Tuesday,  October 3, 2023  5:52 am

Sandals renews focus on groups/MICE market

Sandals renews focus on groups/MICE market
From left: travel agents Judy Byrne & Jen Hardy; Grant Lawlor, national groups manager at Unique Vacations Canada; Mercedez Le and Tyler Birchall of Birchall & Associates. The group participated in Sandals' FAM at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica.
Michael Pihach

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.

Hand-holding honeymooners have longtime been synonymous with Sandals Resorts, Gordon “Butch” Stewart’s prized collection of luxury, adults-only properties in the Caribbean that have taken the all-inclusive market by storm since 1981.

With ongoing investments into state-of-the-art amenities – from over-the-water bungalows and bars to butler services to Skypool Suites – the brand has showed no signs of slowing down in crafting a perfect paradise for couples. 

Yet while romance remains an important part of the Sandals experience, the company isn’t solely about attracting lovebirds seeking a sunny getaway.

Latitudes, an over-the-water bar at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Sandals Resorts. One of Sandals’ biggest growth patterns, in recent years, has been in group sales, says Grant Lawlor, national groups manager at Unique Vacations Canada, the marketing arm of Sandals Resorts.

Lawlor says it’s a division at Sandals commonly misunderstood among travel trade.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that we don’t do groups,” Lawlor told PAX on a FAM trip for travel agents and event planners last month (May 27-30) at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica. “It’s a growing network for us out of Canada, especially over the past five years.”

“We’re not only about weddings and romantic getaways anymore,” says Grant Lawlor of Sandals Resorts. “There’s so much more to Sandals.”

While Lawlor says group business at Sandals “is nothing new,” it’s part of a “a renewed focus” for the brand.

“You can see proof of that in Sandals Montego Bay,” Lawlor explained, noting the new stand-alone conference centre at that particular resort – Sandals’ flagship – that opened last year.

Sandals Grenada, too, has expanded its conference and meeting amenities, and all Sandals have dedicated teams devoted to producing creative events and on-site experiences.

“We’re not only about weddings and romantic getaways anymore,” Lawlor said. “There’s so much more to Sandals.”

In total, there are 12 Sandals properties that are geared towards groups and MICE bookings: Sandals Montego Bay, Sandals South Coast, Sandals Ochi and Sandals Royal Plantation in Jamaica; Sandals Emerald Bay and Sandals Royal Bahamian in the Bahamas; Sandals Barbados and Sandals Royal Barbados; Sandals Grande Antigua; Sandals Grande St. Lucian; Sandals Grenada; and Beaches Turks and Caicos (the family-friendly arm of Sandals).

Groups at Sandals South Coast

“Sandals South Coast was built from the ground up with groups in mind,” Lawlor told PAX. “There’s consistency in room accommodations, which is important to groups and MICE planners.”

The resort is located in rustic White House, Jamaica, a laid-back, off-the-beaten path region that’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay.

HOT PROPERTY. Sandals South Coast in Jamaica was built on a 500-acre nature preserve.

“It’s underdeveloped, old, undiscovered Jamaica,” Lawlor explained. “It’s not a hotel zone. There’s not a lot of outside distractions.”

Built within a 500-acre nature preserve, Sandals South Coast features three unique European villages, an over-the-water bar, chapel and bungalows, Red Lane Spa, and tennis, pickleball and fitness facilities, all of which connect to a two-mile stretch of serene beachfront (which never feels crowded).

“The South Coast has a magic to it,” Adrian Whitehead, general manager of Sandals South Coast, told PAX. “The remoteness leads to a sense of paradise when you’re here.”

Whitehead said that during busy seasons, 30 to 40 per cent of vacationers at Sandals South Coats are returning guests.

“The South Coast has a magic to it,” says Adrian Whitehead, general manager of Sandals South Coast in Jamaica.

The resort has nine on-site restaurants that offer everything from Italian to Asian to Caribbean fare, and reservations are never required.

What’s more is that all the rooms, regardless of category, face the ocean, which is a “major selling point for us,” Whitehead said.

