Sandals and Beaches Resorts’ decision to sever its distribution relationship with Funjet Vacations, one of many brands under the Mark Travel umbrella that recently merged with Apple Vacations, will prove to be a temporary business disruption for travel agents who sell the luxury all-inclusive resort company, but not a move that is expected to impact whether travel agents sell them or not.
Regardless, some agents speculated whether the move is indicative of a larger shift on Sandals part to distribute less through wholesalers and more through its reservations affiliate Unique Vacations.
“I definitely saw it coming,” said Georgiann Jaworskyj, owner of Custom Travel Services in Merchantville, New Jersey, and the second-highest seller of Sandals Resorts in her state. “I have felt for the past five years that Sandals was moving away from tour operators and pushing business to Unique Vacations.”
Kate Leas-Clisson, owner of Escape the Ordinary Travel in Homosassa Springs, Florida, agreed: “Of course, Sandals wants us to book directly with their company, Unique Vacations, so maybe their future plan is to only have the option to book through them. Between Karisma, Couples, and AMResorts, there are many luxury resort brands to choose from, so I think this will hurt Sandals because agents like to be familiar with the booking engine they prefer and [if they are] out of sight, [they will be] out of mind.”
VIP Vacations, Inc. President Jennifer Doncsecz disagreed, offering her opinion that the move was specific just to ALG. She told Travel Market Report: “I don’t believe this is any indication that Sandals/Beaches will sever ties with any or all tour operators. [They] have been very upfront with their reasons for pulling out of ALG-owned distribution channels in the past. Quite simply, they feel that ALG, as owners of AMResorts, poses a conflict of interest if they carry Sandals/Beaches (a direct competitor of the AMResorts brand).”
Sandals adds perspective
When asked about agent concern over a possible shift, a rep for Sandals said, “There is no shift and Sandals Resorts will continue to support its tour operator partners.”
Meanwhile, The Mark Travel Corporation issued a statement with regard to their long-standing relationship with Sandals, saying the company respected the decision and wished them all the best in the future.
“Sandals is a hotel company that has committed its brand to our agents’ success and to the experience of each of our customers while in destination, and we are honored to have been a part of that for many years,” said Bill LaMacchia Jr., Mark Travel chief engagement officer. LaMacchia added that Mark Travel plans to add more hotel product to its hotel portfolio “in an effort to further strengthen and fortify our position in the marketplace.”
Doncsecz went on to say that agents might be channeling their energy in the wrong direction, hinting that other changes might be on the horizon for ALG partners. “Sandals/Beaches has a very close relationship with many tour operators and having several distribution channels is very beneficial. I also think agents should understand that Sandals/Beaches was not the only resort brand to sever ties with ALG in the past, so this could be an indicator of more shuffling in the weeks/months to come!”
A shift in business, but not a total loss
Given Sandals’ solid brand recognition and client loyalty, most travel agents that Travel Market Report spoke to this week said the company’s robust marketing efforts will continue to drive business their way, and it is just a matter now of where they will place the booking and the time it will cost them in finding a replacement operator.
In the end, none of them were surprised by the move, which mirrors a similar business decision Sandals made in 2015 when Apple Leisure Group purchased Travel Impressions (TI) and Sandals also subsequently dropped TI as a preferred operator.
“It limits my options as to how I book Sandals, but I would never steer away from booking them," said Jaworskyj. "In the end though, every time I get a request for Sandals, I have to think about where I am going to place the business.” She added that her decision process will be largely tied to insurance agreements in place. Jaworskyj is pretty sure she will be shifting her Sandals business to GOGO Vacations because, like Funjet, they offer insurance that allows cancellations for any reason, whereas with Sandals’ Unique Vacations, insurance is not protected in all instances.
Kate Murphy, president of Wings Travel Group in Philadelphia, agreed that the elimination of Funjet is more of a nuisance than anything else. “It disrupts my business flow by forcing me to evaluate all my options about where to move the business. Murphy said the move was reminiscent of when Sandals dropped Travel Impressions after they were purchased by Apple. “I went to Funjet at that time because I was comfortable with the BDM and senior vice president of sales who came from Travel Impressions. I knew the people at Funjet after they dropped TI. Now I need to evaluate a new operator’s customer service, website, etc.”
Despite her disappointment with the change, Jaworskyj said she is moving forward. “Every time they make a move, it affects us, but then again, nothing stays the same. We adjust and move on. I can’t dwell on it because it’s not my decision.”
Doncsecz agreed. “Seasoned agents know how to pivot and adapt, so this should not impact their business at all. If agents are big producers of Sandals/Beaches via the Mark Travel Brands, they will of course see their numbers with Mark Travel decline. Keep in mind, there are many other ways that agents can book Sandals/Beaches so that should not impact their Sandals/Beaches numbers at all.”
Murphy, whose top three tour operators are Funjet, Apple and Travel Impressions, offered a positive take on the merger that seems to be the driving force behind this latest move by Sandals. “The three leaders of [these tour operators] are very bright, far-thinking men who are also very agent-friendly. I can’t imagine the merger will hurt travel agents. Everyone was worried when Apple Leisure Group bought Travel Impressions, but they only sell through travel agents. They go out of their way to help us.”