Although the soft US economy has been tough on many American tour operators, Sandy Babin, Vice President of Marketing of Apple Vacations is optimistic as Apple gears up for 2015-2016. “There is pent-up demand and people still want and need vacations at fair prices, ” said Babin.
“It’s true that the travel industry has suffered along with the American recession. However, sales are up and we are very optimistic that we‘re going to have a good winter 2011-2012 season. We have increased air service and added new hotels and new destinations. We’ve just launched a new campaign to kick-start the charter to Costa Rica from Chicago and Denver and we also opened our brand new destination in Latin America – Panama” - says Babin. She spoke with Vacation Magazine Editor-in-Chief Michael Oz about the reasons behind the positive forecast.
Apple Vacations: 43 years in the US travel market, more than 3,000 charter flights annually into Mexico and Caribbean. 10 resort areas in Mexico, 15 Caribbean and 6 Hawaiian Islands. Charter Flights from 17 U.S. cities. Almost 700 hotels in Mexico, Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe and ski resorts in the US. Also in Apple’s portfolio- America Latina: Costa Rica, Belize and Panama. And millions of travelers.
For more than 40 years now, millions of customers have continuously relied on Apple Vacations to take them to the places they really want to go – be it Mexico or Dominican Republic, Jamaica or Bermuda, Costa Rica or Hawaii, Europe or ski resorts in the USA. In fact Apple sells more vacations to Mexico and the Dominican Republic than any other vacation company worldwide.
Apple Vacations continues to win travel industry awards every year. Apple’s customer service is also highly rated by agents and consumers, with 70% repeat clientele. Apple’s long-standing relationships with their airline and hotel partners results in unbeatable buying power, enabling them to offer the best prices at the most popular resorts worldwide. It’s no wonder that customers count on Apple year after year with their vacation plans.
Vacation Magazine (“VM”): Sandy, you are Apple Vacations’ Vice President of Marketing. What’s your travel experience and career in the travel industry in general, and in Apple Vacations in-particular?
Sandy Babin: “Apple Vacations was my first job in the travel industry, where I have worked since 1996. Prior to that I worked in television and as an ad executive at an advertising agency. My love of travel is the reason I pursued the job at Apple Vacations. Prior to coming to Apple, I traveled extensively in Europe and the South Pacific, as well as Australia. Of course I did a lot U.S. vacationing as well. Since I've been at Apple, I travel to our important destinations on a regular basis.”
“VM”: Your company works exclusively through travel agents. How can you describe the Apple’s motto “Committed to your success”?
Sandy Babin: “This is a motto that describes how we work with travel agents. The professional travel agents that work with Apple are the heart of our business; they help us to educate our mutual clients. We do all we can to support our travel agents with marketing tools, incentives, seminars, and their own education. Our ongoing Ask an Agent campaign is very popular and gives consumers the reasons why they should work with travel agents. Apple frequently offers bonus commission, along with a Royalties program, marketing and PR support and other perks for travel agents. Every year we host hundreds of travel agents on fams to see new hotels and the destinations we service. They know our product very well and that’s why they sell Apple Vacations so well.”
“VM”: How do you assess the progress made by your company recently and how would you assess your company’s strength in today’s environment?
Sandy Babin: “Apple has been growing each year. In the last few years we have offered exclusive vacation flights in new gateways i.e.: Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Lansing (Michigan), Rockford (IL ) and Newberg (NY). We also continue to add new destinations such as Costa Rica on exclusive vacations flights from Chicago, and on scheduled air throughout the U.S.” Apple recently launched a weekly charter program to Liberia, Costa Rica, from Chicago O'Hare on USA 3000 airlines for departures January 14 to April 22. Apple currently offers a year-round, scheduled air program from several U.S. gateways into Liberia as well as San Jose, Costa Rica, and has added 13 additional hotels in that country.
The company also recently launched a brand new destination - Panama - a small and beautiful country in Central America. “Our strength is the value we offer to our customers. Due to the commitments we have to the destinations we service, and our strong relationships with hotels, airlines and tourism boards, we are able to leverage our buying power and pass it on to our clients."