ULTIMATE GETAWAY. Sandals South Coasts' signature over-the-water bungalows form a heart shape. Photo courtesy of Sandals Resorts.

What makes the property suitable for groups are the ample gardens, courtyards, pathways and lounges that can be used for events.

“We’ve had some groups host meetings on the beach,” Whitehead noted.

DIVE IN. Poolside at Sandals South Coast in Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Sandals Resorts.

There’s also huge ballroom that can be divided into three different sections, if need be, which can serve as a private check-in area for large groups arriving by bus all at once, for example. It’s also an effective “Plan B” space in case it rains.

How to book groups at Sandals

There are many ways travel agents can book groups at Sandals, from social packages (ie: tennis, golf, or spa getaways) to all layers of the MICE market (corporate events, incentive trips and conferences).

The value in booking groups at Sandals – MICE packages in particular – lies within the many concessions that come with a Sandals’ all-inclusive package, Lawlor explained.

These include complimentary items such as private check-in spaces (complete with massage chair), beverages upon arrival, meeting rooms, transfers, WiFi, access to Red Lane spa amenities, basic audio and visual set-ups, coffee break spreads, one private cocktail reception (one hour) and one private group dinner (two hours).

“This can add up to thousands of dollars at other resorts,” Lawlor said, noting that there are no limits when it comes to using spaces at Sandals, as far as additional costs are concerned.

“If you have six days of nine-to-five meetings, that’s 100 per cent complimentary,” Lawlor explained. “Everywhere that’s a common area can be used for a group function. The options are endless.”

Free rooms and upgrades are also obtainable, depending on the size of your group.

For example: groups of 10 or more are entitled to one complimentary room per every six or 12 rooms paid (for up to five maximum).

GET SOCIAL. “Everywhere that’s a common area can be used for a group function. The options are endless,

The only situation where additional costs might occur is if, for example, a group wanted an extra private cocktail or group dinner function.

“If you need two dinners, let’s talk about it,” Lawlor noted. “Everything is up for negotiation.”

The makeup of a group may also determine which Sandals resort is the best option. Sandals is predominately geared towards couples (rooms come with one king-sized bed). Of course, rollaway beds are available if, for example, two single people wanted to share a room but not a bed. However, determining the group dynamic, in advance, is key because not all groups fit into every Sandals experience.

“If you were looking for an all-singles group of all men, in the middle of February, we’re not going to do it out of respect for the honeymooners,” Lawlor said. “But if you were looking at the fall, let’s talk about it.”

Singles-only groups can be a better fit for Beaches Turks and Caicos, Lawlor said, “which is for everybody.”

While Beaches Turks and Caicos is the family-friendly brand at Sandals, Key West Village – one of five villages at the resort – generally has an adult vibe, if that’s what a particular group is looking for, Lawlor said.

Schedule a give-back day

When staying at a Sandals resort, guests and groups have the option of booking a give-back day in conjunction with The Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts.

The Sandals Foundation, now in its tenth year, invests in the people and regions in which its resorts operate, steering charitable efforts that focus on education (scholarships, teacher training, supplies), the environment (conservation, reforestation, sanctuaries), and community (mentorship, dental and eye care services).

GIVE BACK. Sandals' Reading Road Trip invites participants to visit a local school and interact with children through reading and educational activities.

Incentive or corporate groups, for example, can enroll in what’s called a “Reading Road Trip,” whereby participants can visit a local school and interact with children through reading and educational activities.

Donated book bags – knapsacks full of books and school supplies – are also welcome at these type of excursions.

“Many kids are in schools but they don’t necessarily have supplies or basic needs. [Book bags] are an easy way guests can give back,” Rochelle Forbes, public relations manager at Sandals South Coast, told PAX.

Some corporate groups may visit a local school for a morning and help reinvent a space, Forbes said, such as painting a playground or mural.

And when companies want to make a contribution to a cause, The Sandals Foundation will “usually match their donation,” Forbes said.

“Anywhere in the world you can find beautiful beaches and lovely hotels. Sandals is right there at the top. But you can’t really put a price on impacting somebody’s life,” Forbes said.

For more information on The Sandals Foundation, visit sandalsfoundation.org.