Standing among a small group of bellboys at the entrance of the Royalton Bavaro Resort and Spa in the Dominican Republic, Alejandro Garcia looks out at the hotel’s front parking lot in awe.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen cars,” says the sales manager at Blue Diamond Resorts, the hotel division of Sunwing Travel Group.
It’s Sunday, November 8th about one week after the 730-suite, all-inclusive property reopened its doors since suspending operations on March 19 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tourists are gradually returning to this Sunwing Travel Group-owned hotel, a popular, new property that opened just over 2.5 years ago.
On this day, in particular, the resort has a pre-pandemic feel (meaning, there’s people) as local Dominicans gather, in small groups, by sparkling pools and on a buttery-smooth beachfront to celebrate a national holiday and long weekend.
Many are wearing masks in common areas and when entering restaurants.
Here, mask-wearing is mandatory for all staff, and Royalton’s policy is to politely invite all guests to wear a face covering in public areas.
The resort is at nearly 60 per cent occupancy, the limit, but when it’s not a holiday weekend here in Dominican Republic, that number drops to roughly 30 to 40 per cent.
Nonetheless, despite there being a global pandemic, the vibe is merry.
“The feedback has been positive,” Garcia tell us. “Our all-inclusive offer is the same. We want clients to have the same things they were used to [before the pandemic] in terms of service and experiences.”
Protocols that don't impact vacations
PAX is currently on location in the Dominican Republic, getting an on-the-ground look at pandemic-era travel and how resorts are adjusting their operations to meet the safety needs of travellers.
The family-friendly attractions at Royalton Bavaro, for one, are up and running – this, referring to the property’s really, really long lazy river, mini golf course, splash pad for kids and Flow Rider surf simulator (one of three in all of Punta Cana).
These amenities – in addition to restaurants and select excursions – are open with strict protocols in place, such as capacity limits, spaced-out seating, mask wearing, temperature checks, plexiglass separating staff and guests, sanitizing stations and touchless technology.
“There’s a lot of things clients do not see,” adds Garcia, referring to the countless hours of behind-the-scenes work that goes into reopening a resort during a pandemic. “We’re working to ensure these protocols do not impact the vacation experience.”
Using technology to its advantage
The resort is using technology to its advantage, now more than ever, to make the vacation process as seamless as possible.
For example: Royalton’s online check-in option (a service that was available before the pandemic) lets guests register for their stay before arriving.
Another pre-pandemic feature (that’s helping matters now) is that guests can order room service from the television in their room, which, in turn, simplifies things.
You make your selection from an on-screen menu and your meal will arrive at your door in 30 to 40 minutes (the food is pre-packed in a takeout bag to eliminate touch points and possible contamination).
“We’ve always been a technology-oriented chain, and that has made it easier to adapt to this new reality,” says Garcia.
Everything with Sunwing is digital now. You won’t see any binders, maps or books in the rooms or paper hand-outs upon arrival these days.
One of the latest offerings to launch is a virtual concierge service that customers can activate at the Sunwing booth at Punta Cana airport.
By scanning a QR code using your phone, you can connect with all Sunwing reps in destination via text or email for info on tours, the destination and the check-in/check-out process, reducing the need for human interaction.
(But in-person service is still available, if required).
The Canadians return
American sun-seekers make up a bulk of reservations at Royalton Bavaro, but now, Canadians are entering into the mix.
On Friday, Nov. 6, Sunwing resumed direct service from Toronto and Montreal to Punta Cana International Airport, marking the company’s big return after more than 230 days of grounding its aircraft.
Sunwing has one flight from YYZ and YUL to PUJ on Fridays and one from YYZ on Sundays. (The company has also resumed service from YYZ and YUL to Cuncun and Montego Bay).
Helen McErlean, a sales and customer experience manager for Sunwing Travel Group in the Dominican Republic, recalls the moment when that first flight from Toronto landed in Punta Cana.
“It was a great day for us,” McErlean tells PAX. “Sunwing is a very big part of our operation here [and] the loads are looking good. It's more than 50 per cent on every flight coming in, with next weekend looking even more positive.”
