John Werner, President and COO of MAST Travel Network sits down with MAST member and agency owner Patty DeRoo of Crystal Lake Travel, Crystal Lake, Illinois to discuss her experience traveling during COVID-19. Patty has been with Crystal Lake Travel since 2003 and in the industry since 1991. She specializes in Destination Weddings and Honeymoons. Patty traveled to Mexico twice over the summer and visited properties, staying at the Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. Patty details her experiences from airport changes, to resort regulations, as well as what she sees as permanent adjustments to the world of travel.
Key Points On Destination Weddings As Mentioned In The Podcast
#1 – With less staff and additional regulations it is still important to arrive at the airport 2 hours ahead of time.
“You still need the two hours that you’re supposed to arrive at the airport ahead of time to allow yourself enough time to check in, check your luggage, get through TSA, and then still get to the gate.”
#2 – Many transfers throughout Cancun from airport to hotel have become private.
“They did state that a lot of the shared transfers in Cancun have gone away, and that they are really just doing private transfers”
#3 – Safety is peak priority at all stops along the way
“From the Staff wearing the protective gear, plastic shields at check-in, the steps they are taking all throughout the resort from the room to the pool to the beach, the towels, they really have not missed a beat when it comes to the new safety protocols.”
#4 – Large resorts are great option for people prioritizing social distancing
“I think moving forward, for anybody who’s nervous, the Hyatt Ziva is a large resort, which lends itself to social distancing very well. There are so many pools and different beaches, areas of space where you aren’t sitting on top of people, their beach towels are all wrapped in plastic.”
#5 – Mask are mandatory in transit, but not on property
“From the beginning you wear your mask all the way through to check-in. And at that point when we received a welcome cocktail in the lobby at check-in, we took it off. I did not wear my mask again on property for the remainder of the day.”
Full Podcast Transcript
Welcome everyone, to our travel chat I’m John Werner, President of MAST Travel Network. We are a network of just under 1000 travel advisors specializing in travel to all parts of the world. Today I have with me one of our travel advisors, Patty DeRoo, who was recently in Mexico. We would like to chat about what the experience was like going to Mexico. Mexico recently opened up for Travelers back on June 1 and opened in some various phases throughout the month of June with different resorts opening at scattered times throughout the month and first part of July. Things seem to be going very successfully there. They are handling all the health and safety protocols and still allowing people to have a great time on their vacation. That’s one of the items that we’re going to talk about this morning. So welcome, Patty.
Hi John, thanks for having me.
Your trip to Cancun was three or four weeks ago right?
Yes, I was invited by Playa Resorts, the 28th of July for their VIP experience at the Hyatt Ziva in Cancun. There were about 40 agents for three nights, four days.
When you started out your trip, what was it like flying out of O’Hare [Chicago]?
I wouldn’t say it was empty. I was actually dropped off. There certainly weren’t as many cars, doing the drop off. That was easy. The airport is not a ghost town by any stretch of the imagination. There were certainly plenty of people there. Not as many as one would see peak season at O’Hare [airport]. The first trip when I flew down there in July onboard American Airlines had less people, there’s less customer service for the airline. There were certainly less TSA agents. You still need the two hours that you’re supposed to arrive at the airport ahead of time to allow yourself enough time to check in, check your luggage, get through TSA, and then still get to the gate. Flying to Cancun, our flight was full, so our gate area was full. The gates on either side of us where they weren’t going to a major vacation destination, one was Cincinnati, there were three people in that gate, so certainly the gate area depends on the destination you’re going to as to how crowded it’ll be.
That make sense, so it doesn’t sound like really any delays or hassles trying to get to your gate.
No there were none. The experience was different. There were a lot of customer service agents out there helping hand sanitizer everywhere. There were markers on the floor reminding people to remain six feet, social distancing, trying to spread out waiting in the TSA line, but the process is still the same.
That sounds easy. You already answered my questions about what it was like at the end terminals and at the gates and on the flight itself. You mentioned the flight was full. Did that [the flight] seemed pretty normal to you other than the fact that face masks are mandatory?
