All-inclusive resorts have long intrigued me. So much bang for the buck. The product has served me well and, most of the time, delivered on its promise of fun and magic.
The evolution from buffet lines and budget accommodations to butlers, beach yoga and Baby Clubs all started with Club Med, which turns 60 this year and, unlike yours truly, is showing no signs of age.
I honeymooned at Club Med La Caravelle in Guadeloupe in the '70s, brought my family to Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico, in the '80s and manned the helm of a wooden boat known as a yole in Marin Bay at Martinique's Club Med Buccaneers Creek in 2006.
I returned as a veteran reporter to La Caravelle in 2007 to view the renovated honeymoon nest following the resort's $30 million face-lift.
In 2009, I snorkeled with my daughter at Club Med Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic on the heels of its $34 million renovation.
So I've got some notches in my belt in terms of how this product has moved on and up over the years.
Back in the day, Club Med symbolized a party-hearty kind of place that catered to singles and couples who arrived on charter flights from the U.S. and departed a week later, some of them slightly worse for wear.
Plastic pop-off beads paid for bar drinks, nude sunbathing on one section of beach was accepted, guestrooms resembled cell blocks, rum punches were potent, meals were eaten family-style at round tables for eight, inhibitions melted and no one remained a stranger long.
It's come a long way, baby. Nowadays, guests encounter five-star suites, kid-friendly activities, world-class sports programs and gourmet cuisine.
But don't get me wrong: A fair amount of partying still goes on for those who are interested and of age.
However, one principle that has guided Club Med since the French firm first opened low-cost resorts in the 1950s still holds: Go into a place early, nail down the best and biggest location, establish the destination and watch the visitor buildup.
Illustrating that point: "We're still the biggest property in Punta Cana, but when Club Med opened there in 1980, we were all alone," said Xavier Mufraggi, the company's president and CEO for North America.
So alone, in fact, that Club Med built the airport to get its guests to its beaches and buffets.
Extensive and expensive renovations were part of a strategy that took hold in 2002, when Club Med cut its roster to 80 "villages" from 120 and embarked on a program to re-energize its product with upgrades, redos and expansions, forsaking its midmarket roots for a luxury-centered brand offering diverse activities for adults and families.
Between 2002 and 2007, Club Med pumped more than $160 million into its 11 resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil and Sandpiper in Port St. Lucie, Fla., which celebrated completion of its $25 million makeover in January.
"Creating a place for family was critical, in light of the changes and challenges of life today," Mufraggi said.
Within its 500-room Punta Cana resort, for example, is a 32-suite boutique hotel geared specifically to families, with private pools, a separate gate and concierge and nanny services. (See related story below about some independent properties that have embraced the all-inclusive concept.)
At Sandpiper, the only all-inclusive family resort in the U.S., Club Med introduced its Premium Sports feature, with tennis, golf and fitness instruction headed by experts within the sports industry.
"Now we have a perfect balance," Mufraggi said. "Club Med is one brand serving the couples and family markets. We cater to families by offering programs from the Baby Club through the Teen Club. We have a high rate of returnees, especially adults whose children grew up with us and who now return as couples."
The firm has even jumped into the meetings and conventions segment. Club Med Ixtapa opened a 6,500-square-foot convention center as part of its $27 million renovation in 2007.
"Groups are a growing part of our business," he said.
Club Med's reach is indeed global. It opened the first all-inclusive ski resort in China last November and plans to launch one resort per year in China over the next five years. Sinai Bay, Egypt also debuted in 2010.
"China, Vietnam, the Maldives and South America are our future targets," Mufraggi said. "We have three resorts in Brazil and are working on the fourth."
And the channel focus is clearly on travel retailers.
"There's more and more business from agents," Mufraggi said. "We have a specialist training program for them, but the real key is for them to experience us firsthand on a fam trip."
Club Med is not my sole everything-included barometer. I may be a Sandals junkie, as well, having bedded down on mahogany four-posters at many of its 14 resorts on five islands over the years.
The firm's basic philosophy since its founding 30 years ago hasn't changed much, although the customer has, according to Chairman and founder Butch Stewart.
"Our initial idea in creating an all-inclusive brand was to give consumers the best vacation possible and to exceed their expectations at every turn," Stewart said. "We've had to evolve as the customer has become more and more sophisticated. Our Luxury Included vacation concept, introduced in 2007, epitomizes how far the evolution of the product actually has come."
Travel agents play a pivotal role, according to Stewart.
"Sandals is not a cookie-cutter company," he said. "Each resort and destination is different, and agents know the nuances best."
The Certified Sandals Specialist program numbers 12,000 agents in North America and increases by 15% each year.
The list of all-inclusive brands is long, and, despite the effects of the economic recession, most of the major players have continued to expand their product line and enhance their properties.
