All-inclusive resort brands are taking note of an industry-wide travel truth: Today’s traveler seeks a personalized vacation experience tailored to their individual interests, trip goals and budgetary resources. The result is an ever-expanding range of properties, strategies and amenities designed to provide customized experiences in an all-inclusive environment. The good news for travel advisors? The specific needs of the traveler, coupled with experiential innovation from the all-inclusive market, creates a valuable opportunity for agents to craft custom travel that satisfies clients and ultimately boosts business.  

“Travel has changed dramatically,” says Blanca Rodriguez, a travel advisor with Prescription for Travel in Westlake Village, California. “Before, the options were A, B and C. Now, you’re going through the whole alphabet in order to please the client. And if you listen, it pays off.”

According to Deloitte’s 2017 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook, consumer expectations generally center around a few “overarching themes,” including authenticity, personalized experiences and “removal of friction.” Among travelers, this translates to a desire for a hassle-free booking experience that results in a totally customized vacation. It’s a tall order in the Internet age, when the sheer number of choices can easily overwhelm a traveler. In the all-inclusive market alone, considerations range from destination and budget to tiers of service, proximity to attractions, number of restaurants...and the list goes on.

While this challenge can be a burden to the consumer, it perfectly sets the stage for the travel advisor, who is expertly qualified to remove travel planning “friction” by helping clients sort through the many possibilities and find their perfect resort experience. And indeed, more and more travelers are turning to agents to get the vacations they want—research released by ASTA in 2016 showed that 22% of the consumers polled had booked through a travel agent in the past year (the highest share reported in the past three years), with an impressive 30% of millennials turning to agents for travel planning.

What’s more, travelers who are using agents are increasingly happy with the resulting experiences. The same ASTA study revealed that 63% of agent users said using one makes the overall trip experience better, while results from Travel Weekly’s 2016 Consumer Trends report found that satisfaction ratings for booking with travel agents have improved each year since 2012, with 66% now “somewhat satisfied” or “extremely satisfied” with the experience. 

With rising demand among clients for all-inclusive vacations—plus the diversity of offerings available—these resorts have become a valuable resource for travel planners looking to satisfy the individual needs of their clients to create repeat customers, gain referrals and boost their overall business. Here’s a look at how the market is evolving to meet travelers’ needs, and how agents can match clients to the right property for better bookings than ever.      

Creating an All-Inclusive Experience
As “experiential travel” has become one of the industry’s hottest trends, modern all-inclusive vacations have accordingly become much more than accommodations, meals and drinks. Travelers now expect a full-on experience while at the property, complete with activities, a variety of dining and entertainment options, and an assortment of facilities and amenities for both day and night—and resorts are ready to deliver it all, from cooking classes to interaction with local culture and beyond.

“In the past, guests’ perceptions of the all-inclusive hotel included meals and basic beverage service,” says Ana Diaz Coreas, senior director of sales, USA for Barceló Hotel Group. “Nowadays, we have a more diverse clientele that not only expects a selection of fine dining, but also on-property experiences that range from room amenities to activities throughout the day to cultural immersion that reflects the destination they are in. It really has become an experience versus just a stay.”

To create that full experience, agents must find a resort that offers the right range of activities for the client’s interests, but also a property that has the right atmosphere for the trip. Fortunately, many all-inclusive companies are making this process easier for agents by becoming more niche-focused, differentiating their brands and properties for target markets. 

“Many resorts have adjusted their property experience to appeal to certain niche markets,” says Carlos Varona, owner of Victory Travel & Tours in Sherman Oaks, California. “You can walk onto a property and right away know its exact specialty: family, romance, singles, party people. And they’re available for all different kinds of audiences, all different kinds of people.”

A striking example of niche branding is the multi-property resort complex, offered by numerous all-inclusive companies and popular in destinations like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Such complexes house multiple properties from a company’s brands, and are particularly useful for booking multigenerational groups, destination weddings and other large trips, as they often include both adult-only offerings and family-friendly features in separate spaces, as well as areas for the whole group to come together—thus meeting the needs of individual travelers as well as those of the group as a whole. In addition, many complexes feature shared facilities such as golf courses and water parks that keep guests of all ages entertained without leaving the property.

Even within a single resort, agents can create customized experiences for different clients or members of a group. For example, some properties offer varying levels of service to accommodate different budgets, including optional upgrades and packages at an extra cost, guestrooms that come complete with private butlers or concierges, even hotels-within-hotels for those seeking an exclusive, VIP experience.

“If there’s a multigenerational group looking for several different experiences, there are resorts that offer them within the same hotel,” says Varona. “So you don’t have to separate a group; you just have to customize for the different people inside the group.”

