When Travel Weekly announces its annual Readers' Choice Awards, it does so with confidence. Not only are our judges avid travelers themselves with specific knowledge of the cities, countries and islands of the world, they are also travel professionals who hear firsthand the compliments and complaints of thousands of U.S. consumers regarding suppliers around the globe.
"These awards identify the industry's finest," said Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly's vice president and editor in chief. "The professionals who read and rely on Travel Weekly have the expertise to select those businesses, destinations and hotels that provide a higher level of service to their clients. Our readers can be confident that these winners represent the best this industry has to offer."
Following are the winners in their respective categories:
Top Resort Worldwide
The St. Regis Bora Bora, a Starwood resort, was voted the Top Resort Worldwide for 2008 by Travel Weekly readers. This was the resort's third nomination in this category and its first win. The St. Regis Bora Bora opened in 2006 at a cost of $1 million per bungalow. The resort was Starwood's first St. Regis hotel in French Polynesia. The 44-acre property offers views fronting the main island of Bora Bora; Mount Otemanu, which towers over the island; and Tahaa and Raiatea, remote islands on the horizon. The resort's accommodations attract discriminating travelers from around the world. Its two-bedroom, overwater villas featuring private swimming pools built over a lagoon were a first for French Polynesia.
As hotel companies pursue new opportunities despite the global recession, 2008 will go down as a year when more hotel rooms came on line than in any year in history. New hotels are still opening in record numbers across the globe, the culmination of a four-year, post-9/11 building boom.
InterContinental has the largest construction pipeline in the world, with 1,645 projects and 218,219 rooms, according to Lodging Econometrics, a firm that tracks global hotel development. Marriott, with 946 projects calling for 150,873 rooms, has the largest global pipeline of luxury and upper upscale projects. Hilton Hotels' global pipeline has 1,027 projects and 139,201 rooms.
The newbuilds leading domestic growth are the upscale brands followed by midmarket brands, according to the 2009 Travel Weekly Ultimate Hotel Guide. The upscale brands in the pipeline include new lifestyle brands like Starwood's Aloft and IHG's Indigo as well as Marriott's Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn and Springhill Suites brands, and Hilton's Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites. Many of the hotel companies and brands named here were finalists in this year's Readers' Choice awards; some were winners.
As new properties and new brands changed the hotel landscape here and abroad, Travel Weekly added to its portfolio of hotel categories. The new 2008 categories are Boutique Hotels, Limited Service Hotels, Casino Hotels and Spa Hotels or Resorts.
For 2008, the Best in Hotels award changed hands in six of 12 categories.
InterContinental Hotels Group wrested Best in Asia from two-consecutive-year winner Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Best in Europe from Starwood Hotels & Resorts, also the winner for the preceding two years. InterContinental had been voted Best in Europe in 2005. Accepting the awards for Best in Asia and Best in Europe on behalf of InterContinental was Mike Fegley, vice president of global sales.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts recaptured the Best in the South Pacific award by unseating last year's winner, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. Starwood had won the category in 2006. Accepting for Starwood was Chris Austin, vice president of global customer partnerships, leisure and luxury.
Austin also accepted the award for Westin Hotels & Resorts, voted Best Upscale Hotel Chain. Westin outdid prior winners Fairmont (2007), Four Seasons (2006) and Ritz-Carlton (2004 and 2005).
Four Seasons Hotel & Resorts won for Best in Luxury, a category that has shifted back and forth over the years between Four Seasons and last year's winner, Ritz-Carlton. Four Seasons had won the category in 2003 and 2006. Accepting for Four Seasons was Christoph Schmidinger, general manager, Four Seasons Hotel New York.
Hampton Inn, a Hilton brand, won the Best Midprice Hotel category, undoing Marriott Hotels & Resorts, which had held the title for three straight years.
Marriott International, the winner since 2005 in the Domestic Hotels and Sales & Service categories, did it again, capturing both categories for the fourth year. Accepting the awards was Julius Robinson, vice president of sales, Marriott International.
Palace Resorts took the Best in Mexico award for the third straight time. Accepting was Lizzie Cole, director of marketing for the Quintana Roo, Mexico, tourism office.
Sandals Resorts repeated prior wins in the Best in Caribbean and Best All-Inclusive categories. This was Sandals' sixth consecutive award for Caribbean and its third for All-Inclusive. Accepting the awards was Warren Cohen, Sandals' senior vice president of marketing and sales development.
In the categories introduced this year, Travel Weekly readers made the following choices:
- Best Boutique Hotel: Karisma Hotels & Resorts. Accepting the award was Rafael Feliz, president of Premier Worldwide Marketing, representatives of Karisma Hotels & Resorts.
