“If you don't travel, you can't expect your clients to,” says Diana Winters, business development manager for Ontario at Palace and Le Blanc Spa Resorts.
While COVID-19 has battered the travel industry in never-before-seen ways, and continues to present a range of unknowns, one thing is for certain: travel, in due time, will return.
And when it does, travel agents need to be adequately prepared with firsthand information so that they can successfully manage their clients’ expectations.
This was the premise of an historical FAM trip recently hosted by Palace Resorts at Moon Palace Jamaica involving eight Canadian travel advisors.
“Now, more than ever, is the time to get down south and experience exactly what the landscape of travel really looks like so that you can manage your clients’ expectations,” said Winters, who led the trip from Sept. 19-26. “Travelling will promote consumer confidence.”
The trip, which included on-site training with the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), was indeed “historical” because it was, in fact, the first in-person FAM that Jamaica has hosted since reopening its borders to tourism in June (previous FAMs were strictly virtual).
“I am so proud of these agents that have shown commitment to Jamaica and have accepted to do the 14-day quarantine upon returning,” Angella Bennett, regional director for Canada at the JTB, told PAX. “They are our superstars.”
The all-inclusive, high-end Moon Palace Jamaica in Ocho Rios closed on March 20th in response to the global pandemic and reopened on June 15th – the same day Jamaica reopened its borders to tourists.
During the shutdown, Palace Resorts unveiled an industry-leading health and safety program, called Purely Palace, that introduced more than 140 COVID-preventative measures throughout all resorts.
“Purely Palace is truly second to none,” Winters told PAX. “Ensuring the safety of our staff and guests is paramount. We are doing much more than just hand sanitizers. The resorts are operating normally with additional safety measures in place without sacrificing the overall vacation experience.”
So, what did these superstar agents think of it all?
They’re back in Canada and currently quarantined, as per Canadian law, but PAX managed to catch up with some in the group, via email, to get all the answers.
Landing in Jamaica
Visitors to Jamaica are subject to strict health and safety protocols, including the completion of a mandatory Travel Authorization form, which travellers must submit up to 72 hours before their flight. (The approval is generated in 10 minutes or less).
When approved, travellers are emailed a preauthorized landing certification, which they must present when boarding their flight and when passing through customs and immigration.
The comprehensive protocols Terry Declare of TravelOnly saw at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, where the group landed, immediately stood out for him.
“We all had to go through a health screening to make sure we were COVID-19 free,” Declare told us, adding how passengers also received swap tests. “They noted all of our information, from our emergency contact to our final destination within Jamaica.”
Ethel Hansen Davey of Uniglobe Enterprise Travel Ltd. said she felt safe the moment she arrived at Toronto Pearson airport (which has unrolled its own set of cleaning protocols).
When she landed in Jamaica, the experience was “seamless,” said Davey, noting the abundance of hand sanitizers and temperature checks she saw at various stations throughout the airport.
“There’s a one-on-one interview with a nurse where you answer questions about your health, your recent travel history, your destination and contact information,” she said.
Advisor Judy Jordan of Travels Jubilee also noted that it was during her interview with the nurse that she was asked to sign a form requesting that she wear a mask inside and wash her hands often.
The group did not have to obtain a negative COVID-19 PCR test result for travel authorization approval (this currently only applies to residents of the U.S., Brazil, Dominican Republic and Mexico who are 12 years of age or over).
Arriving at Moon Palace
Visitors to Jamaica must stay within what’s called a “Resilient Corridor,” a geographical region that runs from Negril to Montego Bay and through to Ocho Rios and Port Antonio.
The form you sign when meeting with the nurse at the airport verifies that you will stay within the corridor at all times (this form is also emailed to you).
Declare said tourists are allowed to travel off property to amusement and water parks that are within the corridor and that have been certified by the Jamaica Tourist Board (transportation must also be certified).
“You must report any changes in your health to the resort you are staying at,” Declare added.
The group saw the Purely Palace program in action the moment they arrived at Moon Palace Jamaica.
“As soon as we got off the transfer bus, our temperatures were taken, hand sanitizer was given to us and they even washed the bottom of our shoes,” said Jordan. “At check-in, everyone was wearing a mask and we were advised that employees have to change their masks every four hours.”