This is part of what we call ‘The Apple Advantage,’” said Babin.
“VM”: What differentiates Apple from other tour operators and what are your strongest selling points?
Sandy Babin: “Apple’s unique and exclusive vacation product. Apple offers full vacation packages on Apple-exclusive vacation flights – non-stop charters to numerous destinations throughout Mexico and Caribbean. Once again this is an ‘ Apple Advantage’. Our customers receive the benefits of our size and our negotiating power.”
Apple also holds contracts with most major scheduled air carriers, and offers vacation packages from departure cities nationwide to beach destinations throughout Mexico – 10 resort areas on the Caribbean and Pacific sides. 3 in Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, 15 Caribbean islands and 6 Hawaiian Islands. In total, Apple works with more than 700 hundreds hotels all over the world including Europe.
Secondly, Apple works closely with some of the very top names in our industry. AMSTAR is the Destination Management Company (DMC) in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. AMSTAR is a dedicated DMC with a friendly team of local experts that provide exceptional destination services and activities to individual vacationers, groups, corporations and meeting planners. They offer more than 500 different tours and excursions around the countries and also can arrange business meetings, convention VIP tours and exclusive packages.”
“We work closely with AMResorts who manages 22 first class resorts of Unlimited-Luxury throughout Mexico and the Caribbean including the upscale Zoetry Wellness & Spa Resorts, adults-only Secrets Resorts, and Dreams and Now Resorts & Spas, both catering to couples, friends and families. Recently AMResorts announced a project called Gems Cap Cana. It’s new complex of luxury hotels being constructed in Cap Cana, Dominican Republic. We are able to offer our clients a very integrated vacation experience from the time they arrive at the airport prior to their trip, until they return home. We can offer a complete, customized vacation product, which is unique to our industry.”
“VM”: Who is your clientele and what are the most popular destinations in Apple’s portfolio?
Sandy Babin: “Our clientele are couples and families and our main market segment focuses on mainstream beach destinations in Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Our most popular destinations are # 1 Cancun and Riviera Maya, # 2 Dominican Republic, and # 3 Puerto Vallarta and Jamaica. This April, Secrets St. James Montego Bay and Secrets Wild Orchid Montego Bay officially unveiled their elegant resorts. Overall Apple’s strong partnerships in Jamaica, especially in the adults-only luxury niche, have ignited consumer interest there.”
“VM”: Apple Vacations has such a good variety of resorts and hotels in Mexico and sometimes people don’t know the difference between Mexico’s Caribbean side and Mexico’s Pacific side. They send a lot of emails and phone calls to Vacation Magazine and Radio Show asking about differences. Can you describe different areas in Mexico and which area best for whom?
Sandy Babin: “In Mexico we have 10 absolutely different vacation areas from destinations, like Cancun which appeals to sun and fun worshippers, to the authentic Mexican villages of Mazatlan and Huatulco. In Mexico we work with around 300 Mexico hotels between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
On the Caribbean side we offer 3 vacation areas: Cancun, Riviera Maya and the island of Cozumel. Cancun offers fabulous nightlife, nightclubs and discos, plenty of restaurants, cafés, music and world- class shopping, great beaches and close proximity to ancient Mayan ruins. It’s a fun place to be and we have 49 hotels there.
Second and the most popular Apple resort area is Riviera Maya. It was selected “Best Destination” by Apple Vacationers two years in a row: 2008 and 2009. Paradise is Forever is the slogan of Riviera Maya. It’s a family-oriented resort area stretching for more than 100 miles with beautiful white sand beaches, tropical jungles, eco parks and ancient Mayan ruins like Tulum and Coba. Amusement parks like Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor are very popular activities. Swimming with the dolphins and zip lining are great for families. Other unique experiences that you can find only in Mexico are underground rivers or cenotes. In Riviera Maya almost 90% of the hotels are family-oriented all-inclusive resorts. We contract 63 hotels, suited for every taste and budget.