For Garcia, seeing Canadians return to Dominican is a sign of “hope and happiness” as it represents a significant step in the country’s road to recovery.
“It means that [Sunwing] is betting on this destination, they’re betting on tourism,” says Garcia. “We really needed this.”
Click here to read what Sunwing guests think of the experience so far and to see pictures of Royalton's protocols in action.
“We’re looking forward”
At Sunwing Travel Group, COVID-19 prevention starts with a program called Safe With Sunwing, a company-wide commitment to health and safety that covers all aspects of the travel experience.
While Sunwing’s operations aren’t as big as they used to be (many employees, sadly, have been let go – temporarily, in some cases), there’s a sense of optimism in the air when McErlean speaks about the direction the company is going.
“We’re starting this business back up again,” she tells PAX. “We’re looking forward.”
“There is a desire to travel and we want to give the assurance that we are ready here in destination.”
Under the wing of its program, Sunwing sanitizes its fleet with an AEGIS Microbe Shield – a treatment that provides antimicrobial protection for surfaces in airplanes.
NexusTours (the transportation and excursion department at Sunwing Travel Group) has capped its buses at 60 per cent so guests can spread out
If a group is travelling together, and they insist on staying together in their transfer van, Sunwing/Nexus will arrange for more vehicles, if required, so social distancing is achieved.
“We take the protocols very seriously,” says McErlean. “Everybody wears a mask, we try and maintain social distancing.”
Health and safety measures extend to the employees, too.
McErlean says that if there is “any cause for concern” with an employee (ie: if they show COVID-19 symptoms), they are removed from the work environment and offered a rapid test.
“To date, we haven’t had any cases,” she says, “but we’re very aware that if anyone shows symptoms, they are sent home.”
A shift to “individual service”
“Passengers need to feel that sense of security when travelling to a different country,” adds McErlean.
That attitude, too, applies to Sunwing’s excursions, which are currently capped at 60 per cent.
McErlean says requests for private experiences, such as small groups asking if they can charter a boat for themselves, are on the rise.
“It’s a more individual service now,” says McErlean. “It’s about listening to individual needs, implementing what each passenger wants. Whereas before, it was a very big operation.”
There’s also been more requests for extended stays on properties, especially among those who work remotely, adds McErlean.
“In the past 10 days, we’ve had 15 bookings take advantage of our work from destination option,” she says. “It’s wonderful. Come and work with an ocean view.”
Travelling in Dominican Republic
As part of the Dominican Republic’s Responsible Tourism Recovery Plan, tourists can receive free travel assistance that includes coverage for medical emergencies related to COVID-19 until Dec. 31, 2020.
Visitors must submit a Traveller’s Health Affidavit but do not need to show a negative PCR to enter the Dominican Republic.
Three to ten per cent of arrivals are tested, at random, via aleatory breath test. There are thermal cameras at the airport, too, checking temperatures.
Dominican Republic had a change of government in August, and the country’s new President, Luis Abinader Corona, has led to “positive change” in rebooting tourism, says McErlean.
The new President’s history is rooted in hotels and hospitality, she says.
“He understands and sees the need for a very positive international view of the Dominican Republic,” says McErlean.
Locals in Dominican Republic have been bound to a 9 p.m. curfew for several months now. (“We have to wear masks in the street. If we don’t, we’ll be arrested or fined,” says McErlean).
This may explain why, perhaps, cases of COVID-19 in the Dominican Republic have declined in recent months.
In a country where 70 per cent of the economy is linked to tourism, keeping the country on track is a key focus for Dominican’s new government, says McErlean.
“This government isn’t going to take measures away right now. We’ve been told that we’ll be under curfew under 2021,” she says.
Her message to the Canadian trade?
“Take confidence in that Sunwing took its time to [push its restart] to November. We have adapted. We will continue evolving in all of our processes,” she says.
“We are ready to receive passengers. We want them to have the best worry-free experience.”
PAX is currently on assignment in the Dominican Republic. Stay tuned for more on-location coverage.
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