Apart from budget airlines, and flying Economy on other carriers, airlines offer free food and drink (what customers think of the quality thereof is another matter).
In the cruise industry, the higher you go up the luxury scale the more you obviously pay and the more you get. At the peak, you get superb wines, foie gras and fillet whenever you want’em, and complimentary land excursions. In the hotel world, however, ‘all inclusive’ has for too long been associated with mass-market Mexican and Caribbean, and some Indian Ocean resorts, and the quality has not exactly been luxury.
But that is changing, fast. Nihi Sumba, on Sumba Island off Indonesia, has been “semi-inclusive” since it was launched by Chris Burch and James McBride in 2017. McBride says the business model works, and works well. With daily room rates of around $1,400 for two persons, all you pay extra is spa, and alcohol. ‘People forget how much they paid ahead of time and when they merely get a check-out bill for Champagne and facials they are really happy, and often immediately book a repeat stay’.
Now we have Four Seasons turning one of its two Lanai properties into all-inclusive wellness, and Ritz-Carlton developing an all-inclusive in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit. Also in Mexico, both Hilton and Hyatt have all-inclusives, managed on their behalf by NYSE-quoted Playa Resorts. The company, led by Chairman-CEO Bruce Wardinski, with the help of COO Alex Stadlin, currently has 20 properties (6,969 rooms) in Mexico, plus Jamaica and Dominican Republic.
An overnight at Hyatt Ziva Cancun shows the recipe for all-inclusive success. Go in at high end, which requires a really good overall product with outstanding food. Do not let occupancy dip below 50% or profit becomes loss – Hyatt Ziva Cancun runs consistently in the 80s year round, average stay 4.5 nights, nine percent repeats. And have access to skilled purchasing. Get all this right, and margins can be tremendous.
Arriving at this particular all-inc, I had no idea what to expect. My arrival, in a local DMC van, required a quite extensive name check before arriving at the main entrance. I passed AAA 4-diamond plaques for the last 3 years. Inside the open-front, open-rear lobby I felt I was in the South Pacific. A bellman picked up that I was in Turquoize, the one block in this three-building, 547-room resort that is adult only, and demands a premium of $50-100 per room. He walked me seven minutes along a zigzag concrete ‘road’, open to the elements one side: on the other, glass-walled, side are a dessert-only outlet, a coffee stall, a sunglasses store, a craft brew outlet, a resort wear boutique. In the Turquoize lounge I had to wait a bit too long as the one receptionist was taking forever checking in a young Asian couple. Then I was befriended by an extremely smart 35-ish butler, Eduardo, in uniform turquoise overshirt. As he took me up in one of three elevators to floor two he told about his years at sea with Royal Caribbean (he returned to land as he missed his son).
In 2015 this property completed a $90 million transformation from a Dreams hotel – architects InterAeq, interiors by Ken Shannon/Leisure Hospitality Design International LHDI. Upper corridors are utilitarian, relieved by a blue and grey carpet strip. We made two right-angle turns, a total of 40 metres, to get to #217, opened by pressure pad.
Actually the room, 17 x five metres, is just a litle utilitarian too, with cream-varnished concrete floors, cream walls relieved only by a fabric-sculpted frieze above the bedhead and some wood sail shapes climbing up that wall and over to the ceiling. Looking in from the door, the 25% of space to my immediate left leads to the ablution area, with wood dividers and doors. There are two rectangular NK washbasins set into a 4m-long vanity unit. The two-head shower is big enough to hold a family. I have an Aliseo magnifier (the entire room’s light switches are commendably clearly labelled, and there are masses of sockets). I have a Conair Iconic hairdryer, and L’Occitane Mistral toiletries. Linens, bath and bed, are TY, from Pakistan.
The main room has a table-desk, with a Crave tablet. Above the Dometic minibar, stocked with free soft drinks and waters, are a basket of unhealthy snacks, a red Nespresso with four capsules, and two white Lubiana mugs, without spoons. There are also a pair of 175ml screw-cap LA Ceto wines from Guadeloupe, and stemmed glasses • Now for the highlight. Simple-pull ecru drapes covering the all-glass end wall reveal, through a French window, my semi-private terrace, with a jacuzzi tub and, immediately beyond, I look at across five metres of water, with my two loungers inset, part of a terrace lake running 48 metres past the rear of all eight rooms on this upper floor.
