Bolongo Bay Offers Both EP and All-Inclusive Plans: Family-owned hotel has a winning formula

In a world of brand name hotels and unlimited expansion, it's nice to come across a family-owned hotel that's content with operating a single property providing top-flight service and hospitality with an individual flair. The Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas has been in operation 32 years. The resort features 65 beachfront rooms curved around the crescent-shaped, palm-lined Bolongo Bay.  Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

One of the features at the resort that sets it apart is the optional all-inclusive plan, which accounts for 35 percent of bookings. "We've been offering an all-inclusive option since 1988," says Richard Doumeng, president and managing director of BolongoBay. "We're really one-of-a-kind in that way." Doumeng notes that a goal of the resort is to try to make available what he and his family would like if they were traveling. "We offer 100 percent à la carte dining. A guest can stay seven nights and eat 21 meals at our restaurants and never see a buffet line," he says. "You can eat filet mignon and lobster every night, order twelve different wines by the glass and choose top-shelf liquor such as Grey Goose and Glenlivet." Since BolongoBay's restaurants are popular with locals also, all-inclusive guests wear a wristband and sign for their meal, although this is just for accounting purposes.

"Word of mouth is huge," says Doumeng. "On average, one third of our year-round occupancy is repeat guests." As an example of the friendships that spring up between guests and staff, Doumeng relates a story of a guest who had been staying with BolongoBay over a 15-year period. "He called and told me he had a problem," says Doumeng. "He was booked into a second room floor, but he had heard that one of our senior housekeepers was no longer cleaning the second floor, having been moved to the first floor." The guest was in a quandary: He liked the view from the second floor, but was wondering if he should change his booking to the first floor. In the end, the guest decided to change his booking so that he'd have the same housekeeper. Doumeng notes that it's not uncommon for guests to dine in the one of the resort's restaurants with a bellman or housekeeper. "Conversely, we've attended guest weddings in the U.S.," he says.

A beachfront room at Bolongo Bay

"We're in the midst of a change," says Doumeng. "We used to have kitchenettes in the rooms, but we've done away with them. That's not the market we're going for." All rooms still have microwaves and refrigerators, and the condos have kitchenettes. Doumeng explains that this shift away from kitchenettes is partially due to the change in the makeup of family guests. Instead of families with small children, Bolongo is seeing more active families with teenagers. The resort has also seen growth in the family reunion market. "Of all the markets, the destination weddings market is the most demanding," says Doumeng. "All other markets are easy in comparison. Because the chain hotels are so big, they can't give the extra attention we can give. When a destination wedding group arrives here, they feel like they really own the joint."

BolongoBay makes a point of welcoming guests with diverse identities and lifestyles. "We're a gay-friendly resort," says Doumeng. The resort has also seen growth in the niche market of women traveling together, at least partially due to the very successful "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" get-away package. The package includes accommodations, with a maximum of four people in a room, and each person receives a half-hour massage, roundtrip shuttle service to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas' capital, for duty-free shopping, an island tour of St. Thomas, an all-day sail and beach outing to St. John aboard Heavenly Days, the resort's 53-foot catamaran, with lunch and open bar, an introductory scuba lesson in the pool, non-motorized water sports, beach volleyball, tennis and basketball. The group receives a certificate for $50 towards dinner at The Beach House Restaurant.

Rates range from $1,763 for two nights to $2,488 for seven nights, including room tax, resort fee and energy surcharge.

All Rooms Have Ocean Views

Each room at BolongoBay has a private balcony with ocean views, as well as amenities that make guests feel at home, such as a mini-refrigerator, coffeemaker, hair dryer, iron, ironing board and safe. "Every one of our rooms is on the beach, facing the sea," says Doumeng. "First floor rooms that let you walk right onto the beach are the most popular."

Doumeng notes that Bolongo's restaurants are on each end of the property. "So if clients are looking for a quieter room, they should book one of the 45 rooms in the middle building," he advises.

"We had a spa, one of the first on the island, but frankly, we couldn't compete. Our competitors such as Marriott, Ritz and Wyndham have done an excellent job providing spa services," says Doumeng. BolongoBay does have one room dedicated to massage treatments and a room with cardio-workout equipment.

Massage treatments and tour components such as excursions on the resort's Heavenly Days catamaran can be booked in advance through Bolongo's tour desk by contacting Vernita Joseph, vacation director, at 800-524-4746, ext. 2500.

What's New?

WiFi was introduced this year at BolongoBay and by the end of 2006 the resort hopes to have it in every room. Currently there are WiFi access hot spots around the pool and lounge areas, all of which can be accessed via a guest's wireless laptop. Guests can also purchase phone cards in Bolongo's gift shop to be used in conjunction with the resort's Internet kiosk in the lounge area. "It's amazing how many people you see by the pool in a bikini with a piña colada and a laptop," says Doumeng. "WiFi is no longer an amenity—it's mandatory."

BolongoBay's renovated Beach House Restaurant will open December 1 under a new name, the Lobster Grill. "We came to the realization that we had a fancy menu in a casual venue. We'll now focus on what people really like about the venue—hence the new name," explains Doumeng.

Doumeng also notes that a complete room renovation is underway. "We're doing sections at a time. Perhaps by December, certainly by June 2007, we will have renovated all of our rooms," he says.

Invitation to Agents

"Fifty percent of our bookings are through tour operators, which are essentially travel agent bookings, while an additional five percent is booked directly by agents," says Doumeng. Throughout the year, the resort offers agents, on a space-available basis, two complimentary nights and 50 percent off each additional night. "We know we shine if we get agents down here," says Doumeng. "In addition to the room, we love to treat agents to free dinners and catamaran excursions."

"In the world of vouchers, we often don't know who booked us," says Doumeng. "If an agent calls us and lets us know they've booked a client at Bolongo, we'll put a complimentary bottle of Cruzan rum (or a different gift if they don't drink) in their room, with a note saying it's a welcome gift from the agent. Help us help you—we're small enough to make you look like a genius."

The resort's EP option provides accommodations, a "discover scuba diving" in-pool lesson, nightly entertainment and complimentary non-motorized watersports, basketball, volleyball and tennis, plus equipment. Nightly EP rack rates are $199 for an oceanview room and $229 for a beachfront room, valid November 1 – December 15.

Bolongo's comprehensive all-inclusive option encompasses all of the features of the EP option, plus all meals (seven days a week of à la carte dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner), beverages (including all premium brands), hotel taxes and gratuities. Nightly all-inclusive rates from November 1 – December 15 are $430 for an oceanview room and $460 for a beachfront room. Rates quoted for both plans are per room, per night, based on double occupancy.

The travel agent liaison at BolongoBay is Katarina Doumeng, head of reservations. She can be reached through the hotel's toll free number 800-524-4746, or by e-mailing her at kdoumeng@bolongobay.com.

In addition to his duties at BolongoBay, Richard Doumeng is also the third vice president in the Caribbean Hotel Association. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, requiring passports for travelers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, has loomed large in all Caribbean hoteliers' minds. "I can't believe the U.S. Congress didn't consider the importance of the hotel industry to the Caribbean," says Doumeng. "The way the cruise industry operates, they didn't need additional advantages over land-based tourism. The decision is wrong – it's brutal and cruel."

Doumeng notes that the destination wedding market and the group and incentive market will suffer the most. "Given the situation, there are advantages to being a U.S. Caribbean destination," he says. "I don't want to appear to be a vulture, but since we're under the U.S. flag, we're exempt. It's a fact that it's going to be easier for U.S. citizens to get here and get back.

Bolongo BayBeach Resort: 800-524-4746, www.bolongobay.com