We spoke with tour operators, Jack E. Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions and Dave Ferran, head of sales for Classic Vacations. And from the advisor side, we interviewed Kristen DeAngelo of Dream Excapes and Terrah Van Meter of Legacy Travel
Off-the-Beaten Path Caribbean Destinations
Travel Agent: While all the hype surrounds Cuba as far as emerging Caribbean destinations goes, what are some other islands that have been trendy in 2017 and heading into 2018?
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: Here at Classic we have seen growth into many of the smaller islands like Grenada and Nevis and strong interest for St. Kitts with the just-opened Park Hyatt St. Kitts.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: St. Lucia continues to perform well, propped up by high-end resorts such as [Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort] and Cap Maison, as well as luxury-adults only paradises like Jade Mountain, Rendezvous, and The BodyHoliday.
Grenada’s profile has grown considerably with Spice Island Beach Resort catering to the affluent market and mid-range properties such as Mount Cinnamon [Resort & Beach Club] and Coyaba Beach Resort attracting value-seekers.
Finally, the most famous out-of-the-hurricane-belt islands are of course Aruba and Curacao, but Bonaire is another great option that will nearly guarantee sunny weather. Flights are limited to Bonaire, but certainly worth the trip for snorkelers and divers.
The Hottest Niche Markets
Travel Agent: What was/is the hottest niche in the Caribbean in 2017 and heading into 2018?
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: What we see as the biggest development in the Caribbean is the continued evolution of the all-inclusive experience; more fine dining, more personalized experiences, better on property and room amenities. Hermitage Bay [in Antigua] and BodyHoliday in St. Lucia are perfect examples of intimate, luxury boutique properties, that are continuing to further the all-inclusive experience within the luxury segment.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: Wellness is a perennial theme for Caribbean vacations and I don’t see that changing any time soon. In fact, our partners at the Caribbean Tourism Organization have declared 2018 the "Year of Wellness and Rejuvenation," resulting in even more emphasis on this focus. Movement toward private, exclusive experiences is also a trend worth watching. Culinary classes, beachside yoga, and other non-traditional activities tend to gain popularity throughout the region, which is forcing the Caribbean’s high-end brands to innovate in the service arena in order to remain trendsetters at the forefront of the industry.
Travel Agent: Are there any particular airlines that have done especially well this year as far as travel to the Caribbean goes? What about any trending flying patterns/habits?
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: We definitely see all the legacy carriers improving lift into the Caribbean and we’re especially excited about our Tradewinds Air partnership which allows for ease of access into many of the smaller Caribbean islands opening up more choices for today’s travelers.
Kristen DeAngelo, Dream Excapes: Based on my experience this year with airlines and clients' travels, JetBlue [Airways] has done especially well and has had the best flight times and rates for travel to specific Caribbean islands.
In my own personal experience, I've used JetBlue three times this year for best rates and flight times to Antigua and Grenada. I've had clients travel to St. Lucia, Antigua, Grenada, Mexico and Puerto Rico on JetBlue. JetBlue has also increased their service to certain islands, such as Antigua. The rates for airfare this winter (Jan/Feb 2018) to Antigua out of [John F. Kennedy International Airport] are ridiculously inexpensive. Southwest [Airlines] has increased service to certain islands such as Turks and Caicos, which has created easier access to the island.
Terrah Van Meter, Legacy Travel: The American Airlines nonstops to Grand Cayman from [Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport] has done exceptionally well. With the [Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa], it has become my go-to for those wanting to experience something new and fabulous.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: JetBlue has stepped up its game in the Caribbean in a big way, adding new flight routes and increasing capacity to a variety of destinations. Meanwhile, Travel Impressions’ Dedicated Vacation Flights to Jamaica and Punta Cana have been extremely popular for 2017 and early 2018 as agents utilize these convenient, nonstop departure schedules to maximize their clients’ time under the Caribbean sun.
Travel Agent: What are some of the hottest hotel trends you’ve seen in the Caribbean this year?
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: We are definitely seeing growth in the all-inclusive market and here at Classic we work with the best of the best. Looking into 2018, we are adding new brands like Royalton [Resorts] while continuing to focus on key partners like AMResorts, Sandals [Resorts International] and Hyatt.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: [Karisma Hotels & Resorts'] Palafitos [Over Water Bungalows] in Mexico are, of course, generating tremendous buzz, so we anticipate [Zoetry Resort's] over-the-water bungalows in Aruba will be a source of even more excitement when those open.