- Best Limited Service Hotel: Courtyard by Marriott. Accepting the award for Courtyard by Marriott were Julius Robinson, vice president of sales, Marriott International, and Brian Gilligan, marketing director for the New York Marriott Hotels.
- Best Casino Hotel: Bellagio Las Vegas.
- Best Spa Hotel or Resort: Canyon Ranch, Tucson, Ariz.
In his 2008 holiday message, James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, looked back at 2008 as "one for the record books."
But for one night in December, the record book that mattered most to the world's top airlines was the one that would carry the names of the 2008 Travel Weekly Readers' Choice Award winners in the domestic and international categories.
American Airlines took the honors in the Best Domestic Airline category. The laurels for Best International Airline went to Virgin Atlantic. Accepting the award for American Airlines was Shasi Khemlani, district sales manager.
American had previous wins in the Domestic Airline category, in 2005 and 2006, and had taken top honors in the International category in 2007. This was Virgin Atlantic's third win, having held the title in 2004 and 2006. Accepting for Virgin Atlantic was Chris Rossi, senior vice president.
The cruise experience exceeds expectations on a wide range of important vacation attributes, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. On a comparative basis vs. other vacation categories, cruising consistently receives top marks.
This year, as new ships come on line, cruisers will revel in more options than ever before. The newest trends include onboard spa cabins that provide unlimited use of spa amenities; private indoor or outdoor VIP areas; and larger ships with even more dining options.
Among cruise lines, Royal Caribbean International remains a favorite of Travel Weekly readers. For the sixth time, the line captured the titles of Best Cruise Line Overall and Best Cruise Line in the Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean International also took Best in Sales & Service, displacing Carnival Cruise Lines, which had held that title for the previous four years.
Accepting the award for Best Cruise Line Overall and Best in Sales & Service from Royal Caribbean were Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, and Ken Muskat, vice president of sales. Freed also accepted the cruise line's plaque for Best in Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean's ship Freedom of the Seas was voted Best Ship Overall. Freed accepted the award for that win, as well. Last year's winner was Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Spirit.
Carnival Cruise Lines outdid Royal Caribbean in the Best Domestic Cruise Line category for the second consecutive year. (Royal Caribbean had held that award from 2003 through 2006.) Accepting the award for Carnival Cruise Lines was Lynn Torrent, senior vice president of sales and guest services.
Celebrity Cruises excelled among voters in the year's new category, Best in Premium Cruise Lines. Accepting the award for Celebrity was Dondra Ritzenthaler, senior vice president of sales for Celebrity Cruises.
In the cruise ship category, Azamara Cruises' Azamara Journey was voted Best Premium Ship. Azamara is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises. Dondra Ritzenthaler of Celebrity Cruises accepted the award.
Regent Seven Seas claimed Best Luxury Cruise Line for the fifth straight year. Accepting for Regent Seven Seas was Carol Herron, director of sales for the New York region.
Princess Cruises took Best in Alaska for the fifth year. The line had lost the title only once before, to Holland America Line in 2006. Accepting the award was James Baer, vice president of national sales for Princess and Cunard.
Among cruise ships, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 was voted the most luxurious ship afloat for the fifth consecutive year. Accepting the award for the QM2 were Baer and Lee Robinson, vice president of field sales, Princess Cruises.
Holland America Line captured the Best in Europe title for the fourth time since 2004. Holland America also won accolades for its ship, the Eurodam, which was voted Rookie of the Year for 2008. Accepting for Holland America were Christine Stevens, director of sales, Eastern region, and Dawn Pennington, business development manager.
Riverboat Cruise Line
Despite the economy, the river cruise industry continues to expand. River cruise operators reported anywhere from 50% to 90% growth in bookings year over year for the past two years, and they estimate at least a 50% growth in 2009.
Viking River Cruises, which offers river cruises and cruise tours through Europe, Russia, Ukraine and China, was voted No. 1 in the category for the third year in a row. Since its 1997 inception, the company has grown to a fleet of 21 vessels. Accepting the award was Jeff O'Rourke, senior director of national accounts.
Travel Impressions, nominated for Best Tour Operator in nine out of 11 categories, was named Best Tour Operator, Sales & Service for the fourth straight year and was cited for the third consecutive year as Best Domestic Tour Operator.
Accepting the award for Best Domestic Tour Operator was Steve Gorga, president and CEO. Accepting the plaque for Best in Sales & Service were Gorga; John Hanratty, chief marketing officer; Barbie Groves, vice president of sales; Peter Sluka, COO; and Elyse Elkin, vice president of corporate strategic products and Latin America.
