It’s a big job, selling dreams.
Karl Thompson knows – he’s been doing it for the best part of 12 years. But 2018, by any stretch, was a landmark year for Sandals’ UK boss and his team.
“We just keep raising the bar,” says Thompson; the industry seems to agree. Sandals took home not one, not two, but three trophies at last year’s TTG Travel Awards, including the big one – Travel Company of the Year.
It came amid a period of rapid UK growth. “We’ve changed dramatically,” says Thompson. “Three years ago, we embarked on our plan to launch our own tour operation, Unique Caribbean Holidays Ltd (UCHL). The second anniversary is on April 10.
“Everyone in the business has stepped up. But even when we won that award, we were absolutely blown away. It was the proudest moment of our careers.
“We’re a big brand but we see ourselves as a small company. So to win when we were up against huge cruise lines and operators was remarkable. It’s changed the culture in our team, helped us recruit and retain staff and motivated everyone to strive for more success. It shows we are a great business.”
For Thompson – who is also managing director of Unique Vacations, the sales, marketing and operations arm of Sandals Resorts in the UK and Europe – the key word is partnerships; trade business grew 20% during UCHL’s first year (2017/18) and 15% in its second.
“With our tour operation, our share is definitely in favour of agents over direct business,” says Thompson.
“We used to work with the trade at a hands-off level. Now we’re having direct discussions about growing business.
“We’ve got a big sales team to which we’ve added another BDM, so our trade focus is growing. We also have marketing plans with all major consortia; we work with independent agents at whatever level, so long as they’re bonded accordingly.”
Thompson, though, said the business had not yet made a decision on whether UCHL would work with US homeworking firm InteleTravel, which recently gained Abta accreditation.
“We’ll review exactly how they’re set up to ensure the customer is protected and has the best experience,” Thompson tells me. “We’ll treat them as we would anyone else.”
Over the past year, Sandals has trained more than 2,800 UK agents, hosted about 150 on fam trips and sent more than 600 on their own holidays through Sandals’ Sell and Go programme. The trade team has grown to 11, comprising seven BDMs, three inside sales staff and a sales director.
UCHL, meanwhile, continues to offer agents price parity.
“The price we sell to customers is the same – fully commissionable – that we make available to the trade,” says Thompson. “Not everyone is doing that, as we well know.”
The operator has trimmed its 2018/19 Atol, bringing coverage down from 27,286 passengers to about 25,000. Thompson admits the business over-reached itself last year.
“We were covered too high for flight-inclusive bookings,” he says. “We’ve brought that down to a more sustainable level.”
Thompson is already looking ahead to an exciting summer for Sandals and its agent partners. Chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart’s yacht Lady Sandals will visit the UK hosting agents, suppliers and trade events. “We last had her three years ago and it’s always a fantastic occasion,” he says.
Meanwhile, with England set to host the Cricket World Cup, Sandals’ sponsorship of the West Indies cricket team should create opportunities for agents to get along to some big games, while the company will continue hosting appreciation dinners across the country for hundreds of its top-selling partners.
The festivities will come as welcome punctuation amid uncertain times for the travel industry. Sandals’ business has held steady during the first three months of the year despite Brexit, with its annual two-for-one sale already shaping up to be its strongest ever.
“We wondered if it was the right time to do it,” says Thompson. “But it shows people will book if the proposition is right.
“We were blown away when we won Travel Company of the Year at the 2018 TTG Travel Awards. It was the proudest moment of our careers”
“People were definitely holding back in January and February. Fortunately, our product is one price and all-inclusive. But there is definitely more business out there, if and when Brexit is resolved.
“Another challenge is the weakness of the pound against the dollar. It makes a big difference on high-ticket items like holidays.”
Fortunately, Sandals enjoys strong repeat business – 40% in the UK – but Thompson is wary to maintain a balance.
“Customers know what sort of price to expect,” he observes. “And there’s a point where price becomes too much and they defer for a year.”
Thankfully, there are more positive trends. Sandals is selling two to three years in advance, and has seen a significant increase in spend on premium airline cabins.
“It’s great earning potential for agents who earn commission on the entire package,” he explains. “It’s good business for our airline partners too.”
Another is towards twin-centres or even triple-centres. “No one else in the Caribbean can offer the consistency of product we can island to island,” says Thompson.
“Barbados-Grenada and St Lucia-Antigua are popular, but we’re also getting Jamaica and the Bahamas twinned. The flights are quick – you’re up and down in 30 minutes.”
Romantic business remains strong, with 30% to 40% of Sandals’ UK business honeymoon related.
“People are doing twin-centre weddings and honeymoons,” says Thompson. “We put a lot of time into relaunching our customisable wedding offering last year and it’s paying off – our weddings business is up more than 20% this year.”
Spend on Sandals’ own Island Routes adventure touring product is growing too. On average, Sandals is selling two excursions or add-ons per holidaymaker at £200pp-£300pp, ranging from catamaran tours to candlelit dinners on the beach.
“More people are getting out of resorts,” says Thompson. “Gone are the days of compound all-inclusives – people want to see the islands.”
It’s good news for agents too – Island Routes is part of the UCHL agent portal booking flow and fully commissionable.
In the Caribbean, there is some movement on the group’s resorts and proposed developments. Beaches Turks & Caicos remains on stop-sale for January 2021 onwards following a dispute with the local authorities, although Thompson says he’s hopeful 2021 will go on sale “as soon as possible”. “They’re [Sandals Resorts International] making good progress. We’re just waiting for the green light to start filling it.”
Work on the 450-room Beaches Barbados, meanwhile, has stalled. “We’re hoping to get it back on track as it would be fantastic for the UK market,” says Thompson, adding Sandals’ proposed development in Tobago remains off the table.
Elsewhere, Thompson expects work on Sandals’ fourth St Lucia operation to start “imminently”, while Sandals’ original Montego Bay resort, dating back to 1981, has just undergone a complete overhaul and will showcase some of the developments the brand is rolling out across its portfolio.
“What’s important is that we choose unique locations in keeping with our brand,” says Thompson.
“We’re constantly upgrading our resorts with new, exciting initiatives. We’re adding more rooms and more over-the-water product – bars, gazebos, suites. We’re bringing modern features to these resorts without detracting from what people love about the Caribbean – the swaying trees, the beautiful beaches, the wonderfully friendly and hospitable people.”
“Ultimately, we’ll always look after our USP – the islands and their people”
Sandals uk boss Karl Thompson on sustainability
This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Sandals Foundation, which to date has pumped nearly $60 million into activities supporting local communities across the Caribbean. It has also led on some of the group’s broader environmental and sustainability goals, such as eliminating single-use plastics and funding conservation work.
“Sustainability is a very overused word, but it is at the core of everything we do,” says Thompson. “We’re a family-run business and the Caribbean is our home. Ultimately, we’ll always look after our USP – the islands and their people.”
There’s an old adage that goes something along the lines of “look after your people, and they’ll look after you”. Closer to home, Sandals’ efforts to build a sustainable future in the UK, with a renewed focus on the trade, should leave agents in no doubt there will always be provision for them in the company’s plans.
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