John Werner, President and COO of MAST Travel Network sits down in this installment of MASTers of Travel with agency owner Jennifer Walker of Jennifer Walker Travel, Washington, Illinois. Jennifer has been in the travel industry for over a decade and has been an agency owner since 2015. She enjoys traveling with her son to locations around the globe, and truly sells the world. In this episode, John and Jennifer discuss current travel and what the difference one location to the next can make, as well as how quickly policies are changing. Jennifer recently spent time in Cancun, Mexico as well as in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Key Points On Destination Weddings As Mentioned In The Podcast
#1 – There isn’t much difference in policy from airline to airline
“On one flight, I was on American Airlines. The other trip I was on Delta Airlines. And they did things very similar where they would not allow groups to approach the counter so, there was no crowding going on. And both airlines boarded from the back of the plane to the front of the plane, which is different.”
#2 – Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall is great for families as well as other groups
“It would be perfect for groups and destination weddings because they had some beautiful gazebos near the water. So do your wedding and reception indoors if you chose and right next door to it is an adult only Hyatt Zilara. The guests of Zilara have full access to Ziva. So, if you’re doing a multi-generational group, or destination wedding and some of the people want to stay on the adults only side, other people need family friendly, it’s just a phenomenal property.”
#3 – Spa services differ dependent on policies
“They said that that’s dictated by the CDC. They weren’t able to do anything around the face or mouth.”
#4 – Masks were worn most of the time by guests
“If they were near or trying to pass by someone on the sidewalk or if you walk through the lobby or a common area, like a restaurant, you had your mask on unless you were at your table.”
#5 – Excursion were not open in Jamaica, but were in Cancun.
“In Jamaica we were not allowed to. You had to stay on your property. Everything in Mexico was open except for the ecological sites like Tulum, Chichen Itza, Coba.”
Full Podcast Transcript
Welcome everybody to our travel talk. I am John Werner, President of MAST Travel Network. And we represent a network of just about 1000 travel advisors, specializing in trips all over the world. We have with us today one of our travel advisors, Jennifer Walker, who had recently traveled to countries that have opened up during this pandemic, Mexico in Jamaica specifically. Welcome, Jennifer.
I know that you traveled to both countries, a couple of weeks apart, what was it like flying out? One trip you flew from Bloomington, Illinois, and the other trip out of Peoria, Illinois. What was it like at those airports?
I actually like traveling from a regional airport because it means no long lines. There are no impatient clients and people in the terminal, the TSA agents are friendly, so I really prefer it. It’s a smooth process.
Very easy. So, no hassles at all. Is anything really different from before?
There was a flub, I have Pre-Check so I should not have had to take off shoes or pull out big electronics, but I still had to do that. At one airport, they had someone in training, so they didn’t realize that I was Pre-Check. It’s not like you have people stacked behind you where it’s a rush to get through TSA, but that was kind of a hassle. Before you got on the plane, you scanned your own boarding pass, so they try to handle your documents and your luggage as little as possible. The other thing that was different is if you had snacks in your bag, they had to come out. You have all these pre-packed little chips; they still need to come out.
Oh, well, that’s interesting because a lot of people would be traveling with snacks like that nowadays with airlines, not serving.
I had everything in a big baggie, so it was easy to tear out of there.
Sounds like good advice, have it all contained so It’s easy. What was the scene like at the terminal, at the gate?
There’s not that many people. They handled it a little bit differently. On one flight, I was on American Airlines. The other trip I was on Delta Airlines. And they did things very similar where they would not allow groups to approach the counter so, there was no crowding going on. And both airlines boarded from the back of the plane to the front of the plane, which is different. You really had to pay attention to the announcements on when it was your time to go. You scan your own boarding pass to get onto the plane, they tried to handle your paperwork as little as possible. When you boarded the plane, you were handed a small bag that had a very small bottle of water and hand sanitizer and a snack like a graham cracker or chips. That was given to all of the passengers, but if you are in the front row, you might get better service if you are in higher paying seats.
Then you had to change planes somewhere? And the connections went smoothly?