A knock on the door revealed a room service man with a bowl of fruit, without cutlery, and a bottle of Freixenet’s local Dubois méthode champenoise, with masses of ice and two flutes. Ten minutes later, with another knock, came Eduardo. Apparently of his own volition and to compensate for my botched arrival, he had brought up a laden trolley to make me a golden margarita. I videoed him as he skilfully measured-and-shook Tequila, Cointreau, orange and lime juice, served in the typical margarita, ‘daisy’, two-level coupe.
I worked it off by walking the premises, past one pool where five dolphins cavort, past several other pools with lots of cabanas, and past one of 200 weddings the hotel does every year – the happy couple had temporarily left their guests to pose in Strictly Come Dancing alignments on a wood jetty stretching into the Caribbean. Two cameras were in tow.
On my way back to the gym I started spotting marked selfie spots. The gym is easily reached, it is 24/7 but noticeably under-used for an establishment that must have over 1,000 staying tonight. I had all 11 LifeFitness joggers to myself, and enough total equipment for an Olympic squad. Back home, I quickly changed and Eduardo walked me round to La Bastille.
There are 17 dining-drinking choices here and all are free, no reservation but first-come first-served. They seem to know how many will dine where, and when. The 80% American guests definitely dine before Mexicans, for instance. Since they have already paid for their vacation everyone eats in most nights: about 15 rooms order room service, included, while others pay for romantic dining experiences, and to upgrade their wines (additional incremental spend comes from spa and boutiques). The hotel can do bought-in kosher any time, though for the 3 Jewish buy-outs they have had this year one kitchen is prepared for, and turned over to, a local rabbi.
I am dining with Alex Andrade, VP Ops in Mexico for Playa, who is bubbling with excitement at the thought of finally getting married in two weeks’ time. We are in the glassed-off private room at the far end of the all-browns, 48-seat La Bastille space. All places are set with white Churchill china, Jay Versalles cutlery and three significant Schott Zweisel stemmed glasses. We are handed, by tongs, a white petit pain and a marvellous savoury croissant. The meal progresses slowly, with a duck foie gras skewer as amuse and, for me, spinach and goat cheese quiche with tomato concasse sauce followed by steak tartare with truffle scent and Melba toast, with a side of no-salt fries: best-sellers include boeuf bourguignon and duck à l’orange. We drink Rutherford Ranch 2015 Merlot Napa Valley. I pass on dessert but chef still sends out what looks like a caprese, a divine concoction of coconut icecream and meringue on strawberries.
Over dinner I had two questions. Since everything is free, how do they stop outsiders muscling in? It is difficult to get in the front door, the only entrance, unnoticed as there are so many super-alert team members around. You cannot walk in from the sea, and restaurant hostesses ask your room number. Next, how do the 900 staff manage without tips? Everyone, front and back of house, gets an equal share of a union-agreed percentage of revenue, and this keeps staff turnover down to 6.5%.
By the way, says my chatty companion, Playa needed Hyatt to show guests and staff this is part of a well-known brand. As well as providing over 30% of business, Hyatt has helped increase customer satisfaction – similarly, a Playa-managed Hilton topped that brand’s customer satisfaction at last assessment. In between delicate mouthfuls, Andrade talks about the future. Although this business model’s restaurants are timeless, with merely tweaking needed, he is adding an organic outlet • Outside, I find the amazing Eduardo waiting, but we stop en-route home to join a couple of hundred sitting on cushions on one 15 metre-wide set of stairs listening to a mariachi group playing down near the resort’s resident dolphins.
Back in the room, night turndown had left a card, ‘rest well for tomorrow’s adventure’, plus two Hyatt chocolates and $100 off a treatment tomorrow.
I slept beautifully, rushed down to the gym, showered and, back in the Turquoize lounge, found three butlers just starting their shift. One insisted on personally escorting me round to El Mercado’s much-lauded breakfast buffet. Its reputation was not exaggerated: I sat outside on the terrace, at a glass-topped white table holding a single living green shoot in a turquoise glass vase. Places were set with white linen napkins and white Churchill china, plus Inox cutlery. My sensible coffee mug (no itsy-bitsy teacups here!) was filled with really good coffee almost before I sat down. Inside, there are so many stations you could wander all day. I found green juice, tubs of Yoplait Griego yogurt, and superb one-bites of papaya. A young chef managed three egg orders simultaneously, but I could not work the pop-up toaster and anyway its four slots seemed inadequate for an operation this size. I ended up with one slice burnt both sides, another slice raw one side. Tubs of Président butter floated in ice. On my way home I dropped in at the coffee store for a coffee to go: there was a display of Dilmah teas. And then my car awaited for the airport, and I was really sad to leave. As for all-inclusives, I am, personally, hooked.