|From left to right: Duke Ah Moo, vice-president of partner relations and eCommerce for Pleasant Holidays; Colette Baruth, vice president of sales and marketing for AMResorts; Gerardo Llanes, executive director of marketing for the Mexico Tourism Board; and John Caldwell, president of MLT Vacations|
ACAPULCO, Mexico -- How's this for a turnaround? Mexico, a destination that was plagued with rampant drug-related violence in 2009 and a few years after, is now a haven for family reunions, other multigenerational vacations and, of course, weddings.
If vacationers throughout the world view Mexico as a place safe enough to bring their children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, husbands and wives, it might be time to put the country's past problems in the rear view mirror with an eye on a very promising future.
As part of the Tianguis Turistico trade show, Travel Agent magazine hosted a roundtable at the Fairmont Pierre Marques with some of the most notable Mexico tourism specialists, including some of the best tour operators in the business, and the overall consensus was that groups, mainly family reunions and weddings, have brought Mexico out of a dark period and back onto clients' radars.
"Regarding the violence, we don't touch violence anymore," says Gerardo Llanes, executive director of marketing for the Mexico Tourism Board. "That was a strategy that the previous administration had. The strategy now is we don't deny that there are some problems in some parts of the country, but its not like the whole country is in flames. I think the communication strategy has also strengthened. When the U.S. media is not pounding the message, people forget about it. So that was a lesson we learned. Don't shoot yourself in the foot."
In attendance were Gerardo Llanes; John Caldwell, president of MLT Vacations; Larry Chestler, president of Sun Country Vacations; Tim Mullen, president and CEO of Apple Vacations; Jeff Clarke, president of Travel Impressions; Duke Ah Moo, vice president of partner relations and eCommerce for Pleasant Holidays; Federico Moreno-Nickerson, director of product development for the Caribbean and Mexico for Classic Vacations; Colette Baruth, vice president of sales and marketing for AMResorts; and Rick Karnes, vice president destination and government relationships, La Macchia Enterprises. The discussion was moderated by Ruthanne Terrero, vice president of content and editorial director of Travel Agent magazine.
Most operators in attendance all pointed to Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe as being their top three destinations. Earlier booking curves than in the past also seem to be a common theme among operators and the lone hotelier in attendance. Most said Hawaii was down last year and this year due to Mexico's resurgence.
"(Hawaii) has similar challenges as we have," says Llanes, "in trying to get people out of the Big Island and into the other islands. We have a very similar challenge."
Also, most said group travel is getting bigger and bigger with weddings and family reunions dominating that market.
Chestler told us Sun Country Vacations' "Travel Pack," which offers value-driven packages for groups, is one of the company's hottest sellers at the moment.
"We've gotten strong support from the travel agency communities," says Chestler. "It's just a result of cultivating relationships."
Domestically, Clarke says Florida is up dramatically, as well as New York and Arizona. Mullen says Apple has seen a 15 percent year-to-year growth in Mexico business. Caldwell kept stressing how important it was for Delta to increase its flight capacity to Mexico by 24 percent. In general, Caldwell said last year was MLT's most successful year in the company's history.
Alvarez says Mexico received 30 million tourists last year. It was a record year for Mexico for both volume and spending, says Alvarez, noting that there was a 10.8 percent increase in American arrivals.
"It's exciting to see the U.S. get back to the rhythm that we saw," says Alvarez. "It is our most important market."
Llanes says that has a lot to do with a very strong campaign encouraging multigenerational travel. Alvarez says Mexico had a "very broad strategy." There were campaigns for golf, for romance, etc., says Alvarez.
Baruth attributed a lot of AMResorts' recent success in Mexico to the company's successful "Sip, Savor and See" program, which allows AMResorts clients to dine at other AMResorts hotels. Baruth says the program has been serving as a scouting method by clients looking to check out not just the food at other resorts, but also how family-friendly or couples-friendly they are, usually leading to a future booking.
"Hotels are becoming niche markets," says Moreno-Nickerson. "All-inclusives aren't just free meals anymore. It's not just Kids Clubs, they have toddler programs now too. They are a very complimentary experience, especially with culinary, to the cruisers. The product here has evolved to levels of speciality and sophistication that you've never seen in Mexico."
Los Cabos Recovery Hailed
Everyone at the table hailed the Mexico Tourism Board's efforts for a quick recovery to Los Cabos after it was slammed by Hurricane Odile. While some hotels remain unopened, many tour operators said the initial damage control and cleaning of the area was so swift that many clients didn't even know there was a major disaster there.
"Based on the responsiveness and action plan, we chose to maintain our full schedule (to Los Cabos)," says Chestler. "The campaign was terrific."
Sure, clients knew there was a hurricane, but it appeared to be less severe than it actually was because of how quickly the tourism board responded to the tragedy and how connected it was to customers, constantly blasting updates on social media and contacting all of its tourism partners.
"Everybody just jumped right to it," added Terrero, the moderator. "It's an amazing case study it sounds like. Just from every element."
Many drew comparisons to the swift recovery of Cancun after the destination got slammed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
"We've gone through a lot of trouble, but the continuity in the messages and the campaign has helped," says Moreno-Nickerson. "No one was making excuses."
Once you get hit like that, says Moreno-Nickerson, you can use the insurance to build up hotel rooms much like the hotels that were devastated by Hurricane Wilma did, essentially transforming Cancun from a Spring Break hot spot to a family destination as many of the hotels that invested millions of dollars in restorations were beginning to restrict who they allowed to occupy their hotels. Many Cancun hotels in the years following the hurricane were pushing away Spring Breakers with a tendency for mischief and welcoming families instead.
Llanes says the main difference in the way the two hurricanes were handled was that rates were not cut in Los Cabos the way they were in Cancun in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma. And it took those rates about five years to get back to where they were before Wilma, says Alvarez.
"One of the the key things we learned is we cannot sacrifice the long term because of the short term," he says.
Welcome Back, Acapulco
Many agreed that Acapulco hosting Tianguis Turistico once again was exactly what the destination needed. Acapulco has suffered an unfair reputation of being unsafe and showcasing this destination to the rest of the world will help dispel those myths. Having said that, Moreno-Nickersondid says that flight connectivity and expense are still two factors that keep people from coming to the destination.
Be on the lookout for an upcoming feature in Travel Agent magazine with all the highlights from the entire discussion and keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for all the latest Tianguis Turistico news. Follow Travel Agent's Joe Pike on Twitter @TravelPike.