With growth under way, Sandos works for name recognition

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Sandos Hotels & Resorts, a 4-year-old company based in Spain, has moved quickly to establish itself in Mexico's Riviera Maya region and plans to expand even further.

In April, the company opened its fourth hotel on the Riviera Maya: the all-inclusive Sandos Playacar Riviera Hotel & Spa. The property, connected to Sandos Playacar Beach Resort & Spa, has 400 rooms adjacent to the 18-hole Playacar Golf Course. The two properties also share a new Sandos Spa facility, which has 22 treatment rooms, sauna, steam room and other amenities.

This new property is the latest chapter in a story of growth that began in 2004, when the company opened its first property in Lanzarote, the Canary Islands resort destination. Sandos' first Riviera Maya foray, the Sandos Caracol, opened following a major renovation to an existing property in 2006.

The company is now aiming to establish its identity firmly with travelers, according to Jacques de Paep, director of sales and marketing. "It's important when you open properties that you decide who you're going to be and who your public is going to be," he said. "We decided early on that we were going to keep the right balance between value for money and service. We could have tried to go the six-star route, but we stick solidly in the four- to five-star category. We cater to families, [especially] during the summer months, and people who are value-conscious during the winter months. And we cater to singles and couples who still want a decent value."

De Paep said initial reaction to the Sandos Playacar Riviera has been "tremendous," especially considering the opening date. "When you open a property in the middle of the year, it is hard to position it in North America, because it's a dwindling period of bookings and you're not really in the brochures or programs yet. So we sold it for a year or so [in advance], without the hope of having it open for the high season. Even so, we're having occupancy of about 70%."

Change of scenery

Even though they carry the same brand, each Sandos property offers a slightly different ambience, said de Paep. "There is a distinction between the properties," he said. "We've got the Sandos Playacar complex, which includes the Playacar Beach and Playacar Riviera. They're the traditional hotel, the U-shape, with the gardens and pools in between; it feels protected. It's a really fun atmosphere if you like people. It's located on the best beach on Playa del Carmen, one of those beaches where you wade in; no problem for the kids."

At the Caracol property, about six miles north of Playa del Carmen, "the rooms aren't the traditional hotel setting," de Paep said. "They are set in thatched-roof villas, with just 12 to 18 rooms per villa. It's all set in a huge ecological zone: we've maintained the jungle, we've kept the lagoon, there is a lot of wildlife around. It has a different feel to it."

All properties are marketed as family-friendly, said de Paep. One child under the age of 12 stays, eats and participates in the children's program for free, and second and third children receive a 50% discount when staying in the same accommodations as paying adults. Several of the hotels' room categories accommodate larger families. The junior suites, for example, have two double beds or one king-size bed, a separate living area with double sofa bed and an outdoor terrace with garden, pool or jungle view. A patio whirlpool bath is also available in junior suites at Sandos Caracol Beach Resort & Spa and Sandos Select Club.

"We are fortunate that our architects and interior designers designed each property with large families in mind, as it is a rare amenity to find hotel suites that can comfortably accommodate two adults and three children," de Paep said. Each property also offers a Kids Club and Teen Club.

Sandos also actively targets the wedding niche; the company offers a Sandos Wedding Package for couples who book a minimum of five rooms for five nights or longer. The package includes personalized service from a wedding coordinator, a decorated wedding site, cake, commemorative certificate and other amenities.

Home economics

De Paep said that he had already seen the effects of U.S. economic problems. "The reality is that if the airlines are affected and have to up their fares, we are affected. We have to try as much as we can to be aggressively priced to keep bookings up."

Still, de Paep said, his brand's positioning might help deal with economic slowdowns. "We are up over last year, partly because we are a young company and we are well-positioned," he said. "We offer value."

To instill more brand loyalty, Sandos recently introduced the Sandos4u VIP Reward Club, which offers added amenities based on the frequency of travel to any of the Riviera Maya properties. "We found we need to reward the visitor who comes back," de Paep said. "We're a small brand with a specific message. The new VIP Reward Club enables us to show our appreciation to our repeat guests through value-added perks. So far, we've got about 7,000 people signed up."

Reward Club members are divided into two categories, based on travel frequency.

"Occasional" travelers receive benefits including discounts at the hotel shop and on hotel services, a welcome fruit platter and welcome gift. "Frequent" guests receive the same benefits plus upgrades to superior rooms, late checkout and VIP amenities including bathrobes, slippers and additional bath amenities.

Sandos has more growth on tap. A new property is to open in late 2009 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and "our ownership is looking at Los Cabos." said de Paep.

Rack rates range from about $185 to $550 per night, double. For more information, call (866) 887-5601 or visit www.sandoshotels.com.

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