The concept was a great one for a teenager: getting thrown into the pool by flirtatious staffers, eating all the French fries I wanted at every single meal, watching grown-ups humiliate themselves during “talent night.” But those spring-break trips to all-inclusive resorts that I loved as an awkward adolescent were something I have avoided at all costs as an adult. Swapping bracelet beads for drinks, competing with the throngs lined up for soggy burgers, and watching people drink margaritas with breakfast is not my idea of a dream holiday. Nor is it my sister’s; we agree that her memories of our childhood trips are just as well left in the past.
But as soon as we walked into the Deco-chic lobby of Couples Tower Isle, on Jamaica’s northern coast, our distaste started to fade. With its white leather daybeds, vintage black-and-white photos of Hollywood glitterati, and a two-tiered dining room lined with murals from the 1940’s, the hotel looked like something straight out of South Beach. Not, as we’d worried, a flashback to the tackiest years of the eighties.
One of Jamaica’s first resorts, Tower Isle was built in 1949 by local businessman Abe Issa, who latched onto the then-novel idea of keeping a hotel open year-round. It quickly became a magnet for the Hollywood jet set, attracting guests like Eva Gabor, Debbie Reynolds, and Noël Coward. Some 30 years later, Issa had another brainstorm: reflag the hotel as Couples and introduce a fixed rate to encompass everything from meals to watersports. It worked: Issa’s Jamaican-based brand soon grew from one to four resorts.
The concept wasn’t new. Safari lodges had been luring travelers with a pay-one-price model for decades (It was Ernest Hemingway who popularized the safari on his first trip to Kenya in 1933). Club Med took the concept, merged it with French notions of joie de vivre, and opened its first fun-for-all-ages property, on Majorca, in 1950. And private island resorts and luxury hotels such as Antigua’s Curtain Bluff have cultivated loyal guests through a similar model for years. But as massive all-inclusives, some with 2,000 rooms, began to pop up on beaches everywhere, they earned a bad rap; their names became synonymous with booze cruises, bad buffet restaurants, and anything-goes behavior (swinger parties, anyone?). “All-inclusive was code for budget travel—budget lodging, food and beverage, and service,” says Lindsay Ueberroth, president of the Preferred Hotel Group.
The industry these days is renovating not only its properties, but its image. This past year, Couples Tower Isle poured $30 million into a makeover in an attempt to recapture its 1950’s glamour. And Couples isn’t alone. At Sandals Resorts, founder Gordon “Butch” Stewart has handed the reins of the company over to his children, most notably 30-year-old Adam Stewart, who has spent some $300 million over the past two years in an attempt to reinvent the brand. In addition to opening Fowl Cay Resort, in the Bahamas, where every villa comes with a boat for exploring the Exuma beaches, they’re building overwater bungalows—a first in the Caribbean—at their St. Lucia outpost. Adam is also overseeing a $20 million transformation of what was recently a Four Seasons into an all-villa, all-suite resort. “We could have stopped after we added three restaurants, a patisserie, and a swim-up bar, but we didn’t,” he says of the latest addition to the 22-property chain. “But we’re also upgrading the service, introducing white-gloved butlers, and adding indoor-outdoor showers.”
Both Couples and Sandals have achieved a guest-return rate of 40 percent. “We’re literally booked in every category for the next four months,” Adam says. Indeed, that kind of demand is jump-starting a new breed of hotel. From Turks and Caicos down to Barbados, smart brands are trading hula-hoop contests and sing-alongs for scuba diving, bars staffed with hipster DJ’s, and off-site excursions—all included. The sticker shock suffered at checkout is also evaporating, since gratuities and taxes are increasingly being wrapped into one easy-to-digest price. Value has always been a large part of the equation with all-inclusives, but now that sophisticated travelers have higher expectations, luxurious amenities are provided. “Because of the economic slowdown, guests want to know exactly what they’re getting when they commit to staying somewhere,” says Nikheel Advani, chief operating officer of Turks and Caicos–based Grace Bay Resorts. His latest property, the Veranda, offers guests one-sum pricing. “They don’t want to worry about extra add-ons.” All those add-ons don’t come cheap, naturally. The average nightly rate across the Sandals Resorts brand is $450 per person; at Couples, it’s $350.