The resort sanitized everyone’s luggage and bags upon arrival, the group said, while guests were still offered a “a cool cloth to refresh ourselves and a welcome drink,” noted Declare.
Davey saw social distancing decals on all the floor surfaces.
“There were hand sanitizer stations where you enter elevators and also where you get off so there was no need to be apprehensive about pushing elevator buttons,” she said.
When the group got to their rooms, they noticed tape stretched across their doors as proof that no one had been inside since it was last sanitized.
“We cannot enter our room if housekeeping is in there nor can the room service staff enter the room,” Davey said. “You must be there to receive [a room service] order at the door.”
Some touch points have been eliminated from the rooms, the group noted, such as books about the island and physical menus.
Minibars in rooms are also empty and guests must call room service if they would like a soda, beer, juice, liquor by the glass or snacks delivered, the group said.
“You will also notice a new amenity – a personal hygiene package with a couple of masks, wipes and hand sanitizer,” said Declare.
The group said staff are always wearing masks, both inside and outside, and are constantly wiping down surfaces, from railings to lounge chairs.
And, when staff arrive for work, they all go through a “disinfectant tunnel” before entering the grounds, said Davey.
“It was incredible to see the level of respect for protocols,” she said.
All guests at Moon Palace are asked to wear masks while inside, the group said.
Winters said she saw guests wearing masks outdoors as well. (“This really wasn't something strange to me or a bother,” she said. “In fact, I felt a bit odd if I didn't have a mask.”)
An exception to mask-wearing, of course, is if one is eating or drinking.
One thing the group immediately noticed was how guests are required to sanitize their hands before entering any dining venue.
“Staff will also provide you with a sanitizing wipe to clean your phone or camera,” said Declare.
While social distancing is encouraged via signage, guests were still allowed to dine in their groups, it was noted.
All dining venues use QR codes, which means menus can be viewed on phones. (However, the resort does still keep physical menus on site for those who do not have their phones with them, the group said).
As far as the buffet goes, it is now an à la carte service.
“You just let them know what you would like and they will bring it to you,” said Declare, noting how the high quality of food that Palace is known for hasn’t changed at all.
Temperature checks were also conducted before entering other public spaces, like the nightclub, they said.
While all of this may sound more labour intensive for guests, Davey said the experience “became second nature” within a day.
Yes, there’s been some changes in how service is handled at bars and restaurants, but “it’s really business as usual,” she said.
Jordan, meanwhile, applauded the great service she received:
“There was an excitement to see us,” she said. “[Employees] have also been through stressful times like us.”
Even though the swim-up bars in the pools were closed at the time, staff were still patrolling the grounds, checking on guests to see if they needed anything, Jordan said.
(It should be noted that since the group returned from their FAM, all swim-up bars at Palace Resorts have reopened).
“An instant recharge”
“If you are able to quarantine for 14 days upon return, I would strongly suggest that agents travel,” said Winters.
D.W. noted how “getting back in the saddle” has had a profound effect on her and the agents she travelled with.
“It was an instant recharge,” said Winters. “Our mental health has never needed it more and I would not hesitate to travel again.”
Declare said travel advisors are in a good position right now to be an authority on the health and safety measures that resorts have introduced.
“Let's face it – extensive safety protocols cost money, but they are essential to bringing travel back during these times,” he said.
Davey concluded that Moon Palace Jamaica is not only following COVID-19 protocols, but “exceeding them.”
“It’s the same level of service one would expect from a Palace resort,” she said.
Winters, meanwhile, is gearing up for a second FAM she is hosting at The Grand at Moon Palace in Cancun, Mexico, from November 14-21, which will include tours of other Palace properties in the area.
“If you haven't been, you should join me,” she said, speaking to the trade at large. “It will be the best thing you've done all year.”
Interested agents can contact Winters directly for more details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see highlights from the trip, search the hashtags #DianasAwesomeFAMs and #SunnyDaysAreHere on Instagram and Twitter.
For a comprehensive FAQ on Jamaica’s COVID-19 protocols, click here.
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