Operators add to '02 lineup to show faith in Caribbean's full recovery By Gay Nagle Myers & Kimberly Scholz / January 09, 2002 Share 1 -- our operators may well hold the key to agents' successes in the current Caribbean winter season right in the pages of their glossy brochures. The Caribbean reeled in the aftermath of the Sept.11 attacks. However, several Caribbean-committed operators feel the islands could bounce back faster than other tourism-dependent areas. Why?They say many Americans view the Caribbean as out of harm's way, affordable, teeming with discounts and accessible.A glance at airline schedules confirms this. Few flights from the U.S. to the Caribbean were eliminated this winter. In fact, various U.S. lines added service to the Caribbean.Several tour operators also increased their winter charter service to the Caribbean, upped their package offerings and buffed their winter programs with steep discounts and more inclusions.Product lineups for 2002 reveal new resorts, new offerings and incentives that should warm the hearts and line the wallets of agents who've been battered by commission cuts and passed over by consumers drawn to online booking sites.Here is a fast overview of the 2002 programs and products of several Caribbean tour operators.• Classic Custom Vacations. The San Jose, Calif.-based firm features 17 Caribbean islands and island groups representing 106 properties, plus crewed yacht sailings, a variety of land tours, air discounts, car rentals and private transfers."Classic Caribbean was our fastest growing and most successful product in 2001," said Ron Letterman, president and chief executive officer."We doubled our business over 2000, and we remain firmly committed to travel agents."Despite the growth in business, Letterman said the firm did "refine its hotel offerings" for 2002, eliminating 28 properties on 15 islands due "to current events and a drop in demand for travel to the Caribbean."No new island destinations were added this year.Contacts Tour Operator Directory Apple Vacations Phone: (800) 727-3400 Web: www.applevacations.com Classic Custom Vacations Phone: (800) 221-3949 Web: www.ccv.com Gogo Worldwide Vacations Phone: (800) 229-4999 Web: www.gogowwv.com Inter-Island Tours Phone: (800) 245-3434 Web: www.interislandtours.com CCV's Caribbean lineup represents high-end properties in three price categories, which range from 12-room, villa-style retreats to 800-room megaresorts and just about everything in between: beachfront penthouses, boutique inns, family-friendly hotels, inclusive resorts and condominium complexes. New for 2002 will be a travel agent incentive plan that will be launched later this month.Also new are Hertz as CCV's exclusive car rental component and a variety of tours and activities that include snorkeling with stingrays on Grand Cayman, a rain-forest tour in Puerto Rico and a dinner cruise to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.Romance, wedding, golf and spa packages can be customized, Letterman said.• Apple Vacations. The Newtown Square, Pa.-based operator launched a travel agent-oriented marketing campaign immediately after Sept. 11.This quick action helped boost booking volume for its products, including the Carib-bean, at a time when other operators reported canceled or flat bookings.Apple also pressed on with its series of scheduled trade shows in major U.S. markets.Agents who attended received a preview of winter season offerings, which helped carry the firm into 2002, according to Apple officials.As a further inducement for its Caribbean packages, Apple expanded its charter services this winter to Aruba and Jamaica from gateways that include New York (Newark), Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.The firm's momentum carried over into 2002, and the volume of tour bookings for January is up 30% over the same period a year ago, according to Tim Mullen, Apple's director of marketing.This season, Apple's products include more than 20 Caribbean destinations, representing a range of properties in size, price and facilities.New this winter for Apple is the resort area of LaRomana/Bayahibe, south of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.The operator also relaunched St. Maarten packages on charter flights from Detroit and Chicago.According to Mullen, "We are always fine-tuning our programs, adding new hotels or deleting those that have not measured up to our guests' expectations."When all is said and done for this season, we have added about six new hotels and deleted the same number," he said.Hot sellers this winter in Apple's resort lineup in the Dominican Republic include the new Sunscape Resort in Punta Cana and the new Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus Beach Resort in Bayahibe.In Jamaica the RIU in Negril is very popular as are the Sandals' properties there and in Antigua and the Bahamas.Apple's agent incentives are "ongoing, yet always changing to give agents the best chance to earn more in cash and travel benefits," Mullen said.The operator's specific winter Caribbean promotions vary by gateway and destination.Projections for the winter season?Mullen said that "anything that holds its own this winter over last will be doing well. Right now, it looks as if the more aggressive islands will come through in much better shape, as it is certainly a fight for market share, especially this winter."• Gogo Worldwide Vacations. The Ramsey, N.J.