Coronavirus testing and sanitised snorkels: How all-inclusive resorts are adapting to the pandemic
By Natalie Compton
All-inclusive resorts may be more appealing than ever. Aside from the well-documented risks of travelling during the coronavirus pandemic, it's a vacation traditionally designed for less stress; just show up and unwind.
"I just figured it'd be nice to be in one place, not moving around," says Lee Abbamonte, a travel blogger who's visited every country and both poles. Abbamonte has stayed in all-inclusive resorts during the pandemic. "Also (staying at an all-inclusive) stops prices from going through the roof like it can at regular hotels, regarding drinks and food and stuff like that."
Anthony Melchiorri, the CEO of Argeo Hospitality and host of Travel Channel's "Hotel Impossible," says the transparent pricing of all-inclusives is particularly appealing at a time when many Americans are facing economic hardships. And that appeal may last beyond the pandemic.
"One of the things during coronavirus, and even after, is people are on a tight budget right now," Melchiorri says. "People were unemployed for a while, some people are still unemployed. So going to an all-inclusive, they know what to expect. They know how much it's going to cost them."
Of course, not all of resorts are low-cost accommodations. The category ranges from budget-friendly to extremely luxurious. And these days, the latter price tag doesn't just buy travellers high-thread-count sheets and fine dining - it can also promise an elevated sense of security.
ÀNI Private Resorts are beachfront or cliff-side properties in Anguilla, Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka and Thailand that are rented out to one group at a time.
"We've been operating with this concept from day one, and with the pandemic and covid, all of a sudden we're feeling super well positioned," says ÀNI chief executive Ira Bloom. "People are just much more interested in having places to themselves."
The appeal of getting away without being near strangers is showing itself in ÀNI's Caribbean bookings.
"The calendar just keeps getting filled up with groups, that I guess have been super eager to get out in a way," Bloom says.
Each ÀNI guest in the group must show proof of a negative coronavirus test before arrival at the property. The resort staff are also tested before arrival to the property, where they then live for the duration of a group's visit.
But coronavirus testing is an imperfect science, and not required by every all-inclusive destination. Resorts are taking other measures to convince guests they'll be safe during their stay.
Take the two all-inclusive Sonesta Resorts in Sint Maarten, for example. Sonesta now sanitises golf carts between each use. Guest room doors are sealed after they've been sanitised. Cleaning staff use an antimicrobial product called MicroShield 360, which is said to kill 99.99 percent of pathogens on surfaces. And there's even a thermal camera that takes guests temperatures as they walk through the lobby.
"If it's above a certain number, it alerts us behind the front desk, so we know if you've got a temperature before you've even arrived at the front to check-in," says Jamie Lee, Sonesta's vice president of operations and general manager.
At Bungalows Key Largo, "we had to take away all of our buffets," says property executive Chad Bustos. Now guests have a more traditional a la carte dining experience to limit touching shared utensils. Bustos says the biggest change guests would notice while dining at the property is the spacing between seating. The resort limits how many diners can be in restaurants at a time and avoids putting large parties near each other.
The same is true for activities like boating trips, which have been limited to 50 percent occupancy. Bungalows Key Largo has kept other activities afloat by making sure rental equipment, like snorkel gear, gets extra sanitation between guest uses. Bustos says interest in such activities doesn't seem to be diminished by the pandemic.
In fact, at Sandals and Beaches Resorts, interest in scuba diving has actually increased during the pandemic. From July through September, diving certifications grew by 28 percent this year compared with 2019. As part of its Sandals Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness, the resort makes sure all diving and PADI equipment, as well as areas like pool decks, undergo frequent sanitisation, and social distancing is required on boats and at pools.
"Our job was to not change the Sandal's experience while making sure that we kept everyone safe," says Sandals deputy chairman Adam Stewart.
When the pandemic hit, Velas Resorts developed a 15-page "Stay Safe With Velas" program with seven categories of health and sanitary measures. Guided by the World Health Organization and the government of Mexico, the program includes installing touchless hand sanitiser dispensers around the property and implementing health screenings for both guests and staff, including temperature checks and "smell-sensory" tests.
Juan Vela Ruiz, vice president of Velas Resorts, says some of those changes may be kept even after a vaccine is widely distributed.
Melchiorri says these elevated approaches to coronavirus protocols is what will help bring back business - not only for all-inclusives but all hotels.
"It shouldn't look like I'm going into a hospital," says Melchiorri. "It should look like I'm going on vacation."