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The Evolution of All-Inclusive Resorts

The stress-free vacation concept is rapidly expanding in Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe and beyond.

U.S. News & World Report

The Evolution of All-Inclusive Resorts

Mayan Riviera Paradise in Cancun, Mexico.

Today's all-inclusive properties are targeting an upscale clientele with spacious accommodations, innovative amenities and recreational activities – all factored into one flat price.(Getty Images)

For years, all-inclusive resorts were associated with mediocre buffet food, watered down drinks, sub-par accommodations, hidden charges and lackluster activities. They were the place you went when you didn't want to plan your vacation thanks to flat pricing that accounts for meals, drinks, lodging and daily activities. However, the times are vastly changing. It's become harder to find these types of resorts among the gleaming, revamped and surprisingly luxurious all-inclusives of today.

Despite taking a hit in profits during the recession of 2008, the demand for stress-free all-inclusive vacations is booming again, mostly due to the growth in resorts and locations catering to a variety of traveler types. No longer restricted to Mexico and the Caribbean, hotel companies around the world are adopting the all-inclusive model, from the U.S. to Europe and beyond.

More exotic locations, revamped resorts and added activities for all ages have also dramatically changed the clientele of the trend, which used to skew to budget-conscious families and singles. Now, well-heeled guests are booking all-inclusive vacations, changing the dynamic of the overall experience.

No company has witnessed the ebb and flow of all-inclusive resorts like Club Med, the pioneer of the trend since the mid-1950s. Travelers, particularly singles, used to flock to European and Caribbean locations in search of romance and a good party scene. However, like the trend itself, the clientele of Club Med has made a more upscale accommodation shift as well.

"Since 2004, we've really noticed more couples and families. Club Med used to be primarily singles, but now we see an entirely different skew. Over 70 percent of our guests are families, 20 percent are couples and just 10 percent are singles," says Xavier Mufraggi, CEO of Club Med North America. "Plus, we've seen more affluent consumers and have since invested over a billion dollars in our resorts to renovate and move them to more four – five-star [properties]."

Historically speaking, the biggest all-inclusive gripe among guests has been the food. Although buffets are still a major part of many all-inclusive properties, they've seen an incredible overhaul in not just the food quality, but the setup, too. "The way we do it [the buffet concept] now is completely different. Our buffets are more along the lines of a fancy, high- end brunch spread – much like you'd see at top restaurants in Paris and New York City," Mufraggi says.

And nowadays, instead of the standard offerings found anywhere, resorts are updating their menus to reflect their location – providing more locally sourced, sustainable options for the more affluent, mindful guests. "We've seen a big change on the expectation of the guests for more local, more sustainable. It's, of course, not easy to do it in every location, but its something we really try to do. However, everything we do make is produced on-site – it's all made and adapted based on where we are," Mufraggi says.

One of the most notable changes to all-inclusive holidays, particularly for Club Med properties, has been the rooms. The renovations include larger rooms for families, more upscale furnishings and even adults-only spaces to allow for privacy and romance. The company recently opened the adult-only Zen Oasis area at its Punta Cana outpost, and has seen success in just the few months since its debut. The serene space has 78 deluxe rooms, complete with private terraces or balconies and sleek furniture and decor, plus a pool designed for the 18-plus crowd, a connection to a private beach and a modern bar.  

Club Med certainly isn't the only company to introduce an adults-only concept to the all-inclusive trend. Brands like Sandals Resorts have championed the adults-only all-inclusive concept, with more than 5,500 rooms around the world. And newer brands, like Hyatt Ziva, are capitalizing on the trend by opening four- and five-star properties in Mexico and the Caribbean that offer state of the art spas, award-winning food and luxurious rooms with ocean views.

However, adults-only travelers aren't the only reason resorts are stepping up their game. The family market (especially multigenerational groups) has taken off in recent years, putting more pressure on these resorts to offer more activities for a wider range of age groups. And because of the spike in interest among multigenerational travelers, the offerings at all-inclusive properties have improved significantly, both on and off the property grounds.

To satisfy families, many resorts have opened up kids- and teens-only clubs in many of their properties. These clubs are fully staffed and supervised, so parents can soak up some alone time. In addition, Club Med has partnered with Cirque de Soleil to offer circus entertainment and hands-on gymnastics training, which has been successful and has sparked growing interest from the multigenerational family market.

Beyond family programs, the complimentary on-site activities available at all-inclusive resorts are just one benefit of the vacation experience, which is often the most surprising thing for guests. Long gone are the travelers who are complacent staying put inside the gates of the resort for a week. Now, travelers want more from their vacation, such as culturally immersive village visits and off-the-beaten-path city tours. Although these excursions are rarely included in the "all-in-one" fare, many resorts have found people don't mind paying to get more from their trip.

Apart from excursions, Club Med has also noticed a greater appreciation among guests for locally influenced experiences and amenities at the resort, from local art on display to partnerships with local schools and businesses.

"We try to showcase and work with the schools nearby to really promote local artifacts. It's a very important aspect. Want to make it more organic, more real. We want each place to be a symbol of the region – all the paintings are from the region and from local artists. We try to make it a different experience and bring the cultures a little closer," Mufraggi says.

Other companies, like Sandals Resorts, are also putting a focus on giving back. In addition to sourcing most of their food locally, they also run the Sandals Foundation – a philanthropic arm of the Sandals company that works to give back to the Caribbean by promoting education and sustainable practices. To showcase companywide sustainability efforts, the brand is urging its guests to get out and experience the lives of the culture, from guided tours to individual excursions, which gives back to both the guest and the community.

"Everyone is benefitting from this," Heidi Clarke, executive direction of the Sandals Foundation told Travel Weekly. "From the taxi man to the tour companies to the restaurants, everyone knows it's Sandals that the guests are coming out from."

With all-inclusive bookings expected to increase by up to 7 percent, plus nearly 300 all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico and a handful in Europe and Asia, the popularity of all-inclusive vacations continues to grow.

"All-inclusives are no longer a niche market but are now a real category," Mufraggi says. "We're seeing incredible success in our expansions around the world, especially in China and Taiwan and expect them to be our second market next year. It's very engaging and exciting," he adds.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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