They did. On American we went through Dallas on the way down. I had never seen that airport with so few people. Very quiet in the terminals and in Atlanta the same thing with very few people traveling it is a nice experience. I liked it because you didn’t have a full plane and no crowds in the airports. I liked it.
Sure, sure. It makes it easy.
The disappointing thing was that if there were certain restaurants you were looking forward to experiencing in the terminals, not all of the restaurants and shopping venues were opened in the major airports. So that was a little bit different.
On arrival, let’s just go with Cancun first, what was that experience like?
No change. They handed out the customs forums before we left the plane. This was so that everyone entered the gate with their paperwork filled out and then you went through the lines at Immigrations and Customs the same way. There was no change arriving into Cancun. There was one area where you walked by a thermal thermometer, but they never stopped you. You just kept walking on by. That was really the only thing I saw.
And how about in Montego Bay, Jamaica?
Montego Bay was chaos. They just reopened and were constantly, almost on a daily basis, changing their protocol for arrivals. Even though my son and I provided COVID testing at home and had our proof that we were negative, we still had to go through all of the health assessments and got tested again, it was cumbersome. And it’s confusing even to the people that were at the tables because the procedures were changing so rapidly. It was not an easy process. But it also didn’t take as long as I expected. From the time we got off the plane until we got to our transfer vehicle was less than an hour. It really didn’t impact us too much because there were only a couple of planes arriving at that time.
That’s not too bad
No, not bad at all, but it still is confusing. Yeah. It was not knowing where to go to get your temperature checked and then you go to this table here and then you go over here and do this. It was just a little bit confusing.
From what I’ve read recently, I know that they keep changing things, but it seems like they are to the point where they figured out how they’re going to handle this.
I hope so. The only challenge now is trying to get tests done ahead of time at appropriate labs that they’ll accept the results from. All that is more hurdles to get into Jamaica, but once you get there it is a beautiful destination.
Did you use Club Mobey at Montego Bay?
I do every time I fly in and out of there. I was glad that I had someone [helping] because she understood the procedures better. It’s not that we were fast tracked, like you would expect with Club Mobey service, but it was nice at the end of that long hallway [at the Montego Bay airport] that there was somebody to greet you with your name on a sign. She led you from point to point and she knew where she was, which was good because I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out. I felt it was well worth it. Under normal circumstances even before that [COVID], because they fast track you through the immigration line and then on the outbound fast track you for customs and they’ll get out to your gate and enjoying the lounge.
It sounds like you always recommend that [Club Mobey] to anybody you’re sending to Jamaica. How much does it cost?
If you do both the arrival and departure bundles, it’s $80 per person. That is not bad when you consider how much you can pay for food in the terminal. My son wants Wendy’s hamburger. It can cost 20 bucks right there. When you consider the service you’re getting the and the free food and drinks in the lounge before you depart it’s worth it.
In both destinations after you retrieved your luggage, what was the transportation like? Was it just the two of you in the vehicle, or did they fill it up with other people?
I prefer to do private transfers all the time for my family because I’ve gotten tired of being put on a motor coach full of people where you’re waiting on multiple planes to arrive and people to get through, all the procedures and then stopping at different resorts. That’s not something I want to deal with every time I arrive into a destination, so I did a full price transfer. We had the luxury vehicle, the Cadillac Escalade, all to ourselves. It is very easy to find the transfer drivers with signage that they’re holding, so it was not hard to find them. One thing that was a little bit different is they tried to handle our luggage as little as possible, which surprised me. I was wheeling my big checked bag down the sidewalk and then once we got to the vehicle, they disinfected the handles and everything before they picked it up and loaded the vehicle. In the vehicle it was spotless. You had to wear your mask when you’re in the vehicle, you could not take it off and the driver did not really interact with us like they normally do. For the most part, that was not what we normally experienced, but it still was very worthwhile. We’re comfortable having private transfers instead of being on a vehicle with a lot of other people.
And the drivers were wearing their mask too. It cuts down on the willingness to be talking with you.
I don’t quite understand that. Why they can’t interact with you. But that’s just the same way in both destinations. So, folks that operate the transfers, it must be something that they’re Implementing.