Riu Hotels & Resorts
In fact, the financial crisis might have helped boost awareness of the all-inclusive vacation option by underscoring their value proposition, according to Spain-based Riu Hotels & Resorts.
Riu has 30 all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean out of a total of 65 worldwide and will open seven more this year in Morocco, Bulgaria, the Cape Verde Islands and the Dominican Republic.
Standing out from the crowded marketplace of all-inclusives takes some skill, especially with so many brands competing for the same family and couples segments and taking into account the strong brand loyalty among guests.
Divi Hotels & Resorts
Low-rise buildings on two miles of beach with plenty of restaurants and bars for its guests set Divi Hotels & Resorts' three Aruba properties apart from its larger competitors on the island, according to John Callaghan, director for the Aruba resorts.
Divi entered the all-inclusive game in 1994 with the 236-room Tamarijn Aruba and sees continued growth in the market, despite competition from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico and from Riu, Occidental and other all-inclusive brands, Callaghan said.
Occidental, another Spanish chain, introduced its first all-inclusive resort in 1983 in the Dominican Republic. Today it has three in the Caribbean, six in Mexico and a total of 15 worldwide under the Allegro, Occidental Grand and Royal Hideaway brands.
To up its stake in its Occidental Grand brand, which targets the luxury market, the firm introduced its Royal Club component, which offers boutique-style services within the resort, including a private concierge and separate check-in and checkout services.
A Jamaica-based powerhouse with three brands covering 13 resorts, including two in Panama and Brazil, SuperClubs "offers a little something different at various resorts, and some have age limits," according to Zein Nakash, vice president of marketing and environmental affairs. "Hedonism II and SuperFun are for couples and singles 18 and older, while Breezes targets families."
The company has had more than a few years to perfect its formula. Its first property, now Hedonism II, opened as Negril Beach Village in 1976. As the product has evolved, so has its agent support.
"Over 70% of our business is booked by agents," said Paul Pennicook, president of International Lifestyles, which represents SuperClubs. "We have a Cash Online program that rewards agents with cash bonuses for every booking. For training, we have the Certified Super Agent online program."
The all-inclusive product line makes for a busy dance card that is getting more and more crowded each year.
Iberostar Hotels & Resorts
The roster of Spanish-based, family-owned Iberostar Hotels & Resorts includes 17 all-inclusives in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico among its 101 hotels in 16 countries totaling 36,000 rooms.
New investments are slated for Mexico's Pacific coast and the Cancun area this year.
Quality, service, customer satisfaction and "continual reinvestment to innovate, refurbish, modernize and expand" are the hallmarks of Iberostar's philosophy, according to John Long, vice president of sales and marketing, North America.
"The brand is committed to providing guests with outstanding service and memorable vacation experiences," Long said.
That appears to be working. TripAdvisor reviewers noted that a stay in Iberostar's Grand Hotel Paraiso in the Riviera was "like living in a palace" and raved that services were "beyond expectations."
That property garnered a 2011 Travelers' Choice Award by voters on the TripAdvisor site.
Sol Melia, another major Spanish player, has the Mexican resort areas well in hand, with five properties on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and two more opening this year.
Its first all-inclusive opened in 1995 in Punta Cana, where it now has three resorts.
"We're always looking to add new countries and destinations and are actively looking in Central and South America, Asia and the Caribbean," a spokeswoman said. "While North America is the leading source market for the Caribbean, European guests help push the numbers up just as the local domestic market in Mexico does for the Mexican resorts, especially in the summer months."
What accounts for Sol Melia's rapid rise and expansion in the all-inclusive market, a company spokesman said, is clearly defined brands with "unique, best-of-category offerings."
He was alluding to the luxury Paradisus brand's food and beverage concepts, resort-chic contemporary decor, its Royal Service offering for adults and its Family Concierge programs.
Sol Melia's ME Cancun created its own category called Lifestyle. Restaurants, bars and the beach club welcome guests from other hotels on a "pay-as-you-play" basis, while resort guests get it all for one all-inclusive rate.
Based in Montego Bay with four resorts in Jamaica, Couples Resorts does a brisk wedding business, with more than 800 ceremonies per year.
Credit goes to founder Abe Issa, who turned the original Tower Isle property into the first all-inclusive, couples-only resort in 1978.
Keeping the product fresh through client focus programs that enhance the repeat guest experience, and its community message board that enables guests to ask questions, write reviews and share comments are proven methods linked to the company's upward booking trend over the last two years, a spokesman said.
Couples also features complimentary, off-site excursions so that clients "love and experience the Jamaican culture off property," according to the spokesperson.
More than 85% of all business is agent-based, and its preferred-agency program offers bonus commissions, free nights and one-on-one training sessions.