The island of Cozumel is a diver’s paradise and the waters encircling the island have an impressive group of coral reefs that are part of the Great Mayan Reef, the second largest reef system in the world. Marine reserves of ecological importance, such as Cozumel National Reef Marine Park and Chankanaab Nature Park, were created to protect areas with a wide diversity of marine life, and they have drawn the attention of researchers and marine biologists such as great Jacques Cousteau. Moreover, they are great places to enjoy scuba diving and eco-tourism outings. Simply the best diving in Mexico. On the island we have contracts with 17 hotels.”
“VM”: Can you describe different areas in Mexico Pacific ocean side and which area is best for whom?
Sandy Babin: “On the Pacific coast we have 7 resorts areas starting from north to south. We call this “Pure Mexico”: Los Cabos, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta & Riviera Nayarit, Manzanillo, Ixtapa & Zihutanejo, Acapulco and finally Huatulco. The Pacific coast destinations are surrounded by beautiful natural scenery, from the deserts of Cabo to tropical jungle areas and the Sierra Madre Mountains to lush green Huatulco.”
“VM”: From our conversation with Sandy Babin we begin with Los Cabos - international playground for celebrities, fishing capital and golf mecca. Plenty of nightlife, café, restaurants, nightclubs and discos. During the winter from January to March in the Sea of Cortez you can admire one of the natural phenomena that occurs on Mexico’s coasts: the courtship, mating and birth process of the gray whale. A 20 mile long highway, called the Corridor Turistico, stretches from San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas. Along the highway, you’ll find 26 world-class hotels with top-notch restaurants, which have been known to lure a fair share of celebrities and the 9 greatest golf courses in Mexico designed by Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones II and Greg Norman.
Authentic Mazatlan is known as the “Pearl of the Pacific” because of its beautiful beaches and its marine life. It has become an important site for international fishing tournaments. Mazatlan combines traditional architecture with modern hotels and restaurants. Walk down picturesque streets lined with 19th-century constructions in its Historic Center, known as Old Mazatlan . The Golden Zone is the modern resort area of Mazatlan with 11 hotels and many restaurants.
Puerto Vallarta lies along Banderas Bay, the second largest bay in the Western Hemisphere. It is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range. In Puerto Vallarta you can enjoy the services of the Boutique and Gran Tourism hotels, the exquisite regional cuisine of Jalisco that so many people have come to love, and the terraces of open-air restaurants. Puerto Vallarta is the Mexican gourmet capital with the best food in Mexico’s state of Jalisco - birthplace of Tequila, Mariachi and Mexican cowboys.
A newer Mexican Pacific destination is Riviera Nayarit , located in the state of Nayarit in the heart of the Banderas Bay, 10 minutes from the Puerto Vallarta airport. This Pacific coast destination, surrounded by lush natural scenery, tropical jungle areas and the Sierra Madre Mountains, has developed into an important tourist resort over a relatively short period of time. It offers top-notch hotels, luxurious boats at the Marina de Riviera Nayarit, excellent spas and world-class golf courses. In Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit Apple offers 38 hotels.
Next is the small, pure Mexico village of Manzanillo where Apple offers 5 hotels. Manzanillo is known as the Sailfish Capital of the World. Since 1957, it has hosted important national and international fishing competitions.
Ixtapa/Ziuatanejo is one of Mexico’s most beautiful beach destinations, located between the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The picturesque town of Zihuatanejo has a traditional rural feel, while Ixtapa is a modern tourist resort with quality hotels and a marina with more than 600 slips. Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo offer two resort areas in one, with 13 hotels to choose from with Apple.
Acapulco – there is no need to introduce this resort. Acapulco is the most famous beach resort since 50s. The city has a non-stop nightlife, and is one of the hottest playgrounds among Mexican vacation destinations. Apple works with 16 hotels in Acapulco.
And nestled on the southern end of the Pacific Coast is beautiful, lush Huatulco – “Pure Mexico”. Huatulco has 9 bays and 36 beaches strung along along 17 miles of coastline. Apple offers 7 hotels there. There are some excellent deals at “Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa” for 2011, and a brand new, spectacular Secrets Resort & Spa will be opening next June.