Precise Customization
With so many all-inclusive choices on the market today, picking the right property, experiences and add-ons relies heavily on qualifying the clients properly—and sometimes extensively.

“It is essential to learn what is in the client’s mind,” says Coreas. “The agent should first choose the right destination based on their client’s preferences and needs, and then look for the appropriate resort experience for their client’s desires.”

Rodriguez agrees that matching clients to their ideal property can be a process, but that the work is worth it in the end. “When I take a phone call, I have a whole list of questions that I ask the client before I know what they’re looking for,” she explains. “Even though sometimes it takes one hour, two hours, three hours or even a day to please that client, it pays off because they call me back and they send me referrals.” 

Here are some of the main factors to consider for optimal client–property matching:

Initial Information
* If the client already knows where they want to go, does the destination offer the experiences they want? Or would another place be better suited to the trip
* If they are unsure where they want to go, what are they looking for both on and off the property?  

Trip Purpose and Travelers:
* Who is going on the trip? If it’s a group, what ages will need to be accommodated?
* What is the purpose of the trip? Romance, family time, pampering, exploration?

Digging Deeper
Trip Atmosphere:
* What type of environment meets the general needs of the traveler/group? Adults-only, family-focused, lively and exciting, peaceful and secluded, luxurious, budget-friendly? 
* Do they want a small, intimate property, or a larger resort/complex with more amenities?

Resort Requirements:
* What on-property activities and features are important? Do they want to focus on relaxation or have access to diverse activities and entertainment?
* Will different members of the group want different experiences, have differing budgets or want different levels of luxury/service? 
* What kind and variety of dining experiences do they want? For example, buffets or à la carte restaurants, international or local cuisine, tasting menus, chef’s tables, etc. Do they require reservation-free dining or are they willing to plan meals ahead of time? Are there special dietary needs, and can the resort accommodate them?
* If they’re traveling with children, are there activities, amenities and/or clubs for all ages? 

Final Touches 
Add-Ons and Extras:
* Are extra-cost opportunities available at the property (motorized watersports, scuba lessons, spa treatments)? Are there special packages available that appeal to their personal interests and desires? 
* Can they upgrade to better quality alcohol for a fee? Gain access to exclusive areas or extra services and amenities?

Destination Immersion:
* If the client wants to explore off-property, can they book commissionable excursions with the travel agent prior to travel? At the hotel? 
* Is the client interested in local immersion? Which properties incorporate the local culture, cuisine and environment into the guest experience?

Sealing the Deal
Of course, understanding a client’s trip requirements is only half of the equation; travel agents must know which destinations, brands and resorts fulfill those needs. To this end, it’s important for agents to arrange as many site visits as possible, to best understand the overall property experience and make confident recommendations.

“[Visiting properties] is by far the most powerful way of experiencing anything,” says Vic Sarkisyan, president of SVH Tours and Travel Services in Glendale, California. “We stay there for a couple nights to see what it’s really like waking up there in the morning, or experiencing the restaurants as a real traveler. If you want to know about the product, use it.” 

But with so many all-inclusive resorts—and more coming into the market all the time—no single agent stands a chance of seeing them all. Fortunately, there’s an array of increasingly sophisticated ways for agents to learn about brand-level offerings and individual property features, both in person and online. 

“The number-one way to learn is the site visit, but the number-two is seminar presentations, when the hotel sends a rep person to share news and show videos or brochures,” says Varona. “And number three is the web; you have pictures and videos, and can even show the hotel to your client digitally.”

Web-based tools like training programs, webinars, videos and booking tools that allow comparisons are crucial sources of information for agents today—but another valuable resource is client feedback. By following up after a trip (or even during, if the need arises), agents can learn a great deal about both the property and their client; for example, how the staff treats guests and address problems, the overall condition of the property, and what the traveler liked or didn’t like about their vacation. 

“We call our customers after they return from their trip to ensure they had a great time,” says Sarkisyan. “If they are willing, we also run surveys and collect data to better serve them the next time around.” Not only does this show that the agent cares about the customer’s experiences and satisfaction, but it helps advisors better customize future trips for the client.

Social media has become another useful tool for agents to follow up with clients and get feedback, offering a look at their vacation experience and trip satisfaction through their posts. Being connected to clients on social media can even help agents better customize their trips: As Deloitte’s Industry Outlook puts it, “The more you know about your customer, the better equipped you are to personalize. In this respect, social networks…may be the key to achieving true personalization. Every day, users of these networks reveal intimate information about themselves that could give travel companies a better lens into customer travel preferences.”

According to Rodriguez, everything from customized vacation planning to post-trip follow-up are all part of the extensive service clients expect from travel agents today. “The new generation feels like, ‘You’re my travel agent, you’re going to take care of me all the way from the beginning to the very end and beyond.’ And that’s how the business is.”

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