sandals royal barbados beachfront suite with tub
In addition to its signature luxuries, Sandals resorts is expanding its offerings with amenities like bowling alleys, craft beer bars and rooftop pools. — Sandals

In the consumer imagination, there are brands whose name recognition far exceeds their actual size.

IKEA, for one, is a household name worldwide, but operates a mere 313 stores.

Sandals Resorts International is also one such brand, says Gebhard Rainer, CEO of the all-inclusive luxury resort that conjures up images of honeymooners lounging in breeze-billowing cabanas on white sand beaches.

Rainer, who was named CEO in 2018, envisions taking Sandals’ far-reaching brand equity beyond its 24 resorts and longtime niche in the English-speaking Caribbean, to uncharted markets from Cuba to Europe and Southeast Asia over the next decade or so.

But in readying its five-star resort properties for newfound expansion, Rainer has been busy leading a culture change at the hospitality brand to usher in services and experiences that meet today’s consumers’ craving for bespoke vacations with a “je ne se quoi” of authenticity.

The first non-family member to run the 38-year old resort company, Rainer is working with the executive team to stoke Sandals’ signature luxuries — like wedding chapels perched above the ocean — while introducing experiences such as craft beer bars and bowling alleys to a camp for autistic children to serve the spectrum of consumer lifestyle wants and needs, taking take Sandals’ stamp of “innovation and creativity to the next level,” he told CO—.

“There’s a huge opportunity to explore the power of the brand,” he said.

Rainer has done just that before during a 26-year career at Hyatt. When he joined the hotel chain in 1989, like Sandals, “Hyatt’s brand equity was much larger than the company itself,” he said. “People thought we had more hotels than we did.” During his tenure, the Hyatt more than doubled in size from 250 to 650 locations.

Sandals chairman and founder Gordon “Butch” Stewart tapped Rainer precisely for his international bona fides, with an eye toward “expanding into areas and territories it had no experience in and shied away from,” he said.

Since then, he’s been building on the entrepreneurial spirit of the family business with a formalized organizational structure while establishing clear management roles and lines of reporting, an operations discipline new to a company that he says redefined notions of all-inclusive travel.

Before Sandals bowed in 1981, “all-inclusive” carried a negative connotation, evoking a vacation experience of “standing in line for a mediocre lunch and drinking copious amounts of alcohol in the sun and sand,” he said. “That’s not what we do. We set the bar for all-inclusive resorts by offering more five-star inclusions than any resort company on the planet.”

Still, the hospitality market has changed. “Travelers have an expectation of personalization and on-demand [services], which they experience in many other parts of their lives,” Steve Braude, a director in the restaurants, hospitality and leisure practice at global consultancy AlixParners, told CO—.

Because of the increased digitization of life, people are becoming more isolated in daily life, they’re craving emotional experiences and social interactions, and they want that done in a personal way.

Gebhard Rainer, CEO, Sandals Resorts International


In the competitive market of travel, Sandals is finding ways to expand its signature offerings to attract travelers to its all-inclusive resorts. Read more on how your business can rise above the competition.

Today, out-there expressions of the on-demand personalization trend include the Angad Arts Hotel in St. Louis, where guests book a room based on color theory, picking a hue to match their desired mood, be it ”passionate red” or “tranquility blue,” and Bedtime stories at the millennial-geared Moxy NYC Chelsea hotel, bespoke in-room videos marketed as an alternative to guided meditation and a “drug-free mental massage,” according to parent company Marriott International.

“To thrive, legacy travel companies need to truly understand their customers and what they want, and produce highly focused experiences that target these wants,” Braude said. “Carefully curated experiences that match their customers’ lifestyles and aspirations will help to position legacy travel companies for success.”

That’s why Sandals is grounding plans for the business in understanding the wants and needs of new consumer segments such as millennials and Generation Z, Rainer said, while mining insights on “how the expectations of the consumer [overall] are changing, and how their expectations of an experiential vacation are changing.”

Culture shift: Craft beer, bowling alleys and taking them off script

While the resort company made its name catering to couples, still a major part of the business evidenced by its 10,000 weddings a year, it’s since morphed into a total “lifecycle” hospitality brand that attracts multigenerational vacationers, singles and families to its Beaches, Grand Pineapple, Fowl Cay, and Jamaican Villas properties in Antigua, The Bahamas, Grenada, Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Turks and Caicos.

