Recovering at a hot pace, Caribbean tourism has inspired the highly influential American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) to stage its debut Caribbean Showcase 2022 in Nassau, The Bahamas, just under a fortnight ago. And from the looks of things, somebody made a smart decision.
"Americans are desperate to get to the Caribbean," said an upbeat Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA, who took over 130 of his 17,000 travel advisors from across the United States to Sandals Royal Bahamian to have them mingle with Caribbean and Latin American counterparts, also for the first time in that format.
Kerby attributed the voracious appetite for travel to the lockdowns caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, during which people were forced to stay home, and he noted that the Caribbean was the fastest-growing destination for Americans. The Nassau plan was to immerse the travel advisors into the Caribbean, educate them about the top-selling destinations and build a portfolio of offerings for their clients' next vacation in the region. It worked, as the travel advisors were happy to testify.
"I needed to be here because my clients are grateful and more appreciative of the opportunity to travel again, after the pandemic. They are spending more on higher room categories, luxury suites, on first class and premium flights, just looking for that special experience," said Megan Hill of Destination Fun Travel out of Kansas.
Hill, who specialises in selling the Caribbean and Mexico, said she loves Sandals and Beaches, her favourite being Beaches Turks and Caicos Islands, because of the consistency of their quality, adding: "It's a phenomenal brand."
Holly Ward of Alpha World Travel, North Carolina, said her agency had seen a big surge in demand for travel. Some people want to go two or three times a year, "as if they're trying to make up for lost time during the pandemic".
She noticed that travellers are booking longer stays, for example, honeymooners are going for 10 to 14 nights, compared to seven nights, and booking way more in advance, up to 2024 in some cases. There are more group trips and she too has seen a jump in spending on travel.
Holly is a proud member of the prestigious Chairman's Royal Club Elite for which to qualify one has to have at least 250 bookings travelling within a year. Not a bad achievement for someone who has only been selling Sandals for nine years.
Wanda Keefer of All Seasons Vacations in Pennsylvania is also a member of the Royal Club Elite. Her clients are booking in larger groups from the previous average of three couples to the current 25 couples, family reunions, therapy getaways, cancer groups and the like.
"I have just booked a wedding group for Beaches Ocho Rios comprising 23 people. I love Jamaica especially," she said, adding: "I have been in the top 50 for the Jamaica Tourist Board in sales."
Jhovana Tomasevich, whose Honeymooners agency operates out of Lima, Peru, said, her accompany was hit hard during the pandemic but is now on the rise and quickly.
"This year has been really amazing, better than before the pandemic for us. We hope this continues. The clients are spending more, because they are getting more value for their money. They are spending more on personal relationships, spending more time on travel with family," said Jhovana.
Fifty per cent of her clients chose the Caribbean to vacation, she said, suggesting that it is easy to access the region from Lima, with several options, even for people with low budgets.
Daniella Gandolfo of Epic Travel, also from Lima, Peru, specialises in selling destinations in the Caribbean and Africa. She is a member of the Latin American round-table of the Chairman's Council Advisory Board, travel advisors who meet monthly with the chairman of Sandals to share ideas, challenges and opportunities.
"This helps with making the best plans for our business and we are here because the Caribbean is the place that is growing fastest after the pandemic. People who are still somewhat afraid to travel are comfortable with the Caribbean," she said.
Roberto Fassimo, whose agency Travel Security is based in Santiago, Chile, and has been in the travel business for the past 32 years, said 80 per cent of her clients are corporate, with the other 20 per cent being leisure travel.
She said the business has been growing, and vacationers are spending more on travel for leisure, despite a paucity of airlines in the region. There was also the language barrier; high airfares; the war and the cost of gasoline that affected travel.
"But there is no doubt that people want to travel more and spend time in different places, like the Caribbean, which is clearly attributable to the pandemic," said Roberto.
For Shalene Dudley of Latitude Concierge Travel from Toronto, Canada, her specialty is destination weddings and other groups such as golfers, people celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, which, she noted, they had missed during the pandemic.
"Even people who were reluctant to spend are now much more willing and they want to spend on travel, family travel especially. Groups are getting bigger and not quibbling about the cost of hotels. And they are coming back," Shalene said.
As a member of the Chairman's Council of advisors, she has been able to raise the difficulty of getting direct flights to Grenada from Canada, saying that Sandals has a listening ear and always brings solutions to the problems.
Travel Air International's Vinnie Vats, also from Toronto, was one of the badly outnumbered male travel advisors at Caribbean Showcase but what he had in common was the same story of rising travel, especially among couples and families.
Vinnie has an interesting niche, catering to travellers with allergies who are always on the lookout for safe travel. He said the "Caribbean has an advantage in this allergy space", citing Beaches Ocho Rios "where they do it best".