Blame Linda Hamilton. Long before her star turn in “Terminator 2,” the actress appeared in “Club Med,” a made-for-TV homage to the all-inclusive experience. The 1986 film immortalized the time-dishonored hallmarks of the brand: Speedo and bikini-clad singles looking for love, cookie cutter accommodations, beads for booze, limbo contests, cafeteria-quality food, and the trademark nightly sing-along.
In fairness, Club Med and its progeny, the Sandals and Couples Resorts, now have upscale properties that cater to the more affluent while continuing to attract millions of cost-conscious consumers every year.
Still, what these resorts don't usually attract are the super-rich.
Until fairly recently, to these moneyed travelers, the idea of vacationing at an all inclusive resort held little appeal and even less cachet. High-end hoteliers held an equally jaundiced view. Fearing tackiness by association, some of the world's swankiest resorts that were all-inclusive by necessity — an African safari camp in a remote location or a secluded private island getaway — concealed their true identity.
But now, nearly 60 years after Club Med introduced the concept, the all-inclusive has evolved from déclassé to desirable. A new generation of luxe all-inclusives is wooing the once cynical jet set with posh accommodations, lavish amenities, gourmet wining and dining and a standard of service that rivals the toniest resorts. And the well-heeled are taking note.
"Over the past two or three years, I've seen roughly a ten percent increase in the number of my wealthy clients interested in luxury all-inclusives," says Becky Veith, a Virtuoso travel agent based in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, who specializes in Caribbean all-inclusives.
"What's happened in this market is similar to what transpired in the cruise industry," says Lalia Rach, Associate Dean of NYU's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management. "People can now cruise at various levels of luxury; the same thing has happened on land."
The levels of luxury range from posh to princely with prices to match. Amenities at the most exclusive of the new resorts go far beyond in-room Jacuzzis, Italian linens and designer toiletries. These properties boast a multitude of complimentary extras ranging from giant plasma screen TVs, fully loaded iPods, Bose sound systems and wireless Internet access to in-room aromatherapy, 24-hour room and concierge service and gourmet restaurants presided over by local culinary stars.
"We're definitely raising the bar for luxury all-inclusive properties," says Fernando Garcia, Managing Director of The Royal in Playa del Carmen on Mexico's Riviera Maya. Guests booking the resort's top tier suites earn extra perks such as free international and domestic calling and a spin in a BMW Mini Cooper.
When money is no object, what's the allure of an all- inclusive? "It's the ease of the experience," says John Steinle, president of Sanctuare, a Stamford, Connecticut-based company that represents 15 privately-owned small resorts and hotels around the world. "Not having to wait for a bill or to sign for every little thing is in itself a luxurious experience," says Steinle.
"People at the higher income levels work harder today than they ever have in history and so being able to go somewhere and have it be an easier experience is important," says NYU's Lalia Rach. "They know they're paying but [at an all-inclusive], it's a simpler, easier and more enjoyable experience. That's what draws us to an all-inclusive in the first place."
The bottom line is that the rich are as interested as regular folk in getting their money's worth of service and pampering even when they are paying what to most travelers would seem a fortune.
"Perception of value is one of the reasons behind this evolution," explains Peter C. Yesawich, chairman and CEO of Ypartnership, which tracks travel trends. "It's about the worth of the experience relative to the price paid."
What constitutes worth and value to the very rich?
To some, it's as simple as not feeling like they are being nickeled-and-dimed at every turn. "When I'm paying thousands a night to stay in a resort, I don't want to be charged $10 for bottled water or a midnight snack," says a Chicago-based hedge fund manager who's vacationed at several ultra-luxe all inclusives with his family.
To others, it's the pleasure of menus with no prices and fine wine that flows freely. To this end, a majority of high-end all-inclusives now offer grape and grain libations in their all inclusive rate. Earlier this year, Voyages Signature, a group of six all-inclusive luxury properties in Australia, entered the free libations fold. "This change was basically to ensure that our guests will want for nothing — and feel fully catered to in every possible way when staying at our luxury properties," explains Bree Corbett, public relations manager.
So how much can one expect to pay for this over the top pampering? Luxury all-inclusive tariffs are all over the place. So we've come up with a tasting menu of top resorts around the world in all price ranges. All but two include premium wine and liquor.
All quoted rates include meals, snacks, and drinks, including premium liquor and wine by the glass, as well as the activities mentioned. Unless otherwise stated, resort fees, taxes and gratuities are not included.