Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last time Tracie-Marie Landry, a destination wedding specialist and travel designer with OHANA Travels (TravelOnly), stepped foot on a plane was back in February.
"I was heading down to Mexico for a destination wedding with about 80 other people," Landry recalled. "I usually go to Mexico about eight to ten times a year, but this time, it was really different going to the airport at night. It felt like a ghost town; nobody was there."
From July 12th to July 17th, Landry joined a group of eight Canadian agents on a FAM trip down to Mexico with AIC Hotel Group to check in on the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya and the five-star, adults-only Unico 20º87º.
Landry said that just like before, she arrived at the airport three hours before her flight to Mexico was ready to take off.
But not only was the airport eerily quiet, nothing was open. All of the bars, restaurants, and kiosks were shuttered, and not just because it was an early morning.
"Even the refillable water stations were blocked off," Landry recalled.
Once she was ready to board, Landry said she was asked to go through an infrared temperature screening machine. She was also asked to fill out a COVID-19 tracing form for travel to Mexico, which provided her contact details, as well as the results of her temperature check.
Following the social distancing signage and stickers, Landry boarded her Air Canada flight to Cancun, which, she said, had a slight route change and ended up stopping in Montreal.
"The flight was incredibly full, and the middle seat is no longer blocked off," Landry said. "I took Business Class to ensure I could safely social distance, but every seat on that plane appeared to be booked. When we got to Montreal, we had to go through the entire process again (temperature checks, baggage sanitization, etc.). Air Canada's flight attendants were constantly checking that everyone's masks were on for the entire flight, and if they weren't, they reminded you that there is a fine."
Landry confirmed that Air Canada passengers in Business Class received a complimentary personal hygiene kit which included hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, a face mask, disposable gloves, and a bottle of water. A pre-packaged meal was also included on the Toronto to Cancun flight.
Not another virtual FAM
Since the pandemic hit, travel advisors have been forced to stay home, and accept that travel is on pause for the foreseeable future, or until it's deemed safe to do so.
Between virtual webinars, Zoom chats, and more recently, virtual FAM trips, travel advisors have been inundated by excess screen time.
"There's been a lot of virtual stuff, and we wanted to give agents the opportunity to see the properties again," said Jasmine Grant, BDM, AIC Hotel Group. "Before we put this whole thing together, we put a post up on our Facebook page, asking agents what they thought of the whole thing. I thought 'We're going to get torn apart for this; agents aren't ready to travel yet.' But the response was overwhelmingly supportive."
"The biggest concern when visiting our properties is the overall experience," continued Grant. "People don't want to travel somewhere where their experience is hindered. It's one thing to read all about these new health and safety protocols off a fact sheet. It's entirely different to see them firsthand, and that's what we wanted to do."
The group visited the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya first from July 11th through July 14th. With more than 800 rooms split between the adults-only Heaven side, and the family-friendly Hacienda side, new social distancing measures didn't hinder the overall experience for the group, Landry said.
The major difference is that right now, the Heaven side is closed, which means that for a temporary period, Hard Rock Riviera Maya is no longer offering an adults-only experience.
Once occupancy rates increase (Mexican law permits hotels and resorts to operate at 30 per cent capacity until otherwise stated), the two sides will resume normal operations, Grant confirmed.
Staying at the Hard Rock
From the moment they arrived at the resort, sanitization measures were imminent.
"Upon entry, our luggage was disinfected, sprayed and whipped down, and our hands were sanitized and our temperatures were checked outside of the entrance, and were checked upon every entry to the resort," said Joe Kemp, owner, Kemp World Travel (TravelOnly). "All resort staff wear masks at all times. We were spaced at a safe distance as we entered the resort and upon check in. We stepped onto a disinfectant mat upon entering through the doors."
"The staff were really excited to see us again, and we felt very welcomed," Landry added.
Inside her room, Landry, who has been to the property at least seven times, says the difference is immediate.
"The ironing board, iron, hair dryer, and robes are no longer in the room, and the mini fridge is no longer stocked with alcohol," Landry explained. "All of these services are still available, but you have to call down and ask for them."
As a test, Landry decided to take advantage of the services, to see what the difference was.
"The robe came wrapped in Saran wrap, as did the iron, and the hair dryer came in its own bag, all to make sure there was no contact before it got to your room," Landry said. "The staff are also not allowed to enter your room. If you order room service (which is still included, free of charge), for example, they tell you to be in your room. They won't leave it outside the door."
On July 7th, just one week before the group arrived, Hard Rock introduced SAFE + SOUND, a program developed by a team of hospitality and gaming experts in collaboration with worldwide health and sanitization specialists that aims to help keep guests and team members safe and healthy.
Under the new SAFE + SOUND standards established by Hard Rock, each hotel is independently assessed by NSF International and required to pass a rigorous 262-point inspection.
"The Safe & Sound program AIC Hotel Group has in place is very impressive," added Olga Leonetti, travel consultant, Northstar Travel. " I was very fortunate to have been able to experience these protocols for first hand during the familiarization trip this month. Each room is Safe & Sound sealed after being cleaned and disinfected, and AIC made sure they covered all points of safety for both staff and guests."
The Rock Spa and its services are still available, Landry noted, but the only service that wasn't offered was the four-hand massage, which embraces the skills of two massage therapists working on the guest at the same time.
