After months of suspended operations, Sunwing returned to the skies on July 30, operating its first flights since January.
The initial schedule that's being offered is from Toronto to Cancun, Punta Cana and Montego Bay, and from Montreal to Cancun and Punta Cana.
And the tour operator’s big return comes at a time when Canada’s vaccination rates are up, border measures are easing and the demand for travel is bubbling.
(Word on the street is that the flights Sunwing has operated, so far, have been full or close to being full).
Last month, PAX, in collaboration with Sunwing, visited one of Sunwing Travel Group’s prized properties in Cancun, Mexico – Royalton CHIC Suites Cancun, operated by the company’s hotel division, Blue Diamond Resorts – to get a first-hand look at how the brand was modifying its operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As expected, there’s a range of new protocols in place that are designed to keep both guests and staff safe (without tarnishing the vacation experience).
(You can read PAX’s full, on-location report here).
But how, exactly, do transfers and excursions offered by Sunwing fit into the picture?
NexusTours, which runs Sunwing’s transportation and excursion logistics (a division officially called Sunwing Experiences) has gone to great lengths to meet the needs of today’s new world of health and safety.
As part of Safe with Sunwing, a program introduced last year, several new measures that focus on sanitization and contactless service have been introduced, as PAX observed during multiple transfers in Cancun.
Recognizing that transfers and excursions play important roles in vacations, PAX caught up with Alejandro Vázquez, corporate director of guest experience at NexusTours, to learn more about the company’s pandemic-era approach.
PAX: What has NexusTours/Sunwing Experiences done to ensure the safety and comfort of travellers amid the pandemic?
Alejandro Vázquez (AV): The safety and wellbeing of our customers and employees is our top priority. A number of COVID-19 protocols have been implemented to guarantee the safety and comfort of our guests in destination, including:
Contactless service at the airport: Sunwing Experiences representatives will welcome customers at the airport at a safe distance and offer a contactless experience every step of the way. Customers will be encouraged to adhere to safety protocols on board their transfer vehicles and while taking part in excursions, from wearing face coverings to washing their hands regularly and adhering to social distancing guidelines. Hand sanitizer and signage depicting our protocols will be available at each customer touchpoint.
Increased disinfection and sanitization: All touchpoints will undergo enhanced sanitization and disinfection including hotel hospitality desks, transfer vehicles, excursion equipment and hand sanitizer.
Reduced vehicle capacity: To enforce social distancing, transfer vehicle capacity will be capped based on the destination’s local COVID-19 protocols and restrictions. Vehicles are also sanitized and disinfected after each service.
Physical distancing during welcome briefings: Welcome Briefings are crucial to offering our customers a seamless vacation experience. To ensure we’re able to offer the same level of service while ensuring everyone’s health and safety, we have implemented stringent protocols when meeting with our customers face to face, starting with the selection of the meeting venues, enforcing physical distancing and reducing the duration of our meetings.
Contactless communication: Customers will be able to communicate with us anytime, anywhere using the Sunwing App. In addition to the face-to-face service provided by our Sunwing Experiences representatives, customers will also have access to our Virtual Concierge service, which will be available to assist them 24/7 with any type of enquiries.
Virtual Concierge services include booking excursions and activities and assisting with any issues that might arise during their vacation.
Welcome briefings will also be available virtually if customers choose not to attend the face to face meeting with their hotel representative.
PAX: Have any protocols been modified over the past six months?
AV: The protocols have not changed too much. Several protocols are necessary as we continue to navigate through the pandemic.
We will continue to monitor how each country and destination is enforcing or modifying their own protocols and adapt ours as needed.
We are keeping an eye on local vaccination programs in the destinations where we operate in addition to across Canada and the United States.
The only slight change has been vehicle capacity on transfers and excursions – before we had across-the-board capacity limits, but now we are adapting our protocols so they are in line with local restrictions.
PAX: What has the response from guests been like?
AV: The trend we’ve been seeing is that customers still want to get out and explore their destination and its hidden gems.
They are still very cautious about safety protocols by wearing face masks and adhering to safety regulations, but they still want to enjoy themselves and take part in excursions and activities.
Prices of excursions, activities and ancillaries are no longer an issue as long as customers are getting their money’s worth and it is safe.
We have noticed that customers are willing to pay more for some tours and even purchase additional ancillaries in the hotels where they stay (such as spa treatments, romantic dinners, etc.).
