“People won’t go on a vacation just because it’s safe,” says Kevin Froemming. “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.”
This is a guiding principle for Froemming, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Playa Hotels and Resorts, as he and his team put the finishing touches on plans to reopen Playa’s collection of all-inclusive resorts after months of shutdowns due to COVID-19.
In Mexico and the Caribbean – hot spots for sun-seeking Canadians – borders are slowly reopening to tourists, giving hotels and resorts the steam they need to kickstart their engines.
The coronavirus crisis has forced the hospitality industry back to the drawing board to rethink all aspects of the guest experience.
Hotels are adapting never-before-seen protocols around social distancing, cleanliness and sanitization – key pillars of COVID-19 prevention – to restore consumer confidence in travel safety.
Make no mistake: we’re still in a pandemic and COVID-19 does not (but eventually will) have a vaccine. And for hotels – all-inclusives, for one – offering a safe vacation experience, without compromising the fun-factor, will be a balancing act as companies navigate their new normal.
This is a challenge Playa Hotels and Resorts, which operates 17 luxury properties in Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, has eagerly accepted, albeit carefully.
“The industry is ready to get started again,” Froemming told PAX in a recent video conferencing call, “but we have to do this in a way that doesn’t create a problem. From an industry standpoint, the worst that can happen is for the industry to start up and have a major setback.”
Ready to reopen
Playa will unbolt the doors of all five of its Jamaica-based resorts on July 1st, this being Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall, the Hilton Rose Hall, Jewel Grande Montego Bay Resort and Jewel Paradise Cove Resort.
This, naturally, aligns with the fact that Jamaica reopened its borders to international tourists on June 15th, becoming one of the first major Caribbean destinations to do so.
“Jamaica has been a leader in doing the right things, early on, to make things comfortable,” Froemming noted. “You can see it in the advanced bookings."
The brand’s Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cancun and Hilton Playa del Carmen properties in Mexico will also reopen on July 1st.
Then, on July 15th, it’ll be time to relaunch Panama Jack Resort Cancun and Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta, and Sanctuary Cap Cana.
Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana reopen on July 22nd, followed by Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos (September 24th) and Hilton La Romana and Panama Jack Resorts Playa Del Carmen (October 1st).
What excites Froemming the most about reopening is that travel advisors and guests are going to see “the power of Playa Resorts on full display” as far as operations go.
“We’re going to set a standard at the highest possible level,” Froemming said, noting that each resort will host a special reopening celebration.
Staying Safe at Playa
Leading the charge in Playa’s approach to health and safety is a program called Playa Stay Safe.
Launched on May 4th, 2020, in response to COVID-19, the initiative reflects a modernized approach to cleanliness, sanitization and personal space that covers all aspects of the resort experience.
Some health-focused nips and tucks that guests will notice include:
- The placing of antibacterial gel dispensary stations in high-traffic areas and suites
- The immediate disinfection of all luggage upon arrival
- Limiting guest queues and traffic in lobbies
- Social distancing markers on floors
- Hourly sanitization of high-traffic areas and touch points
- Redesigned seating in all dining, entertainment and poolside venues
(For a complete breakdown of everything, click here).
The buffet will stay
Some protocols will really stand out, such as Playa’s answer to the much-loved (and debated) buffet (a topic of interest within trade circles for several weeks now).
“Buffets will be changing,” Froemming confirmed. “Staff will be in front of buffets, serving guests, with masks on, so customers don’t touch the food but still have access to the bountiful buffets they’re looking for.”
One of the challenges resorts face right now, said Froemming, is finding ways to meet the demand for a high-end breakfast. (“You can’t tell people they can’t have breakfast,” Froemming noted).
How Playa is getting around this one is by opening more of its dining venues for breakfast hour – a costly move, but essential to ensuring a positive guest experience.
Customers will also be looking at ways to practice social distancing while eating, which is why Playa has introduced more ways to offer dishes outside of restaurant settings.
Guests can, for example, now rent a cabana for an entire day and enjoy offerings from Playa’s speciality restaurants.
These cabanas, too, can be booked in advance, digitally, using a seat selection program that lets guests choose their cabana location (in a similar way one would choose a concert seat).
Touchless barcode technology
Creating a touchless environment was also key.
One of Playa’s latest tech investments include the integration of QR codes – those barcodes you point your phone at to reveal information – into all of its properties.
“When you sit down in a restaurant, you’ll be able to scan a QR code and the menu will pop up,” said Froemming.
This eliminates the need for physical menus.
They've also adapted pandemic-era housekeeping (Froemming points to a ‘105-page document’ outlining everything). “Rooms will be cleaned differently,” he said. “Customers will have options if they don’t want someone entering their room.”