VM: “Apple Vacations has, how many by the way, Caribbean islands in the portfolio and again, sometimes people don’t understand their differences and think the all islands look alike and sometimes naturally can be disappointed if they expect from the islands something different. Please clarify or like they say in Jamaica: we have no problems - we have just situations. Please resolve the situation?
Sandy Babin: “Caribbean islands are so diverse in heritage, culture, language, food, traditions, music and activities. English, Spanish, Dutch, French and Caribbean, with a laid- back and friendly attitude which creates an incredible European-Caribbean blend of environment. The only common thing is they all have beautiful beaches and wonderful people. Altogether we have 15 beautiful Caribbean Islands - Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Bermuda, Bahamas, Curacao, Grand Cayman, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St.Martin, St.Kitts, St.Lucia, Turks & Caicos, U.S.Virgin Islands and Apple works with 234 hotels in the region.
I will start with Dominican Republic because it’s our most popular destination in the Caribbean including four destinations on the island - Punta Cana – 27 hotels, La Romana - 13, Puerto Plata - 12 and Cap Cana – 2 hotels - altogether we have 54 hotels in the DR. 40 miles of spectacular sugar white beaches, probably the best in the world. 3-4 hours flight from New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. We consider the Dominican Republic a family- oriented destination. But you can discover an absolutely different Dominican Republic if you experience Apple’s new hotels like the adults-only Secrets Sanctuary in a new luxury area called Cap Cana, just 10 minutes from Punta Cana airport. Another new luxury resort in the DR is the Zoetry Agua Punta Cana.
Next destination: Jamaica – the birthplace of Bob Marley, the fastest man on Earth - Usain Bolt and James Bond. Yes, James Bond was born in Jamaica where Ian Fleming wrote the “Casino Royale” in Goldeneye hotel which he built in one of beautiful bays of Jamaica. We work with 45 hotels, including 6 different resorts areas: Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, Runaway Bay, Rio Bueno and Falmouth. New hotels added since last winter include the two Secrets Resorts that opened in April in Montego Bay, Secrets St. James and Secrets Wild Orchid.
Apple Vacations' 2011 Caribbean schedule calls for more than 1,000 charter flights into Jamaica and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, as well as new scheduled service to both destinations from Milwaukee on Air Tran and from Lansing, Mich., and Minneapolis on Sun County. Top-growth destinations are Montego Bay and Punta Cana, both showing a more than 25% jump in bookings to-date year-over-year. Apple's gateways this winter on charters and scheduled flights to Montego Bay and Punta Cana include Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.”
“VM”: “Let’s talk about Central America? How many countries in Apple’s portfolio?”
Sandy Babin: “We offer vacation packages to three countries: Costa Rica, Belize and now Panama. This region is very promising, and has become very popular lately. A lot of people in the US want to try somewhere new and exciting. Costa Rica attracts everyone; from eco-tourists looking for adventure, to couples desiring a romantic beach getaway, to families seeking fun-filled days. Hiking, fishing, bird watching, and canopy tours, mountain biking and white-water rafting are popular - 26% of the country is composed of conservation and natural protected territory.”
“VM”: Let’s get the Apple brochure and read: Covering only 0.03% of the surface of the globe, it shelters 5% of the existing biodiversity in the world. Explore rain, dry and cloud forests, volcanoes, rivers running through mountains, waterfalls, flawless beaches, 28 national parks, 8 biological reserves and 130 protected areas. Costa Rica is biodiversity, eco-tourism, adventure and no artificial ingredients. We have 13 hotels in the Guanacaste and San Jose areas. In addition, we offer a self-guided Fly/Drive program from Guanacaste and a number of escorted tours from both Guanacaste and San Jose, as well as optional day tours. We highly encourage vacationers staying at the beach hotels to get out and really experience this incredible country by taking advantage of the many optional day tours available.
