David Cogswell | December 15, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Guerrilla Cultural Tourism at Secrets The Vine
I recently spent several days at Secrets The Vine, an all-inclusive beach resort in Cancun.
It was a wonderful place, a sparkling high-rise overlooking the beach on one side and a bay on the other. The beach was phenomenal, so perfect and splendorous that heaven itself could not possibly surpass it.
The resort operates on an all-inclusive model, but in the upper categories of quality. So staying there you have the great pleasure of the all-inclusive policy that allows you to get pretty much anything you want in terms of food and drink, as much as you want, whenever you want it and you never have to consider the budgetary aspects of what you are consuming. It has all been paid for up front and you never have to think about it again during your stay.
The all-inclusive pricing model allows everyone to feel like a member of the elite classes. When the president travels, for example, do you think he is constantly reaching for his wallet when he wants to consume something? Do you think budgetary matters ever enter his head when he is eating and drinking?
I don’t suppose he has to think about it much.
At an all-inclusive resort, the guests are all treated like royalty by being freed from money issues for the duration of their visit.
Many cruise ships offer dirt cheap prices to get you on board and then when you are on board they hawk you relentlessly to sell you drinks, photographs, on-board entertainment, etc., so that when you check out, the big news is that you just got walloped with a bill much larger than you imagined when you purchased the trip initially.
An all-inclusive resort frees you from those worries. If it is a high-end all-inclusive, you know the management is not going to cut corners by offering you inferior cuisine or reduce costs in any other way that you are going to feel it. They will not endanger their value proposition. They are marketing themselves as luxurious and they want to impress you and earn recommendations and return visits.
The luxury all-inclusive is a special kind of luxury that allows you the true feeling of being wealthy, because being wealthy is not based on the monetary value of your assets, but on the fact that you can have whatever you want without having to worry about money.
The all-inclusive model has evolved during its years of ascendance in the marketplace. Now that higher end all-inclusives are available, they push up the luxury component that is inherent in the generosity of the all-inclusive model.
It will be interesting to see how the luxury all-inclusive segment evolves over the next five or ten years. If the rest of the luxury market is an example of how luxury travel is evolving, we might see some of the trends of the luxury tour operators transfer to the luxury all-inclusive segment.
In recent years “luxury” in travel has shifted from being all about creature comforts, expensive amenities and furnishings, opulent interiors, attentive service and so on, to a wider meaning. Now luxury clients want some more intangible, transcendent components.
Today luxury travelers want adventure, cultural immersion, interactions with locals, sustainability and even philanthropy. While the luxury client was historically mostly concerned with being served, today’s higher-end clients are also concerned with finding ways to serve.
High-end clients today are more concerned than before with giving back to the world, with contributing to environmental stewardship, sustainable tourism and cultural immersion, which means having the chance to interact socially with locals at the destination.
Secrets The Vine, and practically all the resorts in Cancun and along the Mexican Caribbean coast, are based on the beach. The product is access to the beach and the beautiful tropical weather while providing you the most comfortable accommodations from which to enjoy the environment.
Cultural immersion is not part of the offering. Guests come for the beach, and a good time. They come with loved ones or groups and they bring their own culture with them.
The clientele is mostly North American, with some European and Asian. Culturally the hotel environment feels primarily like an American/international resort on a beach that happens to be in Mexico. There are some elements in the décor that represent Mexican art and architecture. But for the most of the guests, the fact that they are in Mexico is hardly relevant.
Secrets is not selling Mexican cultural tourism. That’s not its product. But if you want that, you can get it.
Of course you can go out and visit various places in the surrounding area that can give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture. You can go shopping in the nearby villages. You can take a short day trip and go see the Mayan pyramids at Chichen Itzen. But you can also engage in some cultural tourism right there in the hotel, without even going outside.
The employees of the hotel, the working people who keep the operation running, who do the housekeeping, the food service, the grounds maintenance and the hospitalty functions are mostly local Mexicans.
The fact that Secrets gives all these Mexicans jobs is an important part of sustainable tourism. By giving the local people a chance to participate in the economic benefits of the tourism business AMResorts, the owner of Secrets, is supporting economic prosperity of the locals.
As a guest you have the option of engaging with the locals who work in the hotel and experiencing some cultural tourism on your own. Of course most of the time, most of them are working and it would not be appropriate to stop them to talk to them. But there are occasional opportunities.
I discovered such an opportunity by accident.
During my few days at Secrets I found myself repeatedly getting the urge for a cheeseburger in the afternoon. I learned that there was a bar by one of the pools where they served cheeseburgers most of the time. So I started going over there. I sat at the bar and ordered a cheeseburger from a cook stationed there. Let’s call him “Manuel” (name withheld to protect the innocent).
While the burgers were sizzling on the grill, the cook would be doing other things, arranging, tidying up, getting more food ready for the buffet, etc. But though his hands were busy, his mind and his voice were free enough that he was able to talk to me without stopping his work.
I returned there every day for the days I was there. Whenever my jones for a cheeseburger reached irresistible intensity, I sat there with my new friend. Gradually we got to know each other a bit. I found that I was going more to see Manuel than to get a cheeseburger. We went beyond the functional relationship based strictly on my ordering a cheeseburger and him procuring it.
Manuel was utterly polite and never pushed any of his culture on me. But I could see that he did enjoy sharing a little of it. Only in the mildest way did he gingerly introduce things to me.
After I’d ordered cheeseburgers about four times he suggested I try a special kind of burrito. I had only ordered cheeseburgers before because someone told me that’s what they served there. Now at Manuel’s suggestion I tried the burrito.
Manuel also ventured to provide the Spanish word for things now and then. Again he was very gentle. But when he could see that I was interested and receptive, he shared more of his language. He took pleasure in the fact that I tried to speak Spanish with him.
I learned that Manuel was a young man about 20 years old with a wife and son. He had moved to Cancun from central Mexico for his job at Secrets. The job provided him a solid livelihood and the economic foundation upon which to raise his family.
He seemed to be quite happy working there as a chef. The more I talked to him the more I could see how much he was a sophisticated, worldly young man, though it would be easy in such a situation to treat him like a drone, someone there only to serve your needs.
Like other employees, he was too polite and sensitive to ever push anything on me. At the same time, it was clear that when he got an opportunity to share his culture, it made him happy.
Tour operators have gradually modified their tours to provide more cultural interaction in response to the feedback of their guests. Very often the person-to-person interactions with locals earn the highest ratings from guests of anything in the program.
I guess I would have to say that about my visit to Secrets. There are a great many things to rave about at the hotel. But certainly one of my favorite parts and most enriching experiences, leaving the richest memories, were my visits with Manuel.
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