The addition of water parks has also grown exponentially in the Caribbean, making it an even more family-friendly destination than ever. Beyond Atlantis, Paradise Island’s amazing "Aquaventure," newer ones like the Riu Republica’s and Nickelodeon Hotel & Resort, Punta Cana’s are only the beginning of what we can expect to see.
Another one of the biggest developments in the Caribbean is the way hotel brands are willing to work with tour operators to create exclusive experiences for discerning clients. For example, in 2018, we’ll be launching the Connoisseur Collection by Karisma, a collaboration building on the success of ALG Kids Concierge, a Karisma exclusive for brands under the Apple Leisure Group umbrella. Likewise, Palladium [Hotel Group] is reinventing its Royal Suites division under the TRS branding, offering an upscale, service-oriented product rivaling some of the most notable luxury boutiques.
Jack E. Richards, Pleasant Holidays: Caribbean resorts are wooing travelers with the "wow" factor, creating incredible resorts and vacation experiences, including over-the-water bungalows and wedding chapels, and bars with overwater hammocks at Sandals Resorts; elaborate waterparks, family suites, special amenities for babies and kids at Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana and headliner concert events and music festivals to attend plus opportunities for travelers to create their own rock star experiences at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.
Travel Agent: Besides the usual, have you noticed any new trends popping up in either the weddings or honeymoons department?
Terrah Van Meter, Legacy Travel: The Breathless and Secrets Resorts are owning the bachelor/bachelorette market right now. They market it well and have themed parties that make it an easy sell.
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: Certainly honeymooners are looking for unique and personal experiences. And there are so many choices in the Caribbean today. From a Ladera [Resort] without fabulous, panoramic views to more isolated locations offering a true get away from it all experience; properties like Sugar Beach and Cap Maison.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: The Caribbean is well suited to weddings and bachelor/bachelorette parties in general, but Dominican Republic stands out as a leader in this market due to its accessibility from a variety of U.S. gateways, affordability of airfare, and diverse range of product.”
The Hurricane Effect
Travel Agent: Not so much of a trend as much as it was more of an issue or an obstacle, but how has the nasty hurricane season affected business in 2017 and heading into 2018?
Kristen DeAngelo, Dream Excapes: Thankfully, when the hurricanes hit the Caribbean this past September, I did not have any clients traveling during that time. It did, however, affect clients whose travel was coming up for October through the end of the year. My phone didn't stop ringing after the hurricanes hit, between the minor date changes, travel insurance questions regarding the hurricane weather and questionable status of upcoming travels. I had clients cruising from San Juan at the end of October, but after we made some minor changes and the cruise line decided it was still departing as scheduled, my clients had an amazing trip.
Many clients and potential clients who've asked me about travel to the Caribbean now and into 2018 have thought most islands have been devastated and travel to the Caribbean at this time is very limited, which is not true. Only a small number of islands were damaged and some of those are slowly reopening. I try to educate clients as best I can about the current status of the Caribbean islands due to the hurricane damage.
Moving forward into 2018, I have been strongly encouraging all of my clients to purchase travel insurance. Explaining real examples of what happened to other clients during the hurricanes who had and didn't have travel insurance really puts my clients vacation into perspective. I've also been promoting islands that haven't been damaged or are now open and awaiting tourist arrivals.
Jack E. Richards, Pleasant Holidays: Tourism boards and travel industry has done a tremendous job of communicating that the majority of islands in this destination received little or no damage and are welcoming travelers. Pleasant Holidays’ top destinations such as Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Aruba, Barbados and St. Lucia, which account for a large percentage of sales and passengers, were not materially impacted by the hurricanes. All of [those destinations] have contributed to a rapid recovery for the destination, which is currently pacing ahead of expectations for 2017 and 2018 travel.
Dave Ferran, Classic Vacations: Certainly the recent hurricanes have created a few bumps in the road, but demand remains strong and advance bookings are looking great for 2018. And with winter upon us across much of the northeast and midwest, consumers will surely be looking to travel somewhere warm and with the majority of the Caribbean fully operational and open for business, the destination is ready to share a warm Caribbean welcome with the American consumer.
Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions: It has taken some time, but we are seeing strong growth in markets that were fortunately not affected by the hurricanes. The markets with the strongest growth have been Aruba, Curacao, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica for 2018.
Still, additional familiarization on the geography of the Caribbean is needed. It’s a region with a lot of small pieces to it, and we understand that especially with similarities between island names, it can get confusing. But we are actively working on supporting agents as they educate their travelers that most of the Caribbean is open and many have, luckily, had no impact from the hurricanes.