Small Hotels Can Have Large Appeal to Clients

By Mimi Kmet [TravelAge]

Good things can come in small packages in the Caribbean. And some travel agents have found that hotels of fewer than 100 rooms, many of which are independently owned and operated, can be more appealing to clients than large high rises and sprawling resorts. "Sometimes the small hotels are locally owned, so you have more of a cultural connection,"said Marilyn Harris, senior travel advisor for Wellesley Hills Travel in Wellesley, Mass.

While she honors specific requests for large hotels, when she gets what she calls a "send me" call -- a general request for the Caribbean -- she sends them to places like the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Tobago and Anguilla, which tend to have a large proportion of small hotels, she said. Small hotels aren't for everybody, she admitted: "People who want more adventure book small hotels. Families tend to want more predictable lodging, because they have to think of their children, and the large hotels are more likely to have children's programs."

According to Suzanne Sullivan, a travel agent at Hello World Travel in Sparks, Nev., qualifying your clients becomes paramount when considering a small hotel. For example, said Sullivan, who is president of the Caribbean Tourism Organization's Sierra Nevada chapter, she wouldn't book a small hotel for her more upscale clients who have stayed at four-and five-star properties and are used to luxurious amenities and surroundings. However, she does book families, she added, noting that location and affordability make up for the lack of children's programs.

"More Americans are learning the values that the Europeans have had for years -- they want to spend more time and less money. They want good value and are not looking for down pillows," she said. She also books small hotels for "businessmen paying out of their own pockets who want pay to $80 to $90 a night. They are from small companies that don't necessarily want restaurants and bars," she said.

While many small properties cost less, however, "a small hotel doesn't mean a cheap hotel," said Jacques Abitan, president of Festa Holidays, a Miami-based wholesaler that offers small hotel packages. "Some are $30 [a night], some are $400." Small hotels also are easier to work with, and their staffs are more personable and "take a little more time," Sullivan added. Harris agreed: "You can call or fax a small hotel and ask them to take care of your clients." In large hotels, she said, the request can get lost. She once faxed a large hotel to request a bottle of champagne for a honeymoon couple, and it didn't happen.

The hardest part of booking small hotels, agents said, is actually making the booking. "They're not typically offered with packages; so you most likely would need to do your own research," Harris said. In addition, they "don't have the marketing dollars of larger hotels, and it's hard to find reservations services for them," Sullivan said.

But that is changing, with programs like Festa Holidays' The Real Caribbean: Distinctive Caribbean Small Hotels. Sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel Association, American Express and American Airlines, the program is meant to "give small Caribbean hotels access to American Airlines' bulk fares to the Caribbean," Abitan said. In addition, the CHA Reservations and Marketing Service publishes a "Gold Book" of properties and provides a global reservations system via Robert Reid Associates/ Utell International, which puts all hotels on a level playing field, said William Canavan, Robert Reid/Utell's director of resort development.

Smaller hotel organizations focusing on individual destinations also serve as resources. For example, Bahamas-based Small Treasures is a group of 12 properties in Nassau and Paradise Island that have banded together in a joint marketing effort.

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