When I’ve been there, they’re very eager to take your luggage and very courteous about all of that.
They’re friendly, but they’re doing what they’re supposed to do so.
When you arrived at the resorts, you stepped off to the vehicles, what was your first impression?
In Jamaica, my first impression was this place is beautiful and there’s no one here. When you walk in the door, they were very kind to greet you, the sales manager knew I was coming in so, I had a personal greeting from her, which was really nice. They spent a lot of time educating us on what’s different, this time around. You gotta make a reservation for dinner. And here’s how you do that. And we need you to download the app for the resort because that’s our communicating. She spent more time with us on check-in explaining the differences in the expectations. So that was a little bit different.
And then the exact opposite happened at the RIU Palace Peninsula in Cancun. That was mass chaos. It was a rainy day and all the guests were checking-in, checking-out and then the entertainment crew had ping pong and cornhole games [set up] because it was raining outside. You had 50 people in the lobby, and then you’re trying to do talking points, their check-in gals were behind Plexiglas, you got all this noise, and it’s just kind of chaotic. They tried to really take the time to explain to you. make sure you have the app downloaded for the property, because that’s what they were using to communicate requests for room service and setup dining reservations. They did spend more time explaining what services are available or not available and what you should expect, which is good.
I know the RIU Palace Peninsula is a big hotel and has a very distinct architecture. You could fly an airplane through that center it’s so huge. It is cavernous so I can imagine the sound ramps up when people can’t be outside.
it is a beautiful property. It’s a high rise, which doesn’t appeal to everybody. The grounds were beautiful and it’s not so big that you can’t easily get from place to place within a matter of minutes. It’s a very nice property to stay out.
They offer a lot there. It appeals to a lot of people because there’s a lot to do. It’s bright purple and pink and mauves.
You don’t go there for the décor it’s not going to appeal to the Midwest, but if you want clean and comfortable and a good value, it’s a great place.
Did you notice any difference in their in-room amenities that they are they still providing what they’ve always provided, or have they taken some things out?
It was different in Jamaica. I stayed at the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall. There, they were not. They were doing room service. You could get the minibar replenished, but they were not coming into your room so you would put in a request for what you needed. And then they were delivered to your door, knock on the door, and it was sitting on a one-step step stool. They stayed there until you got your items and then you close the door. And then the same thing with housekeeping at the Hyatt. When you checked in you marked whether you wanted daily housekeeping service or not and I marked “no” because it was just me and my son, so we don’t go through a bunch towels or need our beds made. You had those options at the Hyatt.
At the RIU Palace Peninsula in Cancun. They were not offering any service at all during the stay. That was different. There they were still doing minibar service whether you hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign or not. We still got the room attended and we got the cute little towel animals every day. We liked our house attended, but both properties were different, and it changed depending on what policies and procedures are implemented by the manager of that property. I toured other RIU’s in Cancun and some of them were doing room service. Our particular property was not, that was a management decision.
Yeah. I can see that. At the RIU Palace Peninsula what was your favorite restaurant there? And your favorite dish?
We were thrilled because the buffet was open. My family loves the buffet because it’s so quick and easy and there is a variety. If I can get the omelet station to make my scrambled eggs the way I want them, and they’re perfect, you score high and they did really well there. We didn’t do any of the specialty restaurants at the RIU even though everything was open.
I know the Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall is definitely a great resort for families, but who else would you say would love that resort?
It would be perfect for groups and destination weddings because they had some beautiful gazebos near the water. There was a huge courtyard that you could have a pretty reception at and they had a conference center. So do your wedding and reception indoors if you chose and right next door to it is an adult only Hyatt Zilara. The guests of Zilara have full access to Ziva. So, if you’re doing a multi-generational group, or destination wedding and some of the people want to stay on the adults only side, other people need family friendly, it’s just a phenomenal property. The beach was beautiful and gotten bonds that protect from waves and seaweed. Great for kids. All-around stunning property.
I could see that being perfect for destination weddings, when you have the two.
White sand and turquoise water, that’s what people are looking for. And it was seaweed free. Very pretty.
