Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
It was a night plucked straight out of Hollywood.
Playa Hotels and Resorts rolled out the red carpet for top-producing travel advisors Wednesday evening (May 10) at Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya where it hosted a “Night at the Oscars” awards ceremony to cap off “All Stars 2023,” which, as PAX reported earlier, is a downsized version of Playa’s traditional Spotlight Awards.
As two gigantic Oscar statues towered over the main entrance of the resort’s “Jade” ballroom, attendees dressed in sparkling gowns and pressed suites glided down a custom-made “Hollywood Walk Of Fame” featuring stars that identified every guest in attendance.
Amanda Morris, Playa’s director of sales for Canada, wearing a gold-plated dress worthy of a Vanity Fair cover, called it “a big night” given how the awards, after several COVID-related postponements, has been three years in the making.
“These are our top agents who have been supporting us over many years. It’s a great opportunity for us to finally be able to come together and recognize them for all their hard work,” Morris told PAX at the glam ceremony and dinner, which featured a live band, a dance troupe and acrobatic daredevils who performed nail-biting balancing acts on top of cylinders and ceiling-high unicycles.
All Stars 2023, which kicked off Monday, welcomed some 60 travel advisors from both Canada and the United States (there were 15 in the Canadian contingent).
This year, instead of its large-scale Spotlight Awards (which typically happen in January), Playa organized a smaller event because Canada’s travel recovery was slower compared to the U.S., which lifted its border restrictions sooner.
READ MORE: Playa in "growth mode" as it celebrates all-star agents at Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya
“We didn't have the numbers we had in previous years, but we still wanted to make sure we had an event to bring down our top-supporting agents and celebrate them,” said Morris, who was joined by her relatively-new team of BDMs: Andi Bacho (who oversees Ontario) and Christopher Jeffrey-Racine (who manages Ottawa, Quebec and Atlantic Canada).
Fresh off a “booming” year
The awards recognized sales from 2022, and Playa is eagerly looking ahead after a “booming” year, Andrea Wright, Playa’s vice-president of travel industry sales, told the audience.
Playa, which operates all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, has been rapidly expanding its portfolio with brand alliances, new builds and management takeovers in prime sun-kissed locations.
The company now runs 25 resorts across six brands and its inventory is nearing 10,000 rooms, Wright said.
“It’s exciting times for us,” she said.
READ MORE: “1,500 ice creams a day”: Inside Playa’s 4-phase makeover of Seadust Cancun
Playa’s latest projects include a new all-inclusive Kimpton (coming to Riviera Maya in 2024), the opening of Jewel Punta Cana and Jewel Palm Beach, a takeover of Seadust Cancun Family Resort, as well as a family-friendly Wyndham Alltra Samaná in the Dominican Republic (set to open later this year).
The strategy, Morris told PAX earlier, “has always been to align ourselves with international brands that consumers and travel agent partners are familiar with.”
“We’re in growth mode,” she said.
Brad Cirino, Playa’s vice-president of sales, added that Playa, for the first time, is getting closer to announcing partnerships that will result in hotels outside of the Caribbean and Mexico, where it currently operates.
“I think our future is very bright because of the people in this room,” Cirino told crowd, thanking them for their support.
Unpacking Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya
Besides honouring top sellers, All Stars 2023 was about giving travel advisors time to unpack Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya, an adults-only, all-inclusive resort that opened last December.
Located about 20 minutes from Playa del Carmen, the newly-renovated, low-rise, U-shaped, hacienda-style property (formally a Secrets Capri) has just 291 (very spacious) rooms in a lush jungle, which is home to exotic birds, wild boars, monkeys and long-tailed coatis (think anteater meets racoon).
From the moment you walk inside, minimalistic décor elements exude a laid-back, warm ambience. “It’s a true couples resort,” General Manager Erik Fois told PAX.
There are 15 room categories, including 52 swim-ups (which were specifically built for Playa’s takeover) and 12 oceanfront suites with plunge pools.
Currently, 21 rooms have butler service, but Fois said there are plans to expand this option to 52 rooms.
There’s one large main pool (although, due to its stretched figure-eight shape, it feels like two) and it’s very accessible to enter due to the ease at which the floor slopes downward at a gentle angle.
The pool, in a way, feels like a warm sandbank.
There are four restaurants – Tempest (Asian fare), Capri Grille (coastal Italian), Lola Beach (seafood and snack bar) and El Comedor, a buffet with always-changing items.
The ocean and beach-facing snack bar (Lola Beach, which serves amazing flatbread) is unique because other Zilaras don’t have beach clubs quite like it.
And, with flexible venues and a 4,757-square-foot ballroom, Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya is set up for hosting epic events.
As for the beach, it’s the wide, idyllic stretch it is today thanks to restoration efforts that, over time, have added some 50 metres of soft sand to the land.
As with most beaches in the region, there is sargassum, but not as much as other locations along the coast due to stronger currents. (This can go a long way).