-based supplier offers a variety of properties on 24 islands in the Caribbean. The properties range from inclusive megaresorts to small, intimate inns.This winter, Gogo's clients will find some of the "best offers that ever existed," according to Bob Lawrence, Gogo's vice president of Caribbean marketing.Lawrence noted that some islands have been "particularly aggressive," including Puerto Rico, with the extension of its Fly Free promotion, and Aruba, with the announcement of a consumer booking incentive, the specific details of which will be announced in the coming weeks. While promotional offers such as these abound, Lawrence said they also represent a challenge in that there is usually a small booking window.However, Gogo expects the windows to be extended for travel farther into 2002, a move that only can translate into more Caribbean business.While Gogo's bookings were down by close to 50% following Sept. 11, they are now almost on pace with last year, Lawrence said, a fact he attributed to the deals in place."Despite a softness in the market, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, remains a strong destination for us, and we expect that trend to continue well into this year," Lawrence said.No new destinations have been added to the lineup, but Gogo is moving toward a focus on niche markets, including honeymoons, dive packages, soft-adventure programs and high-end options.Although Gogo traditionally has offered packages focused on special markets, the firmis making more packages available in its database and hopes to feature an option on the Web site enabling agents to navigate the site with specific niches in mind.Also new this winter is the addition of the upscale Sandy Lane resort in Barbados.Pricing should be available this month.On the agent front, Gogo's annual learning conference, normally held in the fall, might be moved to the spring this year to make up for its cancellation last September.Also starting this month is a series of agent-appreciation dinners to be held throughout the country.In addition, Gogo introduced the "Earn More Money" promotion, offering an agent bonus of up to $40 per booking through Feb. 10 for travel through Dec. 12.• Inter-Island Tours. Discounted packages and proactive island promotions also are the name of the game with this New York-based operator.The firm features more than 200 properties on 11 islands in the Caribbean and expects the winter season to be "decent," said Greg Thorne, vice president.While some islands have been extremely proactive, "virtually every destination has come to the table with severely reduced pricing, and we anticipate even more aggressive pricing coming forward," he continued.Thorne said he feels the general public recognizes the Caribbean as "one big beach," and the island that comes out with the best deals will get the most business.Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with their ties to the U.S. and consumer promotions in place, also will be able to weather the storm better than other destinations, he said.The firm has not added any destinations to its 2002 roster, and, in fact, scaled back on some of the smaller islands, such as St. Kitts and Nevis, Curacao and Anguilla, due to lack of demand.Anguilla and Curacao packages should be reintroduced in the near future.The firm has taken agent input to heart and, based on demand since Sept. 11, implemented a cancellation waiver protection plan.For $55 per person, clients are able to cancel their travel plans up to 48 hours prior to departure for a full refund."This gives agents and their clients a comfort factor, a stronger peace of mind," he said.In November, about 20% of all new bookings included the optional protection plan.In addition, to spur on travel agent bookings, the firm is paying 13% commission on all Dominican Republic plans, with more destinations to follow suit this year."We believe agents are having a hard enough time selling anything to begin with," Thorne said, "and the Dominican Republic is an extremely competitive market right now."Inter-Island added two new properties to its Dominican product that Thorne said are ideally suited to the American market -- the Coral Marien Beach Hotel & Spa in Puerto Plata and EMI's Sun Village Beach Resort in Cofresi Beach."We put a lot of eggs in that basket [in promoting the new hotels] because we feel very positive about the product," Thorne said. "We want happy campers."Travel 'ifs': Good deals, some doubtshe new year bodes well for travelers seeking sun and fun in the Caribbean, in terms of hotels, resorts and packages with rates far lower than have been seen since the 1970s and with more incentives and inclusions.If travelers can buy into security delays at airports, if the weather remains cold, if fear of flying is overridden by the lure of sun and sand and if online booking starts to pale in comparison with one-on-one personal consultation, the new year bodes well for agents, too.Granted, it's a cargo-load of "ifs," but the bottom line is that more flights from more gateways with faster connections and shorter layovers are key components of air travel in winter 2002 to many Caribbean destinations.Thanks to charter flights from secondary U.S. gateways offered by several tour operators as well as increased inter-island services, the new BWIA/LIAT alliance and new services from Air Jamaica, US Airways and Continental, the winter season could prove a windfall for agents, operators, hoteliers and travelers.