Despite the Heaven adults-only side being closed, restaurants on the Hacienda side were rotating their menus, so the group had a chance to try some of the cuisine offered on the Heaven side. The buffets have been eliminated, and everything is now à la carte.
Checking into Unico 20º87º
Those who have stayed at the luxurious Unico 20º87º boutique property know that it's a sensory experience.
In fact, upon checking in, guests used to be presented with a selection of candle fragrances that they would like to have in their rooms.
This feature has disappeared, but other than that, not much has changed, Landry notes.
"At Unico, everything is still in the room," Landry said. "The robe and the slippers are there, the minibar is stocked, and the soaker tubs on the balcony are still in use. With 448 rooms, it's a lot easier to sanitize the hotel at 30 per cent capacity, compared to Hard Rock Riviera Maya, which has 1,264 rooms, split into two sections. That's why the experience is different."
Guests still get paired with a personal host upon arrival, who checks in throughout the duration of the stay to ensure the overall guest experience is satisfactory, and also to see if there is anything extra that can enhance the stay.
Something different, to be aware of, Landry notes, is changes at the bar.
"They can no longer serve alcohol past 10:30 p.m.," Landry shared. "You can still order alcohol to your room, but you can't go up to the bar after that time ad ask for a drink."
The mixology classes are also still running at the resort, but with slight modifications.
"They are only allowing six people at a time to partake in the classes, so our group didn't get to all sit in on a class this time," noted Grant. "This time, we gave the agents a lot of free time so that they could explore the resort at their own pace."
The pools are open, but keeping in line with social distancing measures, some things are different.
"The pool service was some of the best that I have ever experienced and the staff were extremely attentive to each guest," noted Kemp. "The pool bars are not in use as of now to avoid the huddling of guests, however with the service around the pool that was not an issue at all."
The gym is also open, but only six guests are allowed in at a time, and a reservation is required. It was here, Landry said, that she truly felt the extent of the measures that Unico 20º87º staff were taking to ensure a safe vacation experience for all.
"I have asthma, and when I exercise, sometimes I cough," Landry explained. "I was on the treadmill, and naturally, I started coughing a little bit. The next thing I know, the hotel had sent a small medical team up to my room to check on me and make sure I was okay. They sat with me for ten minutes; at first, I was a bit taken aback by all of this, but I really liked how they went above and beyond for me. You have to be understand that this is a different time, and I'm really glad they took the protocols that far."
Landry added that although the group didn't have the chance to go on any of the excursions that Unico includes for its guests, like a visit to the cenotes and the Tankah Maya community, they were informed that those are now back up and running.
Overall, the experience at both properties was enjoyable, Landry says.
"I never once felt overcrowded, and I felt very safe and protected the whole time," Landry said. "We felt so comfortable with AIC. We would all do it again in a heartbeat."
"Overall, I was completely impressed by the service and for my clients who are looking for exceptional service. UNICO 20 87 will be highly recommended," Kemp added.
For the time being, all agents involved on AIC's FAM trip to Hard Rock Riviera Maya and Unico 20º87º are staying at home for a period of 14 days, as mandated under the Canadian government's Quarantine Act. Landry shared that some of those on the trip already received housecalls from the Canada Border Services Agency to ensure those policies were being followed.
Getting back to Mexico
Mexico is presently still in the Orange phase which means that every resort in the area cannot exceed 30 per cent of its capacity.
While flights are being offered to Cancun out of Toronto and Montreal aboard Air Canada, many travel advisors, as well as their clients, are not rushing into bookings just yet.
"Hard selling isn’t getting an agent anywhere right now, and now is not the time to be doing that," Grant asserts. "Everyone has gone through different losses and struggles. That being said, it's important to keep in front of your clients right now. At the end of the day, people are travelling, and people want to travel. As travel agents, and any of us that work in the industry, it's in our blood."
All agents who spoke to PAX unanimously agreed that when the time is right, they'll encourage their clients to consider Mexico once more.
"There are many people that are nervous to travel right now, but I was very impressed with all the precautions taken right upon arrival at Cancun airport and for the resort experience," Kemp said. "Mask wearing is mandatory at Cancun airport and everyone was following the rules. I am excited to begin promoting Mexico immediately and I hope that all the people that have the travel itch will seriously consider planning a trip to Mexico in the near future."
"It is interesting because I was comparing our COVID protocols that we have in place in Canada to what I experienced in Mexico. I observed that safe protocols at both resorts were the top priority of management," Kemp added.
"Mexico is one of my personal favourite destinations, and tourism is key to the country," Leonetti shared. "At the airport they have also made improvements which adhere to guidelines for COVID-19, including social distancing, temperature checking, and so forth."
While AIC has not yet determined if it will do another similar FAM trip soon, the company currently has a 'Save Now, Travel Later' promo on for agents. Canadian travel advisors can secure a special rate between now and September 30th, 2020 at one of the all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotels, UNICO 20˚87˚ Hotel Riviera Maya, Nobu Hotel Los Cabos, Nobu Hotel Miami Beach or Eden Roc Miami Beach for future travel until October 31st, 2021.
"This is a great initiative for agents who have clients that want to travel at some point, but aren’t sure of the dates," Grant said.
Canadian agents who are interested in learning about upcoming FAMS from AIC Hotel Group, as well as events or promos, can follow the Facebook page here.
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