Customers tend to prefer activities that involve outdoor and sea adventures including theme parks, Jeep and ATV tours, catamaran excursions and sustainable experiences, which involve the local culture and giving back to the local communities.
We’ve started seeing more groups and wedding parties travelling over the past six months.
We have also noticed that customers prefer to communicate more through digital channels, especially through WhatsApp. They want quicker responses, better customer service and, if any issues arise, they want them solved in the moment.
PAX: How were employees trained for the changes?
AV: At NexusTours, we have a Training and Development Department and a digital training platform called Nex-U where our employees are trained and certified.
We have carried out training with all our staff in crucial topics such as customer service, COVID-19 measures, Safe with Sunwing protocols, hurricane and business continuity guidelines, and more.
We have scripts and guidelines that are used by our customer-facing staff at every touchpoint in the customer journey, including both verbal and written communication with our guests.
Airport meet and greets as well as our welcome briefing and airport transfer scripts have also been adapted to ensure that we cater to the ever-evolving needs and expectations of our customers.
On the job training has also been part of our strategy.
PAX: What's the plan for when mass crowds return?
AV: The demand is already there as the influx of travellers from the U.S. market and the local/domestic markets has been a force to be reckoned with, so to speak.
With Canadian flights being resurrected and Canadians travelling south again, our destination teams have been recalled, our excursion programs have been updated, we have carried out more training, and our resources and logistics have been reviewed and revamped.
The suppliers and companies we work with are focused on ensuring that we are all ready for the arrival of our Canadian customers and have also prepared to cope with the spike in demand, which means more transportation vehicles, more days available for excursions, more staffing and more resources.
PAX: Are all employees fully vaccinated?
AV: Destinations across the Caribbean and Mexico started their vaccination program several months ago, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Costa Rica and English Caribbean islands such as Antigua and Saint Lucia.
In countries where the main industry is tourism, the priority has been to ensure that hotel and industry employees are prioritized in getting vaccinated.
The Dominican Republic was one of our very first destinations to start vaccinating employees within the industry and, at this point, close to 50% of the population is fully vaccinated. In the Dominican, most of our staff have already been fully vaccinated.
In the case of Jamaica, only about 5% of its total population has been vaccinated and they started as early as April 2021. As we all know, Jamaica put in place very strict COVID-19 protocols and have done a great job of controlling the spread over the last year.
As for Mexico, about 21% of the total population has been vaccinated, but in the last two months, we have seen a considerable number of staff at hotels and other tourism companies getting vaccinated.
The strategy in Antigua and Saint Lucia has been to give absolute priority to the tourist sector as it’s is the main source of income and jobs.
PAX: What will dictate the easing of protocols?
AV: We are monitoring the situation closely. It is difficult to say when protocols will change or be relaxed. Each destination is different and we have to adhere not only to our protocols but also to those enforced by local governments and authorities.
I believe that as the vaccination program progresses in source markets and destinations, some restrictions might be lifted (for example: PCR tests required upon arrival).
5 useful tips
“Travellers can look forward to a frictionless travel experience under our wing,” said Vázquez. “Our hybrid service/assistance model will make their lives much easier and their vacation more enjoyable.”
Here are Vázquez’s top 5 tips for ensuring a smooth Sunwing experience that agents can share with their customers:
1. Download the Sunwing App prior to travelling: “It will make a huge difference in the traveller experience with access to key information, 24/7 contact with our destination team and plenty of options to enhance their vacation – all at their fingertips,” he said.
2. Connect with us in destination on day one and meet your Sunwing Experiences rep: “Our local experts will make sure customers have an unforgettable experience from the get-go,” he said. “They will help customers plan their vacation, tackle any issues they might encounter during their stay and provide support around the clock.”
“Attending the welcome briefing or connecting with Sunwing’s virtual concierge will be the difference between a good experience and an unforgettable, stress-free experience.”
3. Book excursions and activities early: “Go for outdoor experiences,” he said. “Customers should book their excursions with our rep or virtual concierge as soon as possible to make sure they get the excursion and time slot they want.
“Guided tours are definitely a great option, in terms of getting the most out of the experience and guaranteeing the safety of our guests.”
4. Book your PCR test as soon as you arrive at hotel: In order to return to Canada, guests need to submit negative PCR test results that have been received within the last 72 hours.
5. Adhere to hotel COVID-19 protocols: “Which have been implemented to guarantee the safety and comfort of all customers,” he said.