The “Zen Spa” is the talk of the resort. Just getting there is part of the experience as guests are picked up in a golf cart, at the main lobby, and whisked down a road, into the jungle, some two minutes away.
Inside the spa, a relaxing world gently unravels. The hydrotherapy circuit, which includes staff escorts, unfolds in a tranquil, open-air space that’s set against a leafy jungle, covered by palapa thatch roofing.
Here, in addition to a sauna, steam room and showers, there’s a steamy jacuzzi, a bubbly whirlpool, an icy-cold plunge hole and hot and cold pools for feet only.
Agents in action
These were just some of the divine details all-star agents unlocked this week.
On Tuesday (May 9) there was a bustling trade show involving reps from Playa’s Mexico resorts and the Celebrations, AgentCash+ and Wedding departments.
The show was so well received, Morris said she’d like to hold one again at next year’s Spotlight Awards (yes, the original format will return in 2024), and involve teams from Playa’s other properties in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
A sports-themed night was also held at Legends Sports Bar, where attendees donned jerseys, ate chicken wings and churros and brought their boogie to the dance floor.
(The Canadians, by the way, quickly earned a reputation for having the best moves in the house).
On Wednesday (May 10), agents toured other nearby Playa-managed resorts, including family-friendly Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancun (which opened in September 2021), Hilton Playa del Carmen, The Yucatan Resort (which PAX reviewed extensively back in 2020) and Wyndham Alltra.
"Playa never went away"
Amanda Beaver of Glow Travel and Events called the fun-filled week “absolutely amazing,” saying she was “super honoured” to be invited.
“It’s all about creating partnerships and Playa is a fantastic brand to align yourself with,” Beaver told PAX.
She praised the “fantastic” food and “awesome” service at Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya, and loved its intimate size. “I can definitely see myself bringing groups here,” Beaver said.
Vanessa Martinez of Unforgettable Escapes also spoke of the importance of quality partnerships.
“Playa was there before, during, and after the pandemic,” Martinez told PAX. “Their support for the agent community has not changed. If anything, they’ve become more supportive in making sure we receive relevant information.”
During the darkest days of the pandemic, some Canadian agents made “shifts,” said Martinez, who, herself, turned to serving U.S.-based clients while finding new ways of booking customers at resorts.
“We still needed the support and Playa never went away,” said Martinez, who won two awards last night. “They know how important the agent community is to their business.”
As for her stay at Hyatt Zilara Riviera Maya, Martinez endorsed the “service from the heart” Playa is famous for.
She actually checked in a few days before All Stars began to experience everything “just like a regular customer” would, and was blown away.
“I noticed some guests in wheelchairs, or with reduced mobility, and the staff were helping people in whatever way they could,” Martinez noted. “The staff are extremely attentive and customer-focused.”
The property isn’t “over-pretentious luxury” either, she added.
“It’s a beautiful property that’s easy to get around,” she said. “And the spa was fantastic.”
Preparing for Spotlight 2024
So, how do travel advisors get invited to next year’s Spotlight Awards?
Agents will, for one, need to lock in at least 400 room nights in order to qualify, said Andrea Wright.
Amanda Morris also reminded the trade to register their Playa bookings as it’s the only to track people’s progress.
Her biggest piece of advice to agents is to “use the tools that we have available to you," from AgentCash+ to resort fact sheets to consumer-friendly webinars to training modules to a marketing centre “with thousands of pictures and videos” that can be used to promote properties.
“And use your BDMs,” Morris added. “We have an amazing team in Canada that's available to help agents, support them and answer any questions they might have.”
And the winners are...
Who dazzled at All Stars 2023? Here’s a list of all the Canadian nominees and winners.
Top Social Media Agent
- Mahla Pourshamsa - The Eventeur
- Ashley Doell - Trevello
- Barbara Scrocco – TravelOnly (winner)
Top Social Group/Wedding Agent
- Preety Jaswal – Preety Weddings & Travel
- Vanessa Martinez – Unforgettable Escapes (winner)
- Amanda Beaver – Glow Travel and Events
Top Direct Booking Agent
- John Castell - Independent by Flight Centre
- Preety Jaswal - Preety Weddings & Travel (winner)
- Vanessa Martinez – Unforgettable Escapes
Top Producing Agent
- Vanessa Martinez – Unforgettable Escapes
- Preety Jaswal - Preety Weddings & Travel
- Vikas Malhotra – itravel2000.com (winner)
Top Producing Agency
- Red Label Vacations
- The Travel Agent Next Door (winner)
Playa Ambassador Award
Vikas Malhotra – itravel2000.com
Top Producing Agent – Western Canada
Preety Jaswal - Preety Weddings & Travel
Top Producing Agent – Ontario
Vikas Malhotra – itravel2000.com
Top Producing Agent – Ottawa, Quebec, Atlantic Canada
Vanessa Martinez – Unforgettable Escapes
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