Were you one of the boomers who danced, sang and tippled your way through the Club Meds of yesteryear? Since those humble beginnings in the 1950s, all-inclusive resorts have undergone a metamorphosis.
Widely acknowledged as the granddaddy of the hassle-free, all-inclusive vacation, Club Med was the first tour operator to roll the costs of lodging, meals, drinks, activities and entertainment into one daily rate. By the 80s, others adopted similar pricing models. At that time, all-inclusive packages attracted singles, honeymooners and other young couples seeking fun-filled getaways on a shoestring.
Today, the vastly-expanded all-inclusive market includes families, empty nesters, groups of friends and multigenerational clans. Gone are the long waits on buffet lines, watered-down drinks and Spartan-like accommodations. Instead, guests are now more likely to be ensconced in posh suites at four- and five-star luxury resorts, with upscale meals, services and amenities to match.
"Historically, there has been a stigma attached to this industry — that it is limited to middle-market consumers,” says Scott D. Berman, a principal at PwC and leader of the firm’s U.S. hospitality and leisure practice. However, Berman and other experts agree that the quality of all-inclusives and their level of inclusiveness have been improving.
A Changing Landscape
All-inclusive resorts are the fastest growing segment of vacation lodging. (Similarly, the cruise industry is also moving towards more inclusive pricing.) One survey reports that the proportion of leisure travelers staying at these resorts rose from 8 to 14 percent over the last three years.
According to the Cancun Hotel Association, almost two out of three of the more than 30,000 hotel rooms in the area are all-inclusive. While heavily concentrated in Mexico and the Caribbean, new all-inclusives are popping up all over.
Why this trend? Its timing coincides with the downturn in the economy and the surge in extra hotel and airline fees. More than ever, travelers want to know the entire cost of their vacations upfront without having to reach into their pockets each time they order a drink or receive a service.
Despite the growing popularity of all-inclusives, misperceptions still abound, particularly among boomers who remember the old version. Here are some of the latest trends:
No longer are all-inclusives limited to mid-market properties that pretty much look the same.
“When I started out, Sandals and SuperClubs were the big names,” says Tom Carr, an All Inclusive travel expert who has been booking all-inclusive vacations since 1998. “Back then, we identified 25 properties that offered a fully inclusive experience. Now we have close to 400 to chose from.”
AMResorts, which will have 40 properties in its portfolio by 2015, manages six all-inclusive brands (Sunscape, Secrets, Dreams, Breathless, Zoetry and Now) designed to appeal to couples, families or singles at different ages and price points. Even Club Med has evolved, now offering 80 different experiences worldwide, including themed vacations and upscale versions for families.
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“The average size room at an all-inclusive is 400 to 600 square feet with double-sinked bathrooms, whirlpool tubs and spa-like showers,” says Travel Designed travel consultant Stephanie Diehl. Some properties offer all-suites with ocean views and butler service. Many have hot tubs, private plunge pools or swim-out suites.
Of course, the all-inclusive experience and its costs vary widely across resorts and by destination, season and room category.
“Taking a quick look at mid-June in the Cancun/Riviera Maya/Cozumel areas, for example, pices range from $80 per person/per night for budget properties to $338 at the most upscale and luxurious properties,” says Diehl.
Major hotel brands, like Starwood and Hyatt, have been dipping their toes in this market either by opening new properties or offering all-inclusive options along with conventional European Plan (a la carte meals and drink) rates. Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos (for families) and adult-only Hyatt Zilara Cancun both opened last November; Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall will debut in Jamaica in late 2014.
More Sophisticated Dining
High-powered chefs, gourmet restaurants and 24-hour room service have become hallmarks of the all-inclusive experience. Most properties have multiple restaurants and bars, indoors and alfresco.
Cocina de Autor, the Basque-inspired gourmet restaurant (one of five restaurants) at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, was the first all-inclusive restaurant to receive an AAA Five Diamonds Award.
Secrets The Vine Cancun is wine-themed with seven specialty restaurants focusing on fine cuisine and wines. At breakfast and lunch, the resort’s Market Café offers high-quality regional Mexican and international dishes buffet-style as well as made-to-order and grilled specialties. None of the venues require reservations.
Each Secrets resort has a Starbuck’s-like coffee bar; Sandos Finisterra in Los Cabos and Sandos Cancun have cupcake bars.
More Activity Options
As the all-inclusive industry matures, properties are differentiating themselves by the unique experiences they offer. Some highlight ecology and sustainability, indigenous wildlife or wellness.
And although most all-inclusives are near a beach, they offer more than sun and surf. Daily programs cram in so many activities that they are reminiscent of a stay at summer camp. Think: yoga, water aerobics, exercise classes, beach walks, water volleyball, cooking and art classes, tennis, wine and tequila tastings, etc.
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Barcelo Bavaro Palace in Punta Cana has a water park with a pirate’s playground, wave pool and waterfalls for children of all ages and a casino for adults.
Travaasa Experiential Resorts (located in Hana, Hawaii and Austin, Texas) emphasize hiking and ukulele lessons in Hana and courses in archery, BBQ and tending chickens in Austin. Health-conscious guests at the three Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts (the highest category under the AMResorts umbrella) emphasize fitness, nutrition and personalized menus.
Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa in Riviera Maya has a sustainability focus, with solar-powered rooms, an on-site windmill and composting and environmental protection programs.
Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Cancun has created a niche by hosting musical icons such as Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Usher and Chicago on its resort grounds. Guests who book certain all-inclusive packages receive complimentary event tickets.
Usually at an additional cost, resorts arrange off-premise opportunities to experience local culture. At Grand Velas Riviera Maya, guests can swim with dolphins. The recently opened Secrets Puerto Los Cabos offers deep-sea fishing excursions in the Sea of Cortez or snorkeling along the Pacific coast.
The ambiance at each of the all-inclusive properties managed by Elite Resorts in Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia and Palm Island is defined by their unique Caribbean destinations.
Advice for Booking Wisely
When booking an all-inclusive vacation, be sure to read the fine print, because there is no industry-wide definition of “all-inclusive.”
Find out whether the price includes meals and beverages, 24-hour room service, beach and poolside service, wine with dinner, minibars (stocked with beer, wine, soda and bottled water), free Wi-Fi and taxes and gratuities.
Depending on the property, there may be additional charges for transportation between the airport and resort, premium wines and liquors, greens fees, spa treatments, babysitting and meals at some specialty restaurants. Guests also need to calculate airline fees into the total cost of their trip.
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The Bottom Line
Are all-inclusives actually a money-saver? No one has ever published the math comparing the costs for similar stays at all-inclusive and conventional resorts.
“But guests paying for inclusive packaging have the perception that they are spending less [at an all-inclusive],” says Berman. “There is a psychological comfort in knowing they aren’t going to get a bill with pages of itemized resort charges.”
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.