Bobby Stewart, son of the founder of Sandals Resorts, is in charge of the e-commerce for Sandals. In an exclusive interview, Bobby Stewart reveals his thoughts on online business.
Gordon Stewart is the head the Sandals hotels group. He entered the tourism industry in 1981, operating a single hotel. He found this to be v. different from anything he had ever done before. These early years in the tourism industry were coupled with financial struggles, which meant that the group lost money for the first couple of years. It was Stewart`s dream to operate in a team that was committed and efficient. He is now one of the biggest success stories in Caribbean Tourism.
Sandals Hotels and resorts have been reinforced as champion Caribbean resorts, winning some of the most prestigious awards. These include:
Indeed, there is a fantastic web site to visit at: www.sandals.com
that manages to encapsulate the magnificence of these resorts, with the promise of unspoiled beaches and soft ocean breezes in a paradise where `love is all you need`.
It seems as though nothing has been left out of this web site. It is available in 5 languages. It is possible to `step inside the rooms ands facilities` by viewing photos. There are adequate descriptions of all 10 resorts, special deals, all services that are available to couples and much, much more.
Q. When did Sandal`s first become involved with e-commerce?
A. We started work on our first website in 1994, after I saw a copy of Mosaic (& later Netscape) in action. I believed that it would be a great impulse channel available 24 hours a day, and customers would be able to get information right away, instead of waiting days for a brochure. Our first website was launched in mid-1995.
Q. Your web site seems to be very concise, explicit and clear. Are you pleased with it?
A. Yes, we have had a lot of fun with it. As far as providing information to customers, it is hard to beat. We cover an incredible amount of detail within the site in order to satisfy as many customer information needs as possible. As far as `bells and whistles` there are not many, as we have focused the site quite tightly on the provision of information. There are new things planned for the future.
Q. What special services do you offer to clients online that you would not otherwise make available?
A. We try to keep all our channels equally attractive at this time. We are also happy to have launched our Travel Agent and Tour Operator booking engines this year. We will shortly bring the consumer version online also.
Q. In what ways do you consider being online has benefited Sandals resorts?
A. In the early days it was almost an unfair advantage. We were almost all alone and benefited tremendously. These days it is what everyone MUST do. As a company you must still offer the customer what they want, and if the web helps you do that better and reduce costs, then you had better do it quick.
Q. Do Internet services enable you to communicate more effectively with clients?
A. It`s an important component. We handle a lot of daily email requests for information and special handling that would have probably been more difficult to handle before the internet.
Q. What sections of your site are the most used?
A. I would like to say that they are all used, as some parts are more important to each visitor, but the specials section has certainly seen some increased traffic in the last few weeks.
Q. How many subscribers do you have to your web page?
A. We are a fairly modest site, but I couldn`t give you an exact figure.
Q. Has the system been distributed world-wide?
A. We currently have sites in six languages, which are available, naturally, from anywhere. We also have supplemental hosting in other countries.
Q. Which areas world-wide utilise the your online services most?
A. It pretty much follows our major markets.
Q. What percentage of bookings are made directly between the consumer and sandals.com?
A. Since we have only recently launched our booking engine, the usage is not yet at the levels that are typical of the industry. I also have to make an important point. To Sandals, online bookings are not just about direct consumers. We have always carried the banner for travel agents, especially when times are challenging ?Elike now ?Eand give them the priority. This is another one of the factors that set Sandals apart as a company. So we actually launched the Travel Agent and Operator versions of our booking-engine first. We believe that the technology can include your travel partners. This does not have to be at their expense.
Q. As the hotel industry has become so competitive, what cost-savings have Sandals found by expanding Internet capabilities?
A. It has made it both easier and less expensive for us, and our partners to do business together.
Q. You offer a free brochure to clients from your web page. Has the web page itself reduced the amounts of requests for these brochures, or does it encourage browsers to want to see more.
A. I don`t think that we would be alone in saying that the brochures requested from our website have a far higher conversion rate, due to the amount of information the customer has had an opportunity to access. They are better educated and more qualified, in general, by the time they get there.
Q. I noticed that guests can access email and internet services from their resort, provided they bring the necessary equipment (i.e. lap top). What percentage of your guests do use this facility? Do you ever plan to expand on it…maybe provide the equipment?
A. Many of our resorts actually feature business centres that provide equipment and access. This is something that is becoming standard for us.
Q. Has your section `for travel agents` proved to be successful?
A. That section has proved itself to be an important part of the company`s efforts to work with our agents.
Q. Do you have plans to further expand your internet capabilities? If so, what are they?
A. We have quite a few projects on the burner. Many, such as co-branded sites, are already well-adopted elsewhere.
Q. Judging by the outlay of your web page, you must have made a great investment. How does this compare with profit?
A. We have had a tremendous advantage in the way that we produce our sites, which minimises our outlay. Like a good brochure and a good product, a good website cannot help but justify itself.
Q. Following the attacks of September 11th, what do you foresee for the future of e-commerce in the travel industry?
A. I feel that now more than ever the strength of your relationships with your business partners, and mutual support, will continue to be important. E-commerce will certainly reduce costs, but it can also improve your working relationships when properly implemented. Whatever else we do with e-commerce, this is something that we will not lose sight of.
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