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This Hospitality Pioneer Reveals The Key to Being an Industry Leader (And Warns of a Critical Trend)

Take notes, but also take heed.

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BY Tom Popomaronis - 08 Jan 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In the increasingly crowded hospitality space, developing a brand in the same old ways will no longer work. Hospitality providers can no longer take a 'we've always done it this way' approach to growth and hope to succeed. With an explosion of growth in the hospitality sector, it is the brands that go all-in on customer experience and customer connections who will survive and thrive. You only have to search F6S.com or Crunchbase.com for hospitality startups to instantly discover the myriad of companies building within the sector.

Young upstart companies are building everything from cryptocurrency tools for the travel industry to sensor technology for hospitality companies. Brand builders within the hospitality industry need to adopt a 'customer excellence at all costs' attitude if they hope to succeed when consumers have so many global travel options at their disposal.

One company that understands the need to double-down on customer experience is none other than Sandals Resorts International. As one of the most visible travel brands in the Caribbean, their team clearly understands that evoking an authentic, emotional connection with their customers is absolutely essential for long-term growth and retention. They continue to raise the bar with their customers, especially from a guest experience perspective. Need convincing? Check out just a few of the ways Sandals Resorts International has made customer experience a top priority:

  • Swim-up bars in swimming pools
  • Swim-up guest suites
  • Over-the-water guest suites
  • Private infinity pools
  • 'Voluntourism' for brands looking for philanthropic vacation options
  • Private islands
  • Green fees included golf courses at resorts
  • Recently launched Aisle to Isle, a new destination wedding program with unpackaged offerings that transcend inspirations into customized experiences
  • Family-friendly travel partnerships with brands like Sesame Street, Microsoft Xbox, International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCS) and the International Nanny Association (INA).

These are just a few examples of how the team at Sandals focus on delivering customer experiences that leave a long and lasting impression with their guests. Imagine spending a vacation in a private over-the-water bungalow built over the ocean where you can watch sea creatures swim beneath your feet while you are relaxing in your guest suite (yes, this is actually a thing). You would be hard-pressed to not rave about your vacation when you returned to your regular life. It is this commitment to exceptional guest experiences that helps sets Sandals Resorts apart from other hospitality providers who haven't realized just how important guest connections are to the long-term survival of their hospitality property.

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Understanding their commitment to guest experiences and how this commitment influences the future of their business, I had the opportunity to speak with Deputy Chairman and CEO of Sandals Resorts International, Adam Stewart, and understand how he expects the industry to evolve in the future and what they are doing to be ready for the future of hospitality.

"We expect that the tremendous growth of the all-inclusive resort sector will continue and with it, a better understanding of the products available to consumers. When we first entered the marketplace, there was Club Med. And they were very good, but we thought we could do it better and so, we were the first to do away with arm bands and buffet-only dining. Other innovations, which seem may seem even commonplace now - from in-room hairdryers and coffee makers to more sophisticated butler service and a la carte dining, originated with our brand and we're proud of that."

Speaking to innovation, Steward added,

"Innovation is the key to our success. It was the motivation behind our decision to move distinctly toward luxury in 2007. As the recession was breaking in the U.S., many companies fearful of diminishing occupancies began to lower their price, cut corners. We were positioned to take the opposite direction and invested in improvements and enhancements that ten years later, are the hallmark of the Sandals difference.

One of the most intriguing examples of this is our brand new over-the-water suites. These are extraordinary accommodations, the first of their kind in the Caribbean, that offer unparalleled sea views, privacy and bespoke service. They are the pinnacle of our move to invest in top-level suites, such as our signature Rondovals and Skypool Suites, with infinity edge pools.

As we go forward, we will continue to surprise and delight - offering not only new destinations to our portfolio but to thoughtfully consider how and why customers vacation and to anticipate their needs."

I also asked about their thoughts on how customers are forcing evolution and innovation within the travel and tourism industry and what consumers seem to want more/less of.

 

"There is a large conversation taking place within the hospitality industry about those who 'travel' and those who 'vacation'. We understand the distinction but believe that whether exploring or relaxing, many people are getting away to get together. With the people they love. With their thoughts. Connection is the thing that our guests crave, not only with family, friends, spouses and lovers - but with the people of and the place they visit.

You'll see this idea come to life in large and small ways across both our Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts brands in the Caribbean. At Beaches for example, we've introduced large tables to accommodate family groups of many generations. At Sandals, our Love Nest Suites are private and designed for romance, the most personal of connections. At Sandals Royal Barbados, which just opened, we've reimagined our approach to entertainment. Sure, we still offer traditional shows and musical performances but after introducing outdoor fireplaces and lounges, we've learned that guests want opportunities to connect with each other and when they want. We also make it easy for guests to connect with Caribbean people from volunteer opportunities through our Foundation, trips to the local fish fry and welcoming resident artisans to our hotels.

Many consumers also feel strongly about where and how the goods and services they consume are produced, as well as the impact on the environment and local sustainability. Here, we are leading the way and we think this connection - to our Caribbean heritage, is also important to those who visit the region. We are a Jamaican company, the largest private employer in the region. We buy almost exclusively locally, hire talent locally and support our local communities and when our customers visit - they are doing the same.

Choice, service and style will always be important to our guests. Luxury after all, is about customization, personalization. That is where our innovation will focus, on helping our guests connect to what's most important to them.

Our conversation concluded with a discussion of what hospitality companies need to stop/start doing in 2018. For instance, is there a lack of digital adoption and execution within the travel and tourism sector? Are there innovations hospitality providers should be integrating into their growth strategies, i.e. voice-enabled devices or cryptocurrency payments?

"Trends ebb and flow. Technology is not a trend and so I think we need to stop considering ways to "turn off" and rather consider how to best integrate what makes this new modern connection critical. Look, technology allows us to serve our guests well, but it cannot replace the role of human beings. The hospitality companies that are getting it right are combining technology and the human touch effortlessly, as extensions of one another."

It is clear the hospitality sector is bustling with activity. Opportunities for savvy travel and tourism providers abound. While technological advances for the hospitality industry are not to be overlooked, it is only through a long-term commitment to authentic, emotional guest experiences that today's hospitality providers can hope to survive and thrive.