Everyone wearing a face mask in the airport, again, I was on American Airlines, all the staff was wearing them. They have the plastic guards at the check-in counter. The markers on the floor in the gate area. American Airlines was still loading the plane by their group numbers, so they have not changed the loading of the plane process. When you get on the plane, the flight attendants are standing at the front of the plane. They hand you a little bag, small four-ounce water bottle, a cookie, and then hand sanitizer wipes are in the bag. Everyone takes the bag, that I saw, everybody wearing their masks. It was no questions asked there. And everyone was bringing their own sanitizers, wiping down the tray tables wiping down the back of the seats wiping down their handrails. Loading of the plane and in-flight experience was the same. There was no food or beverage cart after that what they gave you once you got on the plane was it. I noticed when you’re not eating and drinking as much on the flight, there’s very few people that get up to use the restroom. And whether that’s because they don’t want to use the public restroom on a plane or they’re just not drinking but for three hours, I don’t think more than two people exited their seats. There’s very little commotion or walking around at all, which is what I noticed as the big difference when flying.
On arrival in Cancun did American deplane the same as normal?
They asked if when we arrived at the gate that everyone doesn’t stand up and stand in the aisles and please respect social distancing. Some did some didn’t. I flew on United a week later and United was far more strict in that they actually exited the plane by row. American did not change their exit policy. A few rows exited the next people would get up and get their luggage and exit off and so on.
In Cancun, I have heard that things seem to be normal in the airport. Facemasks are required, did they space everyone out six feet apart going through immigration and passport control?
Same exactly upon arrival there you’ll see the same markers. I saw cleaning service personnel all over the ports, wiping down the handrails on the escalators, bathrooms, everyone in Mexico was wearing masks. At the time we flew in, the gentlemen did tell us that “you’re using terminal four for all international arrivals”. There certainly were some crowds there, but we did not have a long wait in customs to get through customs and immigration. Maybe 15 minutes from beginning to end of the process.
That sounds pretty easy.
Yeah, it’s pretty typical. As long as you have your paperwork filled out, I think that’s the lag time as people aren’t filling out the immigration paperwork on the plane properly. Other than that, if you have your paperwork filled out, we exited right through.
The transportation to the resort, were you by yourself and was your group in a big van loaded full or what?
There were four of us that were traveling together, and we did have a pre-arranged transfer. When you exit the airport just as normal, they’re [transportation drivers] all standing out there with their signs. They hand sanitized us as they greeted us, walked us to the van that was waiting. They sprayed our luggage down before they put it in. We were all still wearing masks at this point. Through customs, immigration outside greeting our driver and then driving in the car, the four of us we’re continuing to wear masks. They did state that a lot of the shared transfers in Cancun have gone away, and that they are really just doing private transfers. I don’t know if that’s all the tour operators across the board, but for our experience, yes. If you’re traveling with someone, obviously, you’re sharing, but they’re not going to put you in a car with someone you don’t know.
That’s good to hear. When you arrived at the resort, and you were at the Hyatt, Ziva, what was your first impression when you stepped out of the vehicle and into the lobby of the resort?
The Hyatt Ziva is absolutely beautiful. It’s an open-air lobby. When you arrive there, the hotel staff were all wearing masks, some wear masks with the face shield, some are just wearing the face coverings. They are standing ready to take your temperature. They also have shoe sanitation. As you step out of the car, you are stepping onto a little pad that is sanitizing the bottoms of your shoes. And then you step into another pad that dries them off. They take your temperature, put your luggage to the side, they’re spraying your luggage there upon arrival, and then you are brought to the lobby for check-in.
Okay, so they’re doing quite a bit in order to keep things healthy and sanitized?
It sounds like the resort you felt was handling everything and your first impression was that you felt comfortable?
I felt very comfortable. When I received the invitation to travel, I had some apprehension, I was a little nervous because I hadn’t traveled in seven months, and then I thought to myself and realize this is what I do for a living. I need first-hand information. Once arriving through the airports in both O’Hare and Cancun and then arriving at the hotel after the check in process, I was very relieved and thankful that I went and could experience and see firsthand everything that they’re doing. From the Staff wearing the protective gear, plastic shields at check-in, the steps they are taking all throughout the resort from the room to the pool to the beach, the towels, they really have not missed a beat when it comes to the new safety protocols.
That’s great to hear. In the rooms I’ve heard or read that some of the in-room amenities have changed, or maybe they’re not there anymore. Did you see anything different about that?
Not at this particular resort. There is a seal on the door. You know it’s been cleaned when you enter. They still have the minibar. The minibar is still stocked, they still have snacks in the room. The remote control for the television was wrapped in plastic. The main difference I noticed upon check-in was that we were asked, “Would you like housekeeping” and “would you like turn down service”? That was something new and I think, with the pandemic, may stay and become the new norm. The reason behind that is trying to limit how many people are being exposed to your room and your personal belongings. If you want daily housekeeping, they will have that and if you want turndown service, they will have that, but it was nice to be able to say those items for three nights really aren’t necessary. I was comfortable knowing nobody was going to be in the room while I was there.
