Wednesday,  August 17, 2022  11:45 pm

“Safer than Costco”: Sunwing’s Eric Rodriguez on visiting the DR, restoring traveller confidence

“Safer than Costco”: Sunwing’s Eric Rodriguez on visiting the DR, restoring traveller confidence
Eric Rodriguez, executive vice-president of partner development at Sunwing Travel Group. (Supplied)
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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Even travel executives get butterflies in their stomachs.

Eric Rodriguez, executive vice-president of partner development at Sunwing Travel Group, says that when he booked a trip to the Dominican Republic last month – his first international flight during the COVID-19 pandemic – he was feeling a tad anxious about it all.   

Call it beginner's nerves (admit it, despite the well-documented facts around safe travel, we’ve all had to relearn how to pack our bags comfortably again).

But whatever jitters were at play, they didn’t last long.

Once Rodriguez landed in the DR, and saw how hotels (and Sunwing, in tandem with NexusTours) were mitigating COVID-19 transmission with reimagined protocols, he extended his one-week workcation to three.

“I feel foolish I didn’t do this before,” Rodriguez said, speaking to PAX about his trip over FaceTime from a sun-soaked beach at Caribe Deluxe Princess resort on the morning of Oct. 9. “Now that I’m here, it’s absolutely fantastic.”

Eric Rodriguez, Sunwing's EVP of partner development, spoke with PAX via FaceTime from the Dominican Republic.

In between golfing, horseback riding, clay shooting and island excursions, Rodriguez checked off all the health and safety measures he saw during his stay – not only at Caribe Deluxe Princess, but at other hotels he visited, such as Tropical Deluxe Princess and Grand Bavaro Princess

(Tropical and Caribe are sold as two hotels with shared common areas). 

Mask wearing, temperature checks, vaccinated staff, on-site PCR testing, rigorous sanitization, QR codes, strong Wi-Fi, people respecting personal space. Check, check, double check.

READ MORE: How has Sunwing modified its transfers & excursions? NexusTours shares the latest

And there’s certainly space – at one point during our FaceTime call, Rodriguez flipped his camera phone around to reveal a luxurious pool area devoid of people (it was, to be fair, just after 9 a.m. local time).

“It’s not 100 per cent full, but we’re not trying to be 100 per cent full,” he said of Caribe Deluxe Princess, which recently spent $40 million to modernize its rooms and build a beach club and 24-hour sports bar.

Modernized rooms at Caribe Deluxe Princess. (Supplied)

(The upgrades follow on the heels of the addition of a Family Club at Grand Bavaro Princess in 2020).

Besides these enhancements, the amplification of COVID-19 prevention is “really phenomenal,” said Rodriguez, sharing how staff also “gently” remind guests who aren’t wearing masks to cover up, especially in buffet areas.

“I feel much more comfortable and safer here than I do at Costco back home,” he said.

Overcoming "fear of the unknown"

The Sunwing EVP is just one of many born-again travellers dipping their toes (or taking the plunge) into today’s new world of travel.

With rising vaccination rates, eased restrictions and restored air routes, the idea of vacationing in the tropics again is becoming a real option to more and more Canadians.

The pent-up demand is there. A survey by Sunwing among 1,533 members of the Angus Reid Forum in July revealed that more than half (58%) of Canadians plan on returning to travel in the next 12 months, with more than two-thirds (68%) of respondents indicating they are interested in an all-inclusive vacation.

Those statistics may have changed now that the Government of Canada has lifted its non-essential travel advisory for fully vaccinated Canadians, a quiet move that occurred two weeks after our interview with Mr. Rodriguez.

READ MORE: Ottawa lifts non-essential travel advisory for fully-vaccinated Canadians; cruise warning remains

Lifting the travel ban – though incomplete given that a Level 4 warning against cruising remains – will bode well for restoring consumer confidence. Canadians now have a green light to go.

Staff at Caribe Deluxe Princess keeping the space clean. (Supplied)

But there’s wanting to take a vacation and actually booking one.

While Sunwing has relaunched popular flights to Canadian favourites like Dominican Republic, Cancun and Cuba, and other hot spots, ramping up frequency as cooler temperatures roll in, getting people to feel comfortable with travelling again is still a challenge.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Rodriguez admitted. “The government has been shifting rules as we go along while, unfortunately, putting some sticks in our wheel.”