On the Caribbean coastline south of Mexico, Belize is a nature lover’s paradise with tropical rain forests, unspoiled beaches and the second largest barrier reef in the world. Belize is a diver’s paradise with famous Blue Hole, and Apple provides 8 hotels for divers and nature lovers.
“We’re just introducing Panama - a rising star of Central America, adds Sandy Babin. “ Unfettered by tourist crowds, Panama’s natural gifts shine. Panama is a beautiful place for vacation and even retirement for some. And of course, everyone must see the Panama Channel – the engineering masterpiece.”
“VM”: What’s new in Hawaii?
Sandy Babin: “We work with 120 hotels in all Hawaiian Islands: The Big Island, Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai and Molakai. Apple Vacations’ buying power and innovative promotions with scheduled airlines provide our clients with the most competitive air packages in the industry. Because of this, we offer great value packages to Hawaii like "Go Topless for Free" which gives vacationers a free upgrade to a convertible rental car, and, right now, Free Whales (www.applevacations.com/freewhales), where clients staying at one of 20 Maui hotels receive a complimentary whale watch excursion.
Apple Vacations is proud to announce two new hotels to our Hawaii portfolio. In the Ihilani area of Oahu, Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, is the first-of-its-kind Disney creation, on 21 acres with detailed rooms and suites and a Disney Kids’ Club. We think this will be huge for families, and we're excited to have Aulani as part of our Hawaii program. Also new for Hawaii in 2011 is the Ian Schrager-designed Edition Hotel Waikiki – a modern and sophisticated environment anyone can enjoy.”
“VM”: Apple Vacations.com has been re-designed lately. What factors were taken into consideration while doing this? Sandy Babin: “The redesign was based on consumer usability testing. Visitors need to get to the information they most want in as few clicks as possible. We moved the booking engine prominently to the upper left corner because that was where they were shopping. Other factors included the ability to merchandise more special promotions and deals, based on time of travel. i.e.: summer specials, holiday, and fall.”
“VM”: What’s the key to a successful relationship between Apple and media?
Sandy Babin: “Like any successful relationship, it's all about being a partner. If you are only worried about what you are getting every time you work together, you are limiting your possibilities. Our media friends are there when we need them and we are there when they need us. We also do a lot of group come- along and radio/TV broadcasts, traveling to different destinations with our media partners. They are always amazed at our experience and what Apple Vacations has to offer.”
“VM”: How does Apple work with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter?
Sandy Babin: “We try to be engaging and share information. From time to time we put out special offers. How are the needs/preferences of consumers changing as far as usage of online medias evolving? What new trends have you witnessed this year? Consumers continue to do tremendous research online. But many still use travel agents to book their vacations. There is not a clear division of online bookers vs. those who use agents. When it comes to a new destination, group travel, or special interest travel, agents are more often called upon. If the vacation is a repeat destination or someone is booking air only....or hotel only, it is sometimes more convenient for them to make an online booking.”
“VM”: What do you think are challenges going forward for the company and what’s your biggest challenge for 2010-2011 seasons?
Sandy Babin: “I think the greatest challenge continues to be keeping up with technology. It advances so quickly that it often seems that we can never catch up. We always have a long list of IT requests, as I imagine most companies do! Secondly we continue to expand our risk, by that I mean our exclusive vacation flights. We have to fill these planes every day across the country.”
“VM”: What is outlook for this year and what’s your prediction for next year?
Sandy Babin: “I am expecting 2011 to improve over 2010, but, not in a huge way. We are still in a soft economy and it is going to take time to recover. It's important that we continue to provide quality and value for our customers. People will take vacations. They may skip on other luxuries, but, for most hard working people a vacation is not a luxury, it's a necessity.
With over 40 years in business, we've trained ourselves to be extremely focused. Focused on the customer, focused on our main source of distribution - travel agents - and focused on key destinations so that our productivity and buying power can be maximized and translated into good prices and value added extras for our customers. We have hundreds of airplanes to fill. We have commitments to hundreds of hotels out there. We have hundreds of hard working staff members, but most importantly we have millions of happy, repeat customers that make it worthwhile.”
“VM”: Thank you for the interview.