I’ve heard of hotels and resorts doing that. Around the pool, when you were outdoors and at the beach or at the pool, what was the experience like?
What’s nice about Hyatt Ziva, which personally for me, I’m not a big fan of a large resort. If I was picking a resort, I like a small boutique property. But in this case, and I think moving forward, for anybody who’s nervous, the Hyatt Ziva is a large resort, which lends itself to social distancing very well. There are so many pools and different beaches, areas of space where you aren’t sitting on top of people, their beach towels are all wrapped in plastic. It’s a self-serve, so you don’t have to have somebody touching the towels and bringing them over to you. They’re easily accessible, which was nice, but you didn’t have anybody more than six feet. I don’t think I had anybody within 20 feet of me around the pool area. For somebody that’s looking to get away and still have all the amenities, but not worry about too many people, a large resort is absolutely the answer because people can just spread out. They also have to keep the hotel at 30% occupancy. So it didn’t feel empty, but people were not on top of you.
There is still full service around the pool and you could still get a drink. But I’ve heard that the swim up bars at a lot resorts have not opened?
The swim up bars were open. We stayed at Hyatt Ziva. That swim up bar was open. We also did site inspections at the Hyatt Zilara and the Hilton down in Playa Del Carmen and the swim bars were open at all three of their properties.
They still have poolside service for people walking around. And then you can swim over. People we’re not gathering at the Summer far as I have seen in years past. You swim over there, you get your drink and you swim back. They do have the protective glass at the swim up bars as well.
Did you use the beach at that resort? What was that like?
Yes, we did. We did swim in the ocean on both sides. The Hyatt Ziva has two beaches. One was there calm beach, the beach chairs were open, cabanas were open, and service was there. There was absolutely no sargassum or seaweed, so the beaches were swimmable, walkable, it was fantastic.
Good. We’re all the bars and restaurants open or do they scatter them? Some are open certain days and nights and are closed other times?
Certainly Yeah, I believe there are seven restaurants there. They are opening three a night on a rotating basis. Not all with 30% occupancy, they don’t need to have all of them open. But buffet is open for breakfast and lunch. They have a theme night two nights a week for when the buffet was open for dinner. But other than that, it’s the ala carte restaurants. The bars as well, the Cerveza bar is open every night of the week, but there are other bars they are rotating.
How are they handling the buffets these days?
The buffet is open. It is no longer self-serve buffet. All of the food is behind protective glass, the plates are behind the protective glass. You simply walk up to the front buffet station, tell them what you’d like, they plate it for you, and they hand it back. They handed it around the protective glass. Still the same omelet station for breakfast and eggs and all of that fruit station. They’re still making smoothies and juices and fresh fruit is cut up, but you are just not handling any of the serving of the food yourself.
Okay, all right. I know at the Hyatt Ziva, one of the things that I’ve read, I’ve not been to the resort myself, but I know that they have microbrewery there and there’s a tequila and mezcal bar. Did you have opportunity to enjoy and relax in those places? And how were other guests reacting in there?
The microbrewery is the location that is open every night. They have live music there on certain nights. They had a DJ there. It’s where everyone gathers. They have indoor and outdoor seating. If you’re nervous about crowds, that was probably the most crowded location. People were in the bar wearing masks, others were not. That was a personal preference. The other two bars, we’re rotating nights, and we did not go. They weren’t open the nights that we were there. It was really just the one location. I don’t know if it’s Hyatt Ziva or Mexico, but I think it’s Cancun itself that has an 11pm curfew. So, the bar and everything does close down at 11pm. There is no more serving of drinks or cocktails. Everyone kind of scatters at that point and heads back to the room. All the entertainment ends at 11.
Okay, but the hotel has room service too so you can order?
Correct, definitely. You still had your minibar, so if you needed to go back for a nightcap your room still has the mini bars, and they still had room service going. The gathering areas are closing at 11 o’clock.
What was your favorite restaurant at the hotel?
Habaneros without a doubt it’s on the beach. beach front. Mexican food, best fish tacos and margarita and the setting there with the turquoise waters it’s fantastic.
Unknown Speaker 18:18
What was your favorite dish?
When I’m going to Mexico it’s fish tacos.
I like those too. Did you have an opportunity to use the Zen spa there? What was the spa like?
