One of the biggest challenges for the Caribbean region in the coming year will be to embrace some of the new technologies which are transforming the travel industry at such a rapid pace. This week we talk technology to Robert Stewart, (pictured) who as MD of Sandals & Beaches UK & Europe, the Caribbeanå‘s number one all-inclusive luxury resorts, is one of the Caribbean`s leading figures.
Q. How important do you consider the internet to be as a distribution channel?
A. The internet is very important as both a distribution channel and a response channel.
Q. What special services do you offer to customers online that you would not otherwise make available?
A. Apart from our partners frequency programme we do not currently make special offers online that users can not get anywhere else. It is a policy whereby we don’t want to disadvantage any of our distribution channels whether it is a travel agent or a tour operator. We just want to make sure we are available at every channel.
Q. Do you consider emails to be a useful channel for marketing campaigns?
A. Email campaigns can be very effective if they are done appropriately. There is some sensitivity to receiving too much communication from a company that you’ve made contact with, but sometimes companies go the other way and are afraid to really utilise this channel for fear of abusing it. We try to take the middle road, and it is obviously cost effective. If the appropriate message is there it works very well.
Q. As the world’s leading
all-inclusive resort, do you offer users a multi-lingual facility on Sandals.com? Is this something you plan to develop?
A. We have a Spanish site although we are looking to get that re-done. We did have a very old Japanese site but we brought it down. We would consider going anywhere. We have to build the market before we invest, but we have found that without multi-lingual sites you are not making the most of what you are doing in each individual country.
Q. Do you offer users a virtual tour?
A. Yes for quite a few years we have offered users an IPIX virtual tour for those who wish to take a look at the resorts, it offers them some perspective on each property. People do use it. When you are planning a holiday, you want to get as much information as possible and it really does help a customer arrive at a decision.
Q. Do you have any plans for further website development for sandals.com
A. We have recently revamped the US website sandals.com, but there are always plans on the horizon. I wake up every morning and there are more ideas.
Q. How do you market your property in Cuba? Are you restricted in any way because of relations between America and Cuba?
A. Cuba is part of our overall product, so on our main website we promote Cuba like any other product. We tend to run our market in UK and Europe - obviously US wouldn’t really be asking for that. But working with the head office in the Jamaica, the Cuban product is very much a part of our portfolio.
Q. What are your opinions on broadband technology and the services that they make available? (For example audio/ video presentations online).
A. I think broadband is very encouraging and it is clearly becoming very popular. Most internet users in the Caribbean are still on regular connection, but having services such as videos online that are made possible with broadband will be very useful and we certainly plan to take advantage of that.
Q. Can you discuss Sandals performance with regard to online bookings?
A. We are currently doing online bookings on the recently revamped US website. We haven’t done a lot on this side yet, but it has worked out well in the US. A surprising amount of customers are booking online now and customers are picking more selective holidays rather than just the basic holiday.
Q. Did Sandals hit their expected targets for 1Q 2003?
A. We had a very good first quarter and we are very pleased. We do realise that some of the benefits were because of conditions of the world and other destinations have suffered this year. The Caribbean was one of the beneficiaries, but we are pleased and we have hit targets.
Q. How highly do you rate driving global e-commerce as a priority?
I think we have to drive the business.
A. A lot of different things come together to make a business work and to make a business grow. To leave e-commerce out would be a sin, but I think there is a balance to be achieved.
Q. As far as your technology budget goes, how will that compare to last year?
A. Our budget for this year will be about the same as last year- maybe a little more.
Q. Given today’s unstable economic climate, is this a good time to invest in new technologies?
A. Yes - any given year there will always be an argument against investment, but if you let that slow you down, you will get left behind. So you will have to make a sustainable commitment.
Q. Let’s touch on emerging technologies. Where is Sandals in terms of wireless, whether it is to serve the guests or perhaps improve the efficiency of employees? Is that something that is on your radar screen?
A. At the Airport in Montego Bay we have put in a wireless system that enables staff to look up guests upon arrival and check them into the resort before they even arrive. Typically we will have them on the bus within 5 minutes, on their way to the resort within 10 minutes and then alert the hotel that they have arrived. That has been very effective and we’ve had a lot of success with that system. Meanwhile other competitors tend to have everybody queuing at one desk- we distribute ourselves among the clients as they are coming off the plane - this is much more effective.
Q. And do you offer your guests wireless internet access within the resorts?
A. No. There is internet access from the hotels both dial-up from the room as well as business centres, but we are not yet at the stage whereby we are putting in wireless networks for the guests.
Q. According to many recent surveys (for example TIA
) Americans want to travel close to home, with more flexibility. In what ways has Sandals been pro-active in encouraging consumers to travel?
A. I think it’s sort of a Caribbean thing. The Caribbean is seen as sort of a backyard to the US. So if people are thinking about staying closer to home, the Caribbean does get a lot of attention. People have been taking advantage of that close proximity that the Caribbean offers from the US. I don’t think it has affected our average stay, but we have seen a lot of people coming over from the US for 3 nights, which you wouldn’t see here in the UK.
Q. What are your technology goals for the upcoming year?
A. We will be working on anything that makes business better. Anything that makes us more available to the customer or trade partners.