Globus was voted Best in Asia-Pacific for the fourth consecutive year and Best in Europe for the fourth time. Accepting both awards for Globus was Scott Nisbet, COO.
Abercrombie & Kent made it four straight wins in four years in the categories Best in Africa and Best Luxury Tour Operator. Accepting the awards for A&K was Scott Wiseman, president.
It was five in a row for Apple Vacations in the Best in Mexico category and three in four years for Best in Caribbean. (Apple was undone in the Caribbean in 2006 by Gogo Worldwide Vacations. Gogo was nominated for an award in nine categories this year but came away empty-handed.) Accepting the awards for Apple Vacations was Jeff Mullen, executive vice president.
Pleasant Holidays was voted Best in Hawaii by Travel Weekly readers for the fifth consecutive year. Accepting for Pleasant Holidays was Jeremiah Healy, senior vice president of sales.
Tauck World Discovery won Best in Canada for the fourth straight year. Accepting the award for Tauck was CEO Dan Mahar.
Trafalgar Tours repeated its 2007 win as Best International Tour Operator for 2008. Accepting the award for Trafalgar was Paul Wiseman, president.
In the destinations categories, Travel Weekly readers' choices varied little from years past.
Among regions, countries, cities and islands, six of the eight honorees won the award for the fifth consecutive year. Others made it four or three years in a row.
The big news in the Caribbean category was the emergence of the Dominican Republic, which won Best in the Caribbean for the first time, toppling previous winners Jamaica (2007 and 2004), St. Lucia (2006) and the U.S. Virgin Islands (2005).
Accepting the award for the Dominican Republic were Vice Ministers of Tourism for the Dominican Republic Magaly Toribio and Fausto Fernandez, and Lucien Echavarria, director of the Dominican Republic Tourism Information Office in New York.
Another newcomer to the nominees, Barcelona, took center stage this year, winning the award for Best City in Europe. Barcelona beat out previous winners Rome (2007), Paris (2006) and London (2003 and 2005). Cities as a category was eliminated for 2004.
Vancouver, named Best in Canada, has won the award every year since 2003. Accepting for Vancouver was Tom Karins, executive director of leisure travel sales, Canadian Tourism Commission.
Australia was voted Best Asia-Pacific country for the fifth time. Italy was voted tops in Europe, also for the fifth year.
Hawaii won Best in the U.S. for the fifth straight year, and Maui took Best in Hawaii, also for the fifth consecutive year. Accepting on behalf of Hawaii and Maui was Tim MacDonald, president of Classic Vacations.
The Riviera Maya was voted Best in Mexico for the fifth year. Accepting for the Riviera Maya were Javier Aranda, tourism director, and Gabriela Verduzco, director of promotions, for the Riviera Maya Tourism Bureau.
Costa Rica was named Best in South-Central America for the third straight year.
Among cities around the world, Hong Kong was voted Best City in the Asia-Pacific region, unseating three-time winner, Sydney. Hong Kong had won the award previously, in 2003. Accepting for Hong Kong was Diana Budiman of the Hong Kong Tourist Association in New York.
Las Vegas won Best City in the U.S. for the fourth time.
Hertz emerged as the perennial winner in both the Domestic and International car rental markets. This year marks the company's sixth straight win in the Domestic market category and its fifth overall in the International category. Accepting the awards for Hertz was Pamela Wright, division vice president, travel industry and partnership sales for Hertz Corp.
For the sixth year, Walt Disney World captured Travel Weekly readers' imaginations as they voted for Best in Theme Parks. Accepting the award for Walt Disney World was Maryellen Kline, director of travel agency sales, Disney Destinations.
Travel Weekly honored the winners of its sixth annual Readers' Choice Awards at a ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Dec. 11. The awards were presented to those suppliers who, in the judgment of our readers, led the way in product and service during the past year. Travel Weekly also honored the recipients of its 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Award recipients, representing the best of the best of the travel industry in 56 categories, were chosen by the readers of Travel Weekly in several rounds of online voting. The open-ballot phase of the voting was conducted during the summer. Readers were invited to write in the names of any company they believed best exemplified each particular category. The leading vote recipients were identified as finalists, and voting on finalists took place through early November. The Lifetime Achievement Award winners were chosen by the awards committee of the Travel Weekly staff.
Charitable causes cited
Travel Weekly recognized three charitable causes during the awards ceremony: Tourism Cares, the Terry Lee Scholarship Foundation and the Make a Mark Foundation.
Tourism Cares endeavors to preserve historical sites and treasures through volunteerism and grants and to provide scholarships for students studying hospitality and tourism.