The spa was open. But you know it was a working trip, so we were out touring hotels during the days, that’s we were there. So no, we did not use the spa. But one day I was at the pool. The spa attendants were walking around and doing the complimentary massages as they do at the pool and beach area. It is full service. It is open, but I did not experience it firsthand.
I know the staff at the resort are required to wear a mask, but as far as the other guests, you said it was really a preference whether other people wore masks or not?
There was a handful wearing them, not even half of those that were there. From the beginning you wear your mask all the way through to check-in. And at that point when we received a welcome cocktail in the lobby at check-in, we took it off. I did not wear my mask again on property for the remainder of the day. When I left property to ride in transportation or the other hotels I did. There were guests that would wear their masks walking to the breakfast buffet. Then they get their meal and take their mask off. There were maybe a handful that I would see wearing their masks around the pool area. But that was all out of the 30% occupancy and handful of people on property would have a mask on.
Besides some of the other hotels in the area that you visited, were there any other times that you went off property? And if so, what do you do? Where did you go?
I did not go off property. Some of the other travel agents I was with had actually gone and walked into town, very quiet in downtown Cancun itself. The shops were open, but not a lot of activity going on down there with bars and restaurants and shopping. Very few people actually walking the streets and leaving the resort. Most I think that are coming are staying on property and are enjoying what the hotel has to offer.
Yeah, makes sense. Tell us what you would say was your most Instagramable moment on the trip.
Instagramable moments, if you’re in Cancun and there’s no sargassum it’s certainly the turquoise blue water. It was just fantastic, I can’t tell how many pictures I took of the water the pool and the people enjoying, the trip overall was fantastic and relaxing.
It sounds like the views from Habanero restaurant set out by the waterfront would also be a great photo.
Yes, that is their only outdoor beachfront dining and that is my preference. If I’m if I’m down there and can eat outdoors, the other restaurants are all air-conditioned indoor properties, which are wonderful, but to be outside and see the ocean and hear the waves. That’s the best location.
Yeah, sounds fantastic. When you returned home what was the experience like coming home?
Returning back through Cancun, everything there is the same process as before. I check-in, everyone’s wearing masks. The airport is a little more crowded because they’re using the centralized terminal. All of the shops, all of the restaurants, everything is open in the Cancun airport. Same markers, as you found in O’Hare for social distancing. They do have every other seat blocked off so that people aren’t sitting next to each other in the waiting area. There is the health questionnaire form that you have to fill out when you depart out of Mexico coming home. It is easiest to do on a QR code. You do the QR code beforehand, have it on your phone. They weren’t asking to show it to them before we went upstairs through TSA. I will again say TSA was a little bit slower. Not as many lanes open, so it did take us a little bit longer to get through.
But same process?
Departing, Cancun, then arriving into O’Hare. Very few flights are traveling International. So. the International Airport is very, very quiet. Once we departed the plane, it was 15 minutes total from when we got off the plane to when I was able to get back in my car and leave the airport.
Oh, yeah. unheard of!
Unheard of for O’Hare, absolutely no lines in the international customs area at all. Which is sad to see. It is nice when you want to get through quickly and get home.
Sure, sure. It just sounds like a really great experience for three days and allows you to really see what’s going on. When you talk to customers and clients it gives you the ability to share your knowledge and reassure them if they want to travel, they can do it in a in a good, safe way.
Thankfully, without a doubt, it was a wonderful relaxing learning trip. It exceeded my expectations, gave me some peace of mind, and was so wonderful that I came home and a week later, grabbed two of my agents and we went back to Cancun, so I could show them firsthand what it was like. That’s why we’re in the business, to have the firsthand information so that I can share it and we can tell people and talk very confidently as to what it’s like.
Right. Well, do you have any other trips coming up then?
Unfortunately, no, but we will take any invitation that we can get to get back down there and see how things are.
Yeah, well as other places start reopening, I think opportunities for all of us will become more available.
I have one of my agents leaving this Sunday to head down to the Dominican Republic. So, we’ll have some first-hand knowledge from that location as well.
Oh, that’s great. Well, any other final thoughts that you want to share about your overall experience?
I just want people to know that they don’t need to go it alone, that there is a lot of misleading information out there. There’s a lot of confusing information. Use a travel agent, reach out to your travel advisor, support your local business, and let us help you find the right destination, the safe destination and help you get there.
Good advice. Thank you, Patty. I appreciate you sharing your time and your experience with us.
Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.