go, President Abinader Corona acknowledged. But there’s a bigger worry at play here.

“There’s no way we’ll be able to keep these hotels open if the current markets that are feeding us, now, go into lockdown,” says Nuñez, referring to the U.S. specifically. “I try to stay positive, but it’s concerning.”

“I have no control over what Boris Johnson does in the UK, what the White House does, or Mr. Trudeau.”

12. Resorts are safe when you have good staff 

The real heroes in this tale are the patient and professional staff at Secrets and AMResorts. Just as tourists have had to relearn how to travel, resort employees have had to relearn their trade and apply the latest training in pandemic-era hospitality. 

The staff at Secrets Royal Beach Punta Cana deserve praise. (Pax Global Media)

They squirt your sanitizer, they check your temperature, they answer your questions. They set the example. 

Safety isn't just a set of rules. It's also about how you feel. How someone makes you feel. 

Travellers will get tourism in the Dominican Republic to a secure place, but it's the good people on the ground who will lead it there. 

PAX is reporting on location in the Dominican Republic all week long. Stay tuned for more exclusive stories, updates and details. 


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