Apple Leisure Group opts to look beyond recent challenges

Apple Leisure Group chairman Alex Zozaya raises a glass at the company's annual awards gala in Chicago.

CHICAGO -- What with merger hiccups, hurricanes, seaweed in Mexico and sensational media reports about tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, the past year has been a rough one for Apple Leisure Group and its partners. And the troubles dominated talk last week at Apple Vacations' annual Golden Apple awards gala.

Before officials began presenting the company's Crystal Apple Awards to hotel and resort partners on Sept. 9, Apple Vacations president John Tarkowski told those assembled, "At the end of the day, the mistruths, the hyped-up mass media and social media have not only enormously impacted our businesses but the lives of the hard-working people in the destinations we send [clients] to. And it's tragic, quite honestly."

Tarkowski said occupancy in the Dominican Republic has been "very, very low since June," when headlines in newspapers across the U.S. raised questions about whether tainted alcohol was to blame for at least nine tourist deaths at resorts in Punta Cana. 

During a panel with hoteliers on Tuesday, Apple Leisure Group executive chairman Alex Zozaya noted that more tourists died in New Orleans last year "than in the last 10 years in the Dominican Republic."

While some of the highly publicized Dominican Republic tourist deaths had been ruled heart attacks or other natural causes, the FBI is investigating, and travel companies are anxiously awaiting toxicology reports. Apple officials and hoteliers on the panel expressed confidence that the reports will prove the deaths were natural. 

"So what do we do?" Tarkowski asked. "Sit around or push forward, driving back demand even if that means cutting our pricing? Those are tough conversations, but we have to have them to get businesses back to those areas."

In addition to problems in the Dominican Republic, yet another devastating Caribbean hurricane and an outbreak of sargassum along the Yucatan Peninsula, Apple Leisure Group over the past year has weathered hiccups associated with its merger with Mark Travel. The company acknowledged that melding the two enterprises' technology platforms presented more challenges than had been expected, and it has lost some of Mark's hotel partners because they compete with Apple Leisure Group-owned AMResorts.

Zozaya admitted that the transition "was more difficult than expected" but said at the gala that the merger was "one of the most important things in the history of our company. ... We will grow and continue to be the leaders in this space."

Zozaya also introduced Alejandro Reynal, who is succeeding him as Apple Leisure Group CEO.

Reynal most recently served for seven years as CEO of Atento, a customer relationship management company. Before that, he held management positions at Telefonica, Coca-Cola and the Gap. 

Reynal said he comes from an industry with an emphasis on the customer experience and the use of technology to enable a positive experience, adding, "I hope to apply those things here."

"I'm very confident that the future is very bright," he said. "The opportunities far outweigh the challenges that we have ahead of us."

In Tuesday's panel discussion, Zozaya denied rumors that Reynal had been hired to take the company public.

"Going public is just one alternative," he said, cautioning that though an IPO is an option, it definitely will not happen in the short term.

"We are not ready, and we may not even go that route," Zozaya said.

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