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
That was a key message from Travel Weekly's inaugural Mexico
Leadership Forum, held recently at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel
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
"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
"Sun and sand are the primary elements of what Americans are
looking for in a vacation. Additional activities are supplemental,"
"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
"Once customers go to Cancun and the Riviera Maya and experience
the quality of the product, they will want to experience more,"
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
He mentioned eco-tourism and spas as two markets with strong
"Maybe yesterday, having a spa at your resort was a plus, but
today it's a must," Sanchez said.