The Terry Lee scholarship was created by the Travel Institute, Marriott International and Travel Weekly for the education of the family of Lee, the senior director of travel agency programs and relations for Marriott International who died in 2004.
The Make a Mark Foundation builds clinics, schools and orphanages in developing countries throughout the world.
Lifetime Achievement Awards
Travel Weekly's annual Lifetime Achievement Award pays tribute to those individuals whose efforts have led to extraordinary results within an organization and who have made significant contributions to the industry as a whole.
The 2008 honorees are: Gordon Bethune, managing director, GB-1 Partners; Ron Letterman, vice chairman, Classic Vacations; and Jesse Upchurch, chairman, Virtuoso.
Past CEO and chairman, Continental Airlines
Gordon Bethune earned acclaim at Continental Airlines for spearheading a dramatic turnaround for the corporation. When he joined the troubled carrier as president and COO in February 1994, Continental ranked last in every measurable performance metric.
Bethune assumed the role of CEO in November 1994 and was elected chairman of the board in September 1996. His effort to rescue the financially troubled carrier, as chronicled in his best-selling business novel "From Worst to First," made him a legend in commercial aviation.
Business Week named Bethune one of the top 25 global managers for 1996, and in 1997, Aviation Week & Space Technology, along with the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, honored him with the Laureate in Aviation trophy. In 2004, the Wings Club presented him with its Distinguished Achievement Award, a distinction shared by past recipients such as Neil Armstrong, Robert Six, President George H.W. Bush, Fred Smith and Herb Kelleher.
Bethune is a graduate of Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program and is a licensed commercial pilot, type-rated on Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft as well as the DC-3. He serves on the boards of directors of Honeywell International, Sprint Nextel, Prudential Financial and the New York Academy of Arts.
Bethune retired from Continental in 2004 and now serves as a contributor for CNBC TV.
President and CEO of Global Vacation Group
Ron Letterman started his career as a travel writer for American Express 46 years ago. He retired in December 2007 as chairman of Classic Vacations and vice chairman of Expedia's Partner Services Group.
Letterman had become part owner, president and CEO of Classic 15 years ago. Along with his partners, he sold the company to the Global Vacation Group. He later was promoted to president and CEO of GVG. In March 2002, Classic was sold to Expedia.
Prior to joining Classic, Letterman was president of retail travel for Carlson Travel Network, managing more than 1,000 travel agency locations and Carlson's wholesale tour operation. Letter lived in Hawaii for 20 years, during which time he was president and co-owner of Cove Enterprises, an entertainment company; vice president and general manager for inbound travel USA for American Express; and vice president of sales and marketing for a major resort company in Hawaii.
Earlier in his career, Letterman worked as a travel writer, travel escort, travel agent and agency manager.
Chairman of Virtuoso
Jesse Upchurch serves as chairman of Virtuoso as well as chairman and CEO of Upchurch Corp., a private investment and holding company. His history in travel extends more than 54 years.
Upchurch began his career in the travel industry by investing in a yacht chartering company, Vagabond Cruises, in the West Indies islands of the Caribbean. He soon realized a market existed for travel that was both adventurous and luxurious.
This realization led to projects within Mexico, including building the first timeshare resort in Acapulco and purchasing Turismo Antonio Perez and Hoteles S.A. de S.V., a travel company and a worldwide hotel representation operation.
The purchase of Percival Tours in 1962 enabled Upchurch to expand his operations into the South Pacific and the Orient, and in less than two years he was doing more business in these regions than he was doing in Europe. Eventually, his passion for the exotic led him to Africa, where as chairman and CEO of Percival Tours, he opened the door for luxury travel.
Upchurch was an early supporter of conservation and a founding member of World Wildlife Fund's 1001 Club, established by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Among his contributions to wildlife, he bought land in Kenya and donated it to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife as a refuge for giraffes.
Upchurch also was a co-founder of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, where he served as chairman, CEO and president. His son, Matthew, joined the family businesses and now serves as CEO for Virtuoso.
This year's winners join past recipients whose legacy collectively defines the travel industry. They are: Arthur Tauck, chairman of Tauck World Discovery; Butch Stewart, chairman of Sandals and Beaches resorts; Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott International; John Mullen, founder of Apple Vacations; Kathy Sudeikis, past president of ASTA and vice president of corporate relations for All About Travel in Mission, Kan.; Bob Dickinson, retired president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines; Bob Whitley, president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association; Donna Flora, vice president of travel industry relations, American Express; Brian Kennedy, retired executive vice president of marketing and sales, Hertz Corp.; Marilyn Carlson Nelson, retired CEO of Carlson Cos.; and John Noel, CEO, AIG Travel Guard and chairman and CEO of the Noel Group.