They must have a lot of kid-friendly restaurants at the Hyatt Ziva? I know they have a jerk shack for jerk chicken and pork. There’s an English style pub offering fish and chips, burgers and other things. Kids favorite foods.
The one challenge was the that only two of the ala carte restaurants were open each night and you had to make reservations, which is not the norm. During our stay, we really enjoyed the Italian restaurant Di RoZa because they do homemade pasta and the Fettuccine Alfredo was fantastic. The pub was open, but they were not serving food. You could go in there and watch TVs for sports and get a drink, but they were not serving food so you couldn’t get any kid friendly options. You have room service available too and you have two ala carte restaurants each night. The buffet was only open in the morning for breakfast and then one night during our stay. So, it was a little bit different. You could still get kid friendly things on the room service menu or over CalypZo and of course the jerk hut, we were there every day.
Is that [the jerk hut] at the beach
It is between the beach and the pool, so it is centrally located. And the guy that was working the station, I think his name was Shannon or Shane or something that I don’t recall, but he was hilarious and very friendly. He was your typical Jamaican big smile, big booming voice. He was a lot of fun. He would come by and he’s like, “you want your usual”? We’d be like, “Let’s get it”.
Good memory then. How about the spa services? Did you and take advantage of the spa at either property?
Well, of course, I have to test that out.
I did go to the spa at the Hyatt and got a massage. I also was able to do a tour, which you can’t always do. I specifically asked what services they could do and what they could not. They said that that’s dictated by the CDC. They weren’t able to do anything around the face or mouth. If you had a bride who was coming in, they had this beautiful huge room for the bride and her party to get ready, but they couldn’t apply the makeup. They could do her hair, but they couldn’t do the makeup. Anything involving the face was not on their list of services. I did not do a spa service over at the RIU, but it was beautiful as well.
If you wanted a Swedish massage or something, could you get that?
You could get that. The Hyatt did not have the hydrotherapy and the sauna. Things where there might be multiple people coming in, those were not functioning or open. Whereas they were at the RIU, so different destinations have different policies and procedures.
Sure. I know the staff at the hotels are required to wear a face mask. What did you observe as far as the guests?
On both properties the guests were very respectful. If they were near or trying to pass by someone on the sidewalk or if you walk through the lobby or a common area, like a restaurant, you had your mask on unless you were at your table. The guests were being very respectful of one another, all the staff definitely had masks on. The one thing I noticed different at the Hyatt is that someone was going around every day, they had these beautiful outdoor seating areas with fire pits near the outdoor bars and restaurants, and they were spraying down those seats and those areas every day, several times a day. They were constantly going around and you’d see someone with a rag and sanitizer on the door handle. The Hyatt did a phenomenal job. And we did see cleaning going on at the RIU property. There were more guests, more American guests, at the RIU and I can say that there were some misbehaving guests in the swimming pool are who were not practicing social distancing or wearing masks For the most part, the guests were very respectful and wore masks when they were around other guests.
Well, that’s good to hear. It sounds like the hotels are generally doing a really great job.
Their staff is doing an excellent job, both properties.
Did you go off property at all? I know when you were in Cancun, you did go visit some of the other RIU properties. Besides visiting some of the other hotels did you go elsewhere around the resort area?
In Jamaica we we’re not allowed to. You had to stay on your property. Whether you had a COVID test or not, they were not allowing tours at that time, which I heard on the Jamaica Tourism call today [August 26th] that they have reopened the tours as of today. We did not leave the property except for the airport transfers in Jamaica. In Cancun my son and I did a combo tour where we did ATVs and jet skis. Everything in Mexico was open except for the ecological sites like Tulum, Chichen Itza, Coba. You couldn’t go to the sites. As far as the standard tour, they were all open. The only thing that the tour operators cautioned us on was that they’re not operating as many times a day or every day. One tip is to either pre-arrange the tour before you get into the destination or immediately upon arrival. You’re always asked to meet with your on-site rep. Meet with them, get your tour booked early in the trip. That way if there’s something you have your heart set on doing you won’t go home disappointed. Especially the kids.
That’s good advice. It sounds like the eco parks like Xcaret and Xplore were still open?