Industry insiders—including top travel agents—are keeping an eye on the transformation. “All-inclusives aren’t for everyone, and many top agents won’t touch them for love nor money,” says Kathy Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations at All About Travel, in Kansas City, and a T+L Travel Agent Advisory Board member. “But the newest places deliver on price and privacy. They’re evolving to appeal to the upscale client.” Sandals’ Adam Stewart has targeted his customer: everyone. “I’ve never in my life heard anyone ask for less luxury,” he says. He and other top hoteliers in the Caribbean and Mexico, where prices have skyrocketed but airfare is still affordable, are happy to deliver. On the Riviera Maya, you can find a dozen new high-end all-inclusive brands like Now Jade and Secrets lining the seafront from the airport all the way down to Tulum. The Dominican Republic’s current popularity is based almost entirely on this model, drawing some 4 million international passengers to its Puntacana Airport alone each year (at least a half-dozen all-inclusives occupy that part of the island). Even traditional hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort & Spa, Rose Hall, Jamaica, are now offering all-inclusive packages (though getting European guests to wear waterproof bracelets with their DVF bikinis is a challenge). And according to Ueberroth, whose Preferred Hotel Group has recently added 20 so-called “unlimited luxury” resorts to its stable, the trend won’t stop there: “We believe that well-executed all-inclusives will soon be popping up across the United States—particularly in beach destinations like Hawaii.”
“Couples only” all-inclusives are also evolving, welcoming pairs of every stripe: fathers with their sons, sisters like me and mine, single girlfriends, same-sex couples. Multigenerational and family travelers are heavily courted as well—if kids are happy, wallet-toting parents are, too. The 615-room Beaches Turks & Caicos has a Martha Stewart Crafts Studio and Sesame Street characters roaming Grace Bay. Nearby, Veranda is introducing Sony PlayStations in each of its 120 guest quarters, as well as a chef from Bellagio.
Of course, selling discerning travelers on upscale all-inclusives has its challenges, I know. My sister and I were wary that this shift in the marketplace was more hype than reality. Guess what? Tower Isle was great. We could have gotten certified to scuba-dive at an adjacent reef, worked out with a trainer, or gone horseback riding on the beach. Instead, we lazed on the sand, gazing at the shades of blue wash into the horizon, and at photos on our iPads, courtesy of the resort’s free Wi-Fi. We dined at 8 Rivers, a 1950’s-era restaurant where beef Wellington is on the menu and Grey Goose martinis are shaken, not stirred. We even met a couple from Pittsburgh who were on their 29th visit. “It’s just so easy, and the service is really top-notch,” the husband told me as we snaked our way up Dunn’s River Falls, which James Bond made famous in Dr. No. The cost of our off-site upstream hike? Nada.
When we moved to the Royal Plantation, one of Sandals’ newest properties, the décor was more traditional but the feeling was much the same: that of pleasant surprise. In our plantation-style suite, candles and conch shells were arranged on the coffee table like a still life; a telescope was stationed on the balcony. One of our butlers, Shelley, delivered canapés of smoked salmon and shrimp cocktails twice a day, and gave us a cell phone with her number programmed on it for 24/7 access. The bartender offered 12-year-old rum, and our other butler, Jason, escorted us to a nightclub in town and kept safely at bay the rowdy spring breakers.
Some of the things—the champagne-and-caviar bar at Royal Plantation; spa treatments anywhere—cost extra, but at least you know what you’re paying before you check in. I’ll admit that some of the resorts’ touches—a menagerie of towel animals on our beds at Tower Isle; handwritten thank-you notes at Royal Plantation—were a bit over the top. But did my sister eat her words? Did I? Yes...along with a second helping of steamed lobster, no extra charge.
Heidi Mitchell is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Town & Country.