Sandals Resorts is reaching out to consumers with a $35 discount on direct online bookings.
Not surprisingly, the move has proved unpopular with some travel agents who are protesting the move to their business development managers (BDMs) and also voicing their opposition to the policy on social media.
Others agents, however, view the new policy as a business reality that they can (grudgingly) live with.
Travel Market Report spoke with several agents to get their take on the new policy. We heard from Sandals as well.
“I know a lot of agents are a little upset, not because they’re losing $35 per booking,” said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Bethlehem, Pa.-based VIP Vacations, a member of The Affluent Traveler Collection.
“Agents are upset because there’s always been price parity and a no-discount agenda with Sandals,” she said.
Indeed, that Sandals seems to be backtracking on a long-established no rebate policy, is what has some agents riled up.
In a statement to Travel Market Report, Sandals Resorts said that, “agents may price match the $35 incentive.”
The statement also mentioned that in 2014 Sandals Resorts launched a new travel agent portal, paying an extra 1% commission on bookings made on the portal.
Extra commission good; discount offer not so much
“We sell a lot of Sandals and our regular contacts there called us last week,” said Marlys Aballi, owner of Connection to Cruise, a NEST agency in Redlands, Calif.
“They wanted to tell us about the extra one percent commission, which was great,” Aballi said. “But we didn’t realize they had also placed a discount offer on their consumer website.
Sheila Cannon, owner of Carefree Romantic Vacations, an affiliate of Connection to Cruise, sees the Sandals move as a “slippery slope.”
“Most agents I know that sell Sandals are not happy with the new policy,” Cannon said. “It trains clients to expect some kind of a discount and it trains agents to give discounts. It’s just another stumbling block for agents.
“They have to charge the client the $35 and then send it back to them in a check,” she added. “It’s frustrating, cumbersome and looks questionable to the clients.”
Travel Market Report spoke with other agents who taking a pragmatic approach to the Sandals move.
“I’ve looked at some of the agent Facebook Group postings on this. A lot of people want to jump up and down,” said Tom Carr, owner of All Inclusive Outlet in Lexington, KY.
“I understand both sides,” he added. “But ultimately, Sandals owns the product. If you’re a good salesperson you can work with it.”
Carolyn Waffle, owner of Carolyn Waffle Certified Travel in Binghamton, N.Y., shared similar sentiments.
“Sandals, like most businesses, is in business to make money. If they can capture reservations online that require very little overhead to service without compromising the price parity that they are known for, it’s smart business,” said Waffle.
Another point to consider: Sandals is not the only supplier offering incentives for direct online bookings.
“Lots of other different brands offer better rates for online bookings,” said Carr. “The other day I saw a huge billboard for a well-known hotel that said ‘book direct and save.’
“That kind of thing is even bypassing OTAs. At least Sandals is being up front about it.”
Sell yourself, not the product
So if direct booking discounts are a sign of the times, what’s the best strategy for agents?
“I am definitely focusing on marketing my business and my team,” Doncsecz said. “I don’t want to place energy on things that we can’t control.
“I think big sellers of Sandals should call their reps and voice their opinions,” she added. But in the long run it’s better to be tactical than be mad.”
Waffle said that, “If my customers are looking on line, and don’t book with me because of a $35 price difference, then I have not done my job in conveying my value as a travel professional.”
For its part, Sandals is downplaying any negative effects of the online discount policy.
In its statement to Travel Market Report, it emphasizes that “travel agents always come first at Sandals Resorts.”
“Those who book with us continue to reap tremendous rewards including one of the highest commission structures, empowering marketing support and ongoing agent education, including the most robust fam program in the industry,” the statement said.
Agents also pointed out that they can work around the online discount.
“Will 50% of my business be booked directly with Sandals in the future?,” asked Waffle. “No. I’ll take full advantage of my preferred supplier price match program that matches Sandals online pricing, and channel more business through those avenues.
“Fortunately, Sandals provides full support to the travel agent community whether you book reservations through a tour operator or direct.”
And she still sees Sandals as a strong partner.
“Sandals is still by far the most agent friendly supplier in the field, and I will continue to support them wholeheartedly,” Waffle said.
“We are only one distribution system of the many that are out there, not only for Sandals Resorts, but for all hotel chains, resort chains, tour companies and cruise lines,” she added.
But not all agents are convinced.
“Sandals has rubbed me the wrong way for a while,” Aballi said. “Do they do a lot for agents? Yes. But it’s the agents who’ve supported them by attending trainings, selling products and visiting the resorts.
“They’re doing well because of us. I’m looking at them in a different light now. I won’t ever trust them as much as I did before,” she said.