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Transcript: Travel Agent Interviews Iberostar Hotels & Resorts' John Long

While in Mexico's Riviera Maya for the announcement that Antonio Banderas is the new face of Iberostar Hotels & Resorts's new global campaign, Travel Agent interviewed John Long, Iberostar's vice president of sales and marketing. You can listen to the interview in our podcast, or read along, word for word, in the transcript below.

Travel Agent: What sets you apart from Sandals and Karisma?

John Long: When you look at Iberostar, you got the three different levels of hotels and I think that's something that they really don't have or at least not from a consistent way like what we've delivered. You've seen it here. You've got the Beach and you've got the Suites at the Maya and the Lindo, and then you've got the Grand product. So then you're covering all your bases of all your whole demographical markets. We've got young families covered. We've got young couples covered. We've got luxury for families. We've got luxury for adults only. We've got all that. We also have our own golf courses to complement our resorts. And I think, when you look at our food and beverage offering, what we do is a step above, too, because it's not just your regular a la carte restaurants. All of our chefs are from the Basque region of Spain, which is where the best chefs are in the world. They train the locals so that they are well prepared. In all of our destinations where we have resorts, they're based there as well. So the standard of food and beverage is extremely high, and it doesn't matter if you're at a Grand or a Suites or a Beach. Those chefs oversee all of that is well. I think our competitors do a great job with weddings. I think they do a great job with the individual couples and things like that. I admire what they've done and we've got to go after that ourselves.

Travel Agent: What's your room-to-staff ratio? How do you take so much space and so many guests and guarantee that everyone is going to get a great staff experience?

John Long: The staff is key and, at the destinations where we have our resorts, we spend a lot of time training our staff. Most of our staff, for example here in Mexico, have been with us from the very beginning. I've been with the company for 13 years and I see faces that I've seen here for 13 years. We all started together at the Tucan/Quetzal at Playa del Carmen. The same thing exists in the Dominican Republic. The people we have in Jamaica started here in Mexico, or they started in Cuba, or they started in one of the other destinations. So that's a big thing. With staff ratio, because we are in these complexes, we can also maximize our efforts and spread it out so that we're giving great attention to the guest. The staff, you see them all around the pool. They're serving drinks, picking up drinks, and that's not something you normally see in a typical all-inclusive that's available. In a Grand, our ratio is close to two, because we have the butlers and the concierge service. But at all of our other hotels we have about a .9.

Travel Agent: During the swine flu scare last year, you had to shut down temporarily a few properties. How have they rebounded?

John Long: Phenomenally. [During the shutdown], we negotiated with our employees to take 15 days off without pay and 15 days working, and everyone rotated- from every level of the staff. Union, non-union, all the different workers went down that line so that we could assure that they had work when we came back. We only stayed shutdown for not even 30 days. And it bounced back. The Playa del Carmen properties [the Tucan/Quetzal] is going back to making record-breaking occupancies.

Travel Agent: How is 2010 kicking off in the wake of a rough 2009?

John Long: It started out slow. The Christmas bookings didn't come in like we had anticipated. That was our first sign to wonder what's going on. It's definitely been more of a last-minute market, more than it ever has been. We hope that's temporary and believe it is. What I am seeing, that's been a positive sign, is that the U.S. market is really coming back strong.

Travel Agent: What are you doing to attract more business? Are you offering certain value add-ons or amenities so that people want to come here and feel they're getting a lot extra?

John Long: You obviously have to position yourself correctly with the market and with what the consumer is looking for at the right time. We've also done a lot of promotions to the travel agents to try get them to be out there selling to their guests. For example, we've done upgrade promotions. We've done groups promotions that we're running right now. We're going to run one in May where, for a leisure group for example, you and your friends put together a trip and the sixth room is free. Five rooms and the sixth room is free. Everything is leisure, not business, so great savings there. We have Kids Free. We have a new Kids Free, I actually decided yesterday, at the Beach in Del Mar, is going to have Kids free starting in May and run through December, with just a blackout for Thanksgiving. You've got five properties in Mexico with Kids Free, one in Jamaica, and two in the Dominican Republic.

Travel Agent: What percentage of bookings does Iberostar get through agents?

Over 95 percent.

Travel Agent: Can you elaborate on ways you're grabbing agents attention?

John Long: The reason the travel agents have always been with us is because we've always been delivering great quality products. I hear from travel agents all the time that they get compliments from their guests for recommending an Iberostar. I even had one agent say to me that their client called them from the resort to book their next vacation while they were on vacation. That was a great compliment. That's how much they enjoy it. They feel they really have a trust in the brand. That whole campaign that we're running now is we want them to really believe again and see the brand.

Travel Agent: Is there anything that agents are not seeing about Iberostar right now?

John Long: The Grands still need a lot of work, as far as them getting more educated on our product. We want to offer more opportunities for them to come see our properties. So we're going to be adjusting our travel agent rates within two weeks. We're going to have really competitive travel agent rates because we want them to come check out all of our properties. We've really invested in our products, even though times have been tough. Even though we've been in the market for 13 years, we have continually been upgrading our hotels and refurbishing our hotels (every two years).

Travel Agent: Obviously we're hundreds of miles from the all the bad reports of crime. Is that affecting business? Are people too afraid to come to Mexico because of one report they have heard elsewhere?

We had a few cancellations in the very beginning, but it was just a blip on the radar. It was nothing that lasted for a long time. It seems that everything seems to be going well for Mexico. Our sales are strong. If I had to look at Mexico, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the three areas I'm in charge of, the Dominican Republic is struggling more than Mexico or Jamaica.

Travel Agent: Why do you think that is?

John Long: The Haiti thing effected it tremendously.

Travel Agent: Tell me about the security you have here. What's important for travel agents to know about the safety and security of these properties?

John Long: Where we are right now, it's complex. People don't have to really want for anything outside of here. You've got the ocean for scuba diving.  You've got the Mayan ruins, which is part of the hotel. You've got golf. You've got all the shopping you want. You've got more dining experiences than you can possibly imagine. It's a walled complex. They're very safe when they're in this resort, Playa del Carmen, Playacar or Cozumel properties. Our staff is well prepared for any events.

You were asking about the travel agents and something more that they could be doing. We need them to educate themselves more on Brazil because we have a large investment in Salvador de Bahia. WE have two resorts and a golf course that we built. We also have a luxury cruise ship that sails down the Amazon River, the only one of its kind. It sails out of Manaus. You've got direct flights from Atlanta and Miami directly to Manaus on several of the American airlines. You've got Delta, American and TAM that fly to Manaus direct. It's a luxury experience. It's 75 cabins, all with their own balconies. It's a Grand experience because all of your tours are included. You have an onboard biologist that is part of the entertainment. The food is Brazilian food, so you have the whole cultural experience. Then you're in Manaus, which also has its opera theater, and an incredible cultural experience. So for that customer they have that they send to Europe or to Egypt or places like that, this is a great thing they need to check out.

Travel Agent: Tell me more about other properties or destinations on your radar

John Long: Riviera Nayarit is going go be huge for us. We have three resorts planned for that area. It's in Litibu, which is right next to the Four Seasons and the St. Regis, which has just opened up. The golf course is already open. We've already got most of the foundation poured for the first hotel so that we can be ready by November 2011. We have two more planned for that.

Aruba is something we're pursuing and Los Cabos, definitely. And Cuba, we're going to expand there.