Increasingly, consumers who spend much of their waking hours in internet land glued to digital screens are hungry for immersive and deeply felt in-real-life (IRL) hospitality experiences, Sandals’ customer research revealed. “Because of the increased digitization of life, people are becoming more isolated in daily life, they’re craving emotional experiences and social interactions, and they want that done in a personal way,” he said. “That’s what we’re working towards in our offerings.”

To personalize the service experience at its tony resorts, Sandals directed employees, from front desk agents to waiters and housekeeping staff, to drop any practiced banter when interacting with guests and to just be themselves.

“‘Good evening Ms. Smith: How are you today? What can I do for you?’ — it doesn’t come across as authentic,” Rainer said. “We want our team members to come across as natural."

Encouraging employees to embrace their personality with guests, departing from the scripted banter common to guest-worker exchanges in the hospitality sector, is a seemingly small change that’s freed staff to forge an organic rapport with vacationers that’s brought an elevated — yet genuine — personal touch to the guest experience, he said. It allows them "to be who they are, brings out a lot of their qualities,” and opens the door to more meaningful, warm interactions, he said.

As the company adds more of its gawk-summoning extravagances to its properties — like over-the-water villas and swim-up suites with infinity-edge pools that seamlessly blend into 360-degree ocean views — Sandals is also introducing unexpected culinary perks and leisure experiences to the vacation model to keep step with travelers’ changing tastes and sensibilities.

In a nod to foodie culture, Sandals Royal Barbados boasts the resort’s first-ever gourmet donut bar with 13 choices, as well as a craft beer bar with 19 globe-spanning brews. “We’re now in the process of developing a rum bar with an endless variety of rums from around the world,” Rainer said.

Other firsts include a rooftop pool and bar and a four-lane bowling alley. More than anything, these additions are a bid to stoke social interaction and emotional bonding in a fun way, he said.

“Bowling alleys, craft beer bars — these are magnets and centers where people get together and couples start talking with each other. Before you know it, they make an arrangement to have dinner together, book another, and make friendships that least years and years.”

Rainer and his team are also nurturing Sandals’ softer side with certified children’s nannies and an autism-friendly kids camp at Beaches. The family resort property partnered with credentialing body IBCCES to offer autistic camps that are Certified Autism Centers, with activities and staff that’s trained and certified to meet the children’s distinct needs. The idea is that every element of a lifestyle is cared for, Rainer said.

 craft beer bar at sandals royal barbados resort
Sandals now offers a craft beer bar with 19 brews from across the globe, a gourmet donut bar and is also currently working on a rum bar. — Sandals

Not losing sleep over Airbnb

As Rainer sees it, Sandals’ rarified niche as one of the few all-inclusive luxury resorts is why he’s not worried about the encroachment of Airbnb and its sharing-economy ilk. “It has not affected our market share,” he said.

“We’re very different from a HomeAway or an Airbnb,” Rainer said. “Especially now with the sharing economy we live in, there are times in a lifecycle when you want to have a vacation that is carefree, where everything is taken care of rather than you having to arrange, book and pay for everything you want to do.”

Quite the contrary, Sandals is actually an escape from the sharing economy, which is in part why all-inclusive resorts from budget to upscale properties are the fastest growing segment of the hospitality industry, he said.

An AlixPartners analysis of profit pools in the travel sector revealed that despite the sharp rise of tech players in the industry like Airbnb, and Expedia, all-inclusive travel companies have maintained their share of the overall profit pool and boosted their operating margins at the same time, Braude said.

“And as millennials are expected to become a major share of travelers to these resorts in the near future, this could bode well over the long-term for all-inclusive travel companies who get this right., Braude said.”

As for expansion, Rainer said, “the goal is to explore opportunities at our doorstep” in the Dutch, Spanish and French-speaking Caribbean from the Dominican Republic to Cuba and the British Virgin Islands.

On the five-to-10-year horizon, Sandals is looking beyond the Caribbean to Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. “We want to maximize our brand equity in the market,” he said.

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