The design and decor of the Secrets Marquis Los Cabos exude high-end luxury. A dramatic open-air reception lobby, with an arc-shaped roof, frames an expansive view of the Sea of Cortez. Each of the 235 ocean-view suites and casitas has a balcony overlooking three infinity pools and the sandy beach. In addition to a 15,000-square-foot spa, the property boasts a museum-quality art collection of more than 400 pieces, with monumental bronze sculptures by leading Latin American artists in public spaces and original oil paintings in every guest room.
When the Marquis Los Cabos opened in 2003, the hotel drew a steady stream of honeymooners, families on vacations, and corporate incentive travelers. But as the global economic downturn arrived, occupancy rates and revenues spiraled downward. So the private owners (who also own Marquis Reforma Hotel Spa in Mexico City) took the bold step of relinquishing management responsibilities to AMResorts last November, rebranding it as the adults-only, all-inclusive Secrets Marquis Los Cabos. Since the changeover, occupancy rates have increased by nearly 300 percent.
“Today’s travelers are focused on getting the best possible value for their travel dollars,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with the Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. “Our latest survey of more than 5,000 US leisure travelers shows that 87 percent of travelers establish a budget for their trips. When looking to save money, 54 percent focus on lodging, versus 41 percent who focus on airfare. All-inclusive resorts offer travelers a way to manage their budgets.”
Beyond buffet lines
When Club Med began in 1950, it was aimed at fun-loving singles traveling on a shoestring budget. A typical vacation package included meals, soft drinks, some alcohol, use of resort facilities, and tips. In 1967, Mini Club Meds began sprouting up to accommodate guests with children.
Like the entire travel industry, Club Med suffered after 9/11 but weathered the recession by diversifying. Club Med now has more than 80 resorts worldwide, catering to singles, couples, and families, and is expanding its emphasis on children’s programming, themed vacations, as well as on luxury. Twenty-three of the properties offer Club Med’s “ultimate family vacation experience,” targeted to the upscale family travel market.
Particularly in Mexico and the Caribbean, there has been industry-wide proliferation of upscale all-inclusives. “According to our American Express Travel booking data, we’re seeing substantial year-over-year growth to destinations that are known for top all-inclusive properties,’’ says Ellen Bettridge, vice president of American Express US Retail Travel Network.
“In difficult times, people may not necessarily be looking for an inexpensive alternative, but like to know upfront what the vacation will cost,” says Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University.
Looking for luxury
Like its sister resorts (there are nine other Secrets Resorts spread across Mexico and the Caribbean), Secrets Marquis Los Cabos now offers an “Unlimited Luxury” package, which includes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day; unlimited premium beers and top-shelf spirits; in-suite mini bars refreshed with soft drinks, bottled water, and beer; gourmet reservation-free restaurants; 24-hour room service and poolside wait service; live nightly entertainment; and a menu of daytime activities — all with taxes and gratuities included.
Brands such as The Ritz-Carlton, Fairmont, and Starwood are dipping their toes in the all-inclusive waters by offering packages at selected properties. The Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica, offers an “Escape to Luxury” package that includes unlimited beverages and meals at the resort’s dining venues coupled with a fifth night free.
Since last November, the Fairmont Mayakoba, Riviera Maya, has experimented with an “Appetite for Luxury” package that includes 24-hour food and beverage service, children stay free, three hours per day supervised Kids Club activities, and several other amenities.
Late last year, Starwood announced the opening of its first two all-inclusives, the Westin Resort Spa, Playa Conchal in Cabo Velas, Costa Rica, and the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort in Panama.
Finding their niche
With the increase in numbers, all-inclusives are seeking to distinguish themselves from each other by offering unique and memorable experiences. Here are a few examples:
Wellness and self-improvement: Located on Pink Gin Beach, Grenada, LaSource Resort recently added scuba yoga and a “sleep school” to its holistic offerings, which already included a rotating series of master classes on such topics as Tai Chi, meditation, Pilates, and Zumba.
Sustainability: The El Dorado Spa Resorts Hotels, Riviera Maya, have green initiatives to preserve the ecological richness of the Mayan jungle. These include a 70,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse growing herbs and produce; energy-saving air conditioning; solar water heating; and recycled water systems.
Environmental immersion: The spa and water pools of the 82-acre, eco-friendly Grand Velas Riviera Maya derive their inspiration from the surrounding jungle. A personal spa valet guides guests through a signature seven-step “water journey.”
Gourmet dining: Also at the El Dorado, Riviera Maya, a “Gourmet Inclusive” package allows foodies to select fresh fish from the catch of the day to be prepared for lunch by the chef; a choice of Italian, Mexican, Asian, and grill dining; and unlimited, premium-brand alcoholic beverages.
Personal service: Sandals Resorts, another pioneer in the all-inclusive world for the last 30 years, offers “Luxury Included” vacations. For a high-end experience, guests can stay in suites with private plunge pools served by butlers trained at the Guild of Professional English Butlers. Stays at the Sandals in Jamaica and St. Lucia include unlimited golf with complimentary greens fees.
The bottom line
Similar to when booking a cruise, it is important to find out what is included in the price of an “all-inclusive” vacation before you place a deposit. If you are unsure, check the website, speak to your travel agent, or call the resort.
“All-inclusive pricing is very competitive as compared with the costs of staying at a conventional property,” says Glenn Haussman, editor in chief of HotelInteractive.com. “The real difference is peace of mind.”
Guests are reassured knowing there will not be another charge for every activity, meal, and amenity, and there will not be a gratuity to be paid every time. “For many it is more an issue of convenience than cost,” says Hanson.
[This article was previously published in the Boston Globe on May 6, 2012.]