Education and up-to-date information about COVID-19, too, will be provided to guests and agents – as it evolves – in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the big trip.
But again, resorts still have to be fun and companies will need to ensure guests are still having a blast (Playa, for example, is keeping its pool bars open).
Another thing that isn’t changing is the unique way Playa’s employees greet all guests.
The brand’s signature hand-on-the-heart gesture and kind bow – an unexpected ode to touchless greetings and social distancing before those things were a thing – is here to stay, Froemming confirmed.
The Hyatt/Hilton effect
There’s also something to be said about Playa’s partnership with Hyatt and Hilton, two global brands that bring decades of experience, and best practices, to the table.
“These are brands that are familiar. People trust them,” Rose Cosentino, vice-president of sales for Canada at Playa Hotels and Resorts, told PAX. “Even adapting to their levels of cleanliness and protocols, we get to inherit some of the best practices in our resorts.”
Hyatt and Hilton, notably, boast globally-recognized certifications around cleanliness and brand collaborations (Hilton, for example, has a partnership with RB, maker of Lysol and Dettol).
That packs a powerful punch in terms of how Playa can position itself in a pandemic-stricken market that’s never been more aware of personal hygiene.
“Coming out of this, you’re going to see more innovation,” Froemming explained. “[Hotels and resorts] will have no choice but to innovate.”
Back to square one?
While health and cleaning protocols are necessary, even if temporary, the question of setbacks and losses due to COVID-19 remains.
The pandemic came in like Miley on a wrecking ball, hitting the industry hard, shuttering hopes of bringing new products to market.
It was only in January that Playa’s luxurious Hyatt Ziva/Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana, fresh off a November opening in the Dominican Republic, was hosting the company’s annual Spotlight Awards in honour of the trade.
By March 31st, operations were temporarily suspended.
Fast-forward to now and there’s a lingering sense of having to, well, start over.
“I feel like that all the time,” Froemming said. “But it never bothers me. The revenue loss and effect it had on our people, and the stress, bothered me more.”
While some Canadian agents toured it, Hyatt Ziva/Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana never truly got the launch Playa had hoped for. “So we’re going to do it again,” Froemming said.
A "shakeup" is coming
There are misconceptions, too. Playa’s sale of Jewel Dunn's River Beach Resort and Spa and Jewel Runaway Bay Beach Resort and Waterpark in Jamaica last May, for instance, had nothing to do with financial woes related to pandemic, the team contests.
Discussions of the sale were “happening long before” COVID-19, Cosentino told us. And: “We didn’t see those resorts becoming Hyatts or Hiltons,” Froemming added.
Still, all this having been said, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed Playa’s ambition to grow.
One of the biggest “shakeups” the hotel industry will see, said Froemming, is that owners who were successful before the pandemic hit may now be looking at new ventures and alternatives.
“If we’re going to grow, it’s going to be through a branded resort,” said Froemming.
As for predicting when Playa’s revenue will return to the levels it once was, it all comes down to following the lift.
“There hasn’t been a clear path in terms of when air lift is going to resume in our destinations,” said Froemming. “I don’t think anybody knows what the recovery timeline will be.”
“We got one shot…”
One thing Froemming and Cosentino do know is that customers, in North America particularly, are “resilient” when it comes to using their hard-earned vacation time and therefore will return.
Families, destination weddings and millennials, they said, will likely be first in the door.
The opportunity for travel advisors, here, is to confidently sell a product that will guarantee safety “without sacrificing quality or fun,” said Froemming.
“Don’t sell on price. Sell on quality,” said Froemming. “That’s what customers are going to be looking for.”
Sure, Playa will participate in promotions “to stay competitive,” but the long-term plan is to offer quality experiences. Not cheap prices.
“It’s more important to be able to deliver that experience than deliver a cheap price,” said Froemming. “We got one shot to get this right in the travel industry, and travel agents, more than ever, are going to be held accountable for who they book these products through.”
Playa has stayed connected with Canada’s travel trade throughout the crisis, from hosting webinars, to posting supportive videos to even giving some agents the opportunity to gift a Playa vacation to frontline workers in Canadian and U.S.-based communities.
The company also recognizes the long hours advisors worked, without pay, to care for their clients when the pandemic hit.
“I think everyone has seen the value that [travel agents] bring to the table,” Cosentino said, noting how the trade has opportunity to be the “live person” that can help navigate clients through all of the changes taking place in the industry.
Playa is ready to move forward, but it can’t do it alone.
“Without travel agents, we aren’t where we are today,” Froemming said. “We’re looking to them now, more than ever.”
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