San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

At big hotels, convenience is king

From the print edition

EL ROBLE, Puntarenas – Greeters in the lobby stood ready with fruit drinks inside coconut goblets. Everyone received a chocolate chip cookie, the DoubleTree trademark (according to its website, the hotel gives out 60,000 cookies a day). Thus began the all-inclusive experience.

These one-price-fits-all resorts provide everything on the premises free of charge, once guests pay to get inside. Everyone at  the resort enjoys all-you-can-eat meals and drinks at no extra cost. There are pools to swim in, tennis courts to serve on and various activities arranged by the staff throughout the day. 

The main advantage, said Ricardo Rodríguez, general manager of DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Central Pacific, is that budgeting is a cinch. 

“You’re not using money constantly,” Rodríguez said. “You’re not carrying a wallet.”

Resort management invited The Tico Times and other media in late July to the all-inclusive hotel for a night’s stay. 

The brand recently added the words “Central Pacific” and “Hilton” to try to reach more foreign tourists by highlighting the resort’s proximity to other well-known locations, like the beach town of Jacó. 

But with Ticos, the hotel is doing fine. Locals make up 65-70 percent of bookings, as the resort is just a 90-minute trip from the capital. During the recent visit, the hotel had an 80-90 percent occupancy rate for its 410 rooms. That’s about average, Rodríguez said.

An all-inclusive hotel has to be at or near full capacity to profit, he said. 

Small all-inclusive hotels don’t exist, but even isolated areas like Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast, and the Osa Peninsula, in the Southern Zone, offer all-inclusive options.

The resorts have more than 100 rooms each, costing $100-300 per person, depending on the time of year, location and services, said Pablo Sala, marketing manager for travel site Expedia. 

Costa Rica remains attractive enough to foreign visitors to fill several all-inclusive hotels. Tourism brings in $2.1 billion a year for the country, and all-inclusive options receive their own hefty chunk of the revenue. Costa Rica also has a large middle class that helps fill rooms.

“All-inclusive hotels often are associated with the beach, and there needs to be [economic] conditions to develop these types of businesses,” Sala said. “In Panama, they are beginning to develop all-inclusives. In El Salvador, it doesn’t work, because El Salvador is a country that still doesn’t have much tourism. The same with Nicaragua.”

What makes the number of all-inclusive hotels in Costa Rica curious is that they all have similar characteristics. Some hotels have a more upscale presentation that can drive up the price, but overall, once on a hotel’s property, guests access the same amenities: food, bars, activities, shows, a beach and swimming pools. 

Sala said a key to picking an all-inclusive hotel is to make sure to ask what each package includes: What type of food do restaurants serve? Are there tours, and how much do they cost? Is there a golf course? 

Resorts also have premium items at an additional charge, such as expensive liquor. Kayaks might be free to rent, but motorboats or Jet Skis likely cost extra. 

The first all-inclusive in Costa Rica, Hotel Barceló Tambor Beach, opened in early 1996. Located on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the resort sits across the water from the DoubleTree.

A second all-inclusive Hotel Barceló is at Playa Langosta, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where the majority of all-inclusive hotels are located in the country. 

Earlier this year, the Costa Rican government opened a new terminal at the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste’s provincial capital. The move brought increased air traffic to the area, and tourist businesses – including the all-inclusive hotels nearby – hope to take advantage. 

RIU Hotels and Resorts is undergoing a massive expansion project at Playa Ocotal, in Guanacaste. And Spanish company Occidental owns two all-inclusive resorts at Papagayo Gulf, also in Guanacaste.

José Chaverría, who works in marketing for Occidental’s hotels in Costa Rica, said the company differentiates its two sites while following the same all-inclusive concept. The 169-room Occidental Gran Papagayo is the “more formal, tranquil hotel,” Chaverría said, adding that it caters to couples and honeymooners. Occidental’s Allegro Papagayo is a larger site, with 300 rooms, that aims to attract more families and national tourists.

The Hilton brand maintains a second all-inclusive resort at Papagayo Bay.

A Westin hotel, part of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Starwood brand, also operates in Guanacaste. The 406-room Westin Playa Conchal took over another all-inclusive property and opened last year. 

Starwood bought the hotel from a group called Paradisus. But Paradisus has not left Guanacaste. The company will open the all-inclusive Paradisus Papagayo Bay in the summer of 2013. That makes half a dozen all-inclusive hotels in the same province in a small country of 4.5 million citizens. 

Even the DoubleTree in Puntarenas will face more competition as more brands chance an all-inclusive model in Costa Rica. The Best Western Jacó Beach, in Garabito, Puntarenas, announced plans to convert into an all-inclusive resort due to high demand, according to Grupo Marta, the firm that bought the $1 million hotel, which will open Sept. 1.

Hotel managers play wise with planning out the concept to stop guests from going overboard with eating and drinking. 

Restaurants are open for short periods for breakfast, lunch or dinner and have limited seats that often require reservations, Chaverría said. Guests will find it a challenge to eat dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the Allegro Papagayo and grab a second meal a couple hours later at the Italian eatery. Waiters also will not allow guests to order every item on the menu, and some restaurants have set courses. 

Booze also can be a problem, but bars usually open late in the day and close by 2 a.m. to prevent people from drinking all night.

Workers at Allegro Papagayo are trained to handle questions about the all-inclusive concept. Many staff members speak three languages: Spanish, English and French. The hotel plans to teach key staff members German, too.

The main clientele for these hotels includes families and companies, Rodríguez said. The resorts serve as getaways from the chores of everyday life or the slog of a business seminar, he added. During the press visit, Purdy Motor Toyota was holding seminars for its employees at the resort. It became obvious why: Attend a meeting, then go drink a margarita.

Moms, dads and children seemed to be everywhere – but not exactly together. Aerobic instructors exercised with women in the pool. Other guests gathered around a television in the bar to catch a soccer match. Hotel workers coordinated games for the children. 

The all-inclusive concept meant service as much as anything else: Stop thinking for a weekend or longer – the hotel staff will take care of the rest. 

Rodríguez said the hotel varies the activities daily. Chefs change the menu often. 

“The activities play a very important role; you want to be busy,” Rodríguez said. “That’s what keeps people either staying a few days more or coming back. They say, ‘This time I couldn’t do the kayaking; I didn’t walk on the beach or see the Bollywood play.’ There’s always something to do for the next time.”

Even the beach can become little more than a backdrop. 

Said Rodríguez: “The attraction inside is so important that you tend to forget the surroundings or even the beach itself.”

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