Sunwing, to its credit, has done (and is doing) everything that it can to boost the market’s confidence and offer a safe and stress-free travel experience.

Safe With Sunwing, the company’s detailed COVID-19 health and safety program, launched in June of 2020. Part of that includes offering complimentary COVID-19 Emergency Medical Insurance on vacation packages.

The company has launched a travel requirements page that outlines everything travellers need to know about entry protocols in destinations.

A Sunwing Experiences rep in Cancun, Mexico. (Pax Global Media)

PCR testing is available on site at resorts, at competitive pricing, and customers can change their plans at any time without paying fees.

And, yes, there are still deals to be had – Sunwing is offering up to 45 per cent off on select vacations during its Yes You Can sale, which is part of a greater fall campaign that shows how Canadians can travel, right now, with flexibility and peace of mind.

READ MORE: “I feel safer here than at home”: Talking with Sunwing customers in Dominican Republic

Ottawa’s vaccine mandate for air travel, kicking in Oct. 30, can also be seen as a step in the right direction for calming people’s pandemic-era nerves.

But Rodriguez worries this new rule, though progressive in nature, could “put another layer” in place, adding “one more condition” that might make some feel uncomfortable, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Sunwing's Yes You Can campaign shows how Canadians can travel, right now, with flexibility and peace of mind.

Canada, really, has enforced some of the toughest travel rules on the planet during the pandemic, from working with airlines to ground all sun flights (an agreement that ended in July) to the ill-fated (and now defunct) hotel quarantine program to a mandatory 72-hour pre-departure molecular testing requirement for entering Canada – a policy that’s still active today.

“The challenge, for us, is the uncertainty around what the rules are going to be,” Rodriguez said. “We know what the rules are today, but what are the rules going to be in two weeks?”

“There’s a fear of the unknown.”

Resorts “astonished” by Canada's rules

While airlines have played along as federal policies shift, the government still puts “a disproportionate responsibility on businesses,” Rodriguez said.

“We’ve all been left having to manage and police these rules, which is not an easy thing,” he said.

Resorts in the DR, which depend heavily on the Canadian market, an important segment that isn’t what it used to be, are watching Canada closely.

“Every single hotelier I’ve met – and these are seasoned travellers who own multimillion-dollar properties – their comments are the same: ‘We did not expect this from Canada,’” Rodriguez said.

Resorts are “astonished” by Canada’s travel restrictions, he said, especially now as other countries open up.

“Now is the time to stand out"

Sunwing is still “on good footing,” Rodriguez added, despite the challenges, especially as vaccination numbers increase.

The trend, these days, is that customers are embracing longer stays and travelling at the last minute.

Sunwing is ramping up frequency to tropical destinations. (Sunwing)

“75 per cent of bookings we made last week are for Canadians travelling within the next 12 weeks,” said Deana Murphy, vice-president, retail sales at Sunwing Travel Group at TPI’s virtual “Emerge” conference on Oct. 20. “Half of that is within the next six weeks.”

READ MORE: “We’re looking forward”: Sunwing/Royalton starts its engines in Dominican Republic

Murphy’s advice to travel advisors is to “sell what’s selling.”

Cancun and Punta Cana, she told attendees, are already reaching pre-pandemic capacity and agents should “focus on what is moving.”

“Many are ready to travel,” Murphy said. “They’re packed and ready to go.

At the same time, there’s “a lot of misinformation floating around,” Rodriguez told PAX, and customers, at the end of the day, should feel comfortable with their decisions.

This is why travel advisors have “tremendous value in our industry in terms of being able to consult and inform a client,” he said.

“Now is the time to stand out and provide that knowledge – because there is still a lot of uncertainty and unknown,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of customers have had to play ‘go fetch’ on getting information on where they’re going.”

Sunwing, being a Canadian, vertically-integrated company, also means “we’re with you all along the way,” Rodriguez said.

Andrew Dawson, chief operating officer at Sunwing Travel Group, who also spoke at TPI’s conference last week, is optimistic that attitudes will change as time progresses.

“My hope is that as more people travel, they will feel like it’s a more normal thing to do,” Dawson said during a panel discussion on Oct. 20. “I think that should get volumes continuing to go on the trajectory that they’re on.”

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