TW Forum: Making the most of Mexico


MEXICO CITY -- Travel agents and suppliers can use Mexico's beach appeal to their advantage by selling and creating products that will get sun worshippers off their beach chairs and into the country's interior.

That was a key message from Travel Weekly's inaugural Mexico Leadership Forum, held recently at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel here.

A panel of wholesalers debating the "challenges and opportunities" in travel to Mexico was unanimous in the opinion that Mexico is perceived as a sun, sand and beach destination.

Many of them agreed this was not necessarily a bad thing.

Still, the panelists urged the audience of Mexican suppliers and tourism officials to create products that tapped the country's rich history, culture and biodiversity, something the panelists said they believed is missing.

Perception is everything

"Mexico has the sun-and-sand image, but we all know that it offers so much more," said Ed Jackson, president of Runaway Tours.

"The key is to educate travel agents about Mexico so they can influence what clients do and where they go," Jackson said. "I feel the travel agents who succeed will be the agents who can ferret out unique destinations for clients."

Colette Baruth, director of marketing, Mexico and Latin America, for Gogo Worldwide Vacations, said the "traveling public's general perception of Mexico is important, and we shouldn't take it for granted."

"Sun and sand are the primary elements of what Americans are looking for in a vacation. Additional activities are supplemental," Baruth said.

"The more consumers we can get here, the more information we can give them about what else Mexico has to offer," she said.

Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development for MLT Vacations, said her customers perceive Mexico mostly as a beach destination, but the company also offers products like spas and soft-adventure itineraries that complement the sun-and-sand experience.

"Once customers go to Cancun and the Riviera Maya and experience the quality of the product, they will want to experience more," Moriarty said.

According to Ray Snisky, vice president of corporate development for the Mark Travel Corp., tour operators and agents "need to leverage the sun-and-sand attribute to open clients' eyes to what else Mexico has to offer."

"The value of sun and sand has helped Mexico maintain its position as a popular destination during recent rough economic times," he said.

Ray Daley, executive vice president of Apple Vacations, made the audience laugh when he said, "People should light a candle to the deities that account for Mexico's popularity as a sun-and-sand destination.

"Once we get them here, they come back."

Educating the trade

Education of the travel agent is key to educating the public about Mexico's myriad tourism possibilities, and one way that suppliers and Mexican tourism officials can educate agents is by bringing the classroom to them.

"We need to take into consideration the changing face of the travel agent," said Gogo's Baruth. "We aren't dealing as much with the mom and pops who really know the product. We need to bring the product to agents, as the destinations with specialist programs do."

Baruth commended the Mexico Tourism Board for its Mexico Expert seminars, which are operated by Destination Ventures, a Bend, Ore.-based meetings planning firm.

Designed to turn travel agents into Mexico specialists, the half-day, classroom-style seminars educate agents about ways to sell Mexico to leisure travelers, with an emphasis on niche markets such as spas, golf, fishing, scuba diving, weddings and honeymoons.

Francesca Bonavita, vice president of product marketing for Travel Impressions, challenged the panelists and audience to do more to educate travel agents about Mexico.

"I defy anyone here to say that we're really doing the best job we possibly can to educate the travel agent," Bonavita said.

"What we're doing is educating the same people over and over again. We need to expand our reach or possibly look at more creative ways to educate [agents]."

Apple Vacations' Daley disagreed, saying that focusing on the top-producing agents is smart business.

"[Travel agents are] pressed for time. They also are the most abused species on the planet. Ninety percent of the time an agent deals with a customer is by phone, and then it's to respond to a customer who saw a cheap fare on line and wants the agent to match it.

"So, if you educate your most productive agents about what you're doing to sell your product, you're going to get their attention and their business," Daley said.

Focus on a niche

One way that agents can boost their business to Mexico is to focus on selling niches, a subject tackled by a second panel at the conference.

Roberto Alcerreca, head of marketing for the Riviera Maya Promotion Board, said his organization has teamed with more than two dozen area hotels to offer themed packages promoting the region's wide range of activities, including scuba diving, family travel, beach vacations, cultural tourism, spas, golf and fishing.

The packages were put together in conjunction with more than a dozen scuba diving, water sports, land tour and car rental operators throughout the region.

Alejandro Yberri, director of marketing and customer service for Aeromexico, said the airline has conducted research on the size of niche marketing in Mexico and "found that the numbers are still very small."

Niche marketing "is in its infancy in Mexico," he said, "but I urge hotels, tourism organizations and tour operators to invest money to promote niche markets as a way to boost tourism."

Javier Barrera, group marketing officer for Grupo Posadas, which includes the Fiesta Americana chain, said Mexico "can't be all things to everyone."

He urged the Mexico Tourism Board to "focus its advertising dollars on markets that are proven successes and respond well to advertising, like families."

"Mexico has a lot to offer families," he said, "but we have failed to communicate this to them."

Wendy Hesketh, president of the Exhibition Association of Mexico, said hotels that are not occupied in the off-season with leisure visitors should look to the business traveler.

"Meetings and convention business offers a great windfall of opportunity for Mexico," she said.

Patrick Sanchez, chairman of the marketing and advertising committee for the Los Cabos Tourism Board and general manager of the Westin Regina in Los Cabos, said that in order for niche marketing to work, "it has to be laser-specific, has to go after a specific market."

He mentioned eco-tourism and spas as two markets with strong appeal.

"Maybe yesterday, having a spa at your resort was a plus, but today it's a must," Sanchez said.

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