They were still open. Surprisingly so.
What was your most Instagramable moments in each of these destinations?
In Cancun it’s definitely the jet ski ride. You can probably see it behind me [Jennifer motions to a jet ski photo behind her]. You put me behind the wheel of an ATV, or a jet ski and I turned into a wild woman. My son says I try to kill him. [laughter] That was probably the Instagramable moment from the Cancun trip. And Jamaica, the lobby is like two floors up because it’s kind of sloped, so you take the property with all of the background of the pools and the ocean and all the blue behind my son and I and we got a selfie there before we left. So, I would say that was my Instagram worthy photo there.
The property is built on a hillside sort of.
You don’t notice it though, because the sidewalks you walk on are level. But the main building is two stories at least and it goes level over to the conference center and the building blocks where the rooms are. Down below the lobby are restaurants and where the pools are. So even though you don’t notice a slope, it’s just how it’s built. The lobby is higher than where you would normally expect it. It’s surprising how level it was. It’d be great for someone that was in a wheelchair to get easily get around. All the buildings had elevators. You have to get into the pool I didn’t see a set up for a wheelchair accessible pool.
It wasn’t a zero-depth pool was it?
I did not notice one at the Hyatt. There definitely was one at the RIU.
Describe the experience returning home from these destinations and the fact that the two trips were about two weeks apart. Things are so changeable in this environment. Did you notice that the trips back home had changed from one week to two weeks later?
For Cancun I would say no. One tip I would recommend is that, those little bottles of water that your attendants give you when you get on the plane, if you’re connecting coming back, that [water bottle] is too big to go back through TSA security. They will make you open up your bag for that little water, so either drink it or pitch it.
There was nothing unusual when we left Jamaica. We didn’t have to quarantine when we came home. Cancun was a little bit different and I knew that they wanted you to fill out a health questionnaire and I had done that ahead of time. I printed it out I had it in my hands. The airline, when we checked in for the return flight in Montego Bay, they insisted that we download that form again so that it had that day’s date. The Wi-Fi in the airport was not the greatest and it was a challenge to get a form for each of us completed before we could go through security. And security was checking your phones to make sure that you had completed it for their contact tracing. I recommend my clients now make sure that you do that before you leave the resort property because you’re going to have better Wi-Fi there. As long as it’s got that day’s date and you can prove to the airline and the TSA personnel that you have completed that form that day that you’re flying out, you’re fine. That was really the only thing different coming out of Cancun that you would not expect. It can catch you off guard, but it won’t prove impossible for you to do. But it delayed us getting through the check-in process.
It definitely sounds like it would be more convenient to take care of it at the hotel.
Yeah and then you have it on your phone and you can just scan across your phone so they could see the picture. I can say they weren’t paying a lot of attention, but they were looking for it.
Any other tips or advice that you want to share?
The biggest tip is even if you’re looking at the protocols for the resort, airline, the destination, keep checking because they are constantly changing. When we went to Jamaica, we weren’t required to have a COVID test. Now you are and you have to keep up with it, it’s not set in stone. Things can change on a dime. So, keep up to date. If you book with a travel advisor, they’re going to be on top of it too. That would be my biggest tip for traveling now, also pack your patience. You have to be flexible, maybe you can’t get your COVID test and all of a sudden you have to switch destinations. Make sure that you have some flexibility built in there and you don’t get caught asleep at the wheel right before you arrive for airport check-in because you don’t want to miss your flight or miss your vacation, but you should definitely get out there. Get exploring.
Yeah, that’s very true. A lot of people are anxious to do that. It’s great that these destinations are ready to receive visitors and vacationers. I know as time, and as we go through the fall, other destinations will also become available and people are ready to go.
it’s not healthy to stay at home. Especially for the travel advisor. It’s not normal for us to be at home for five months.
Very true. Very true. Well, Jennifer, thank you very much for sharing your experiences and your thoughts and tips, advice, we really appreciate that. I do you have one last question; do you have another trip scheduled?
I actually do. I will be leaving on a Colorado Rockies tour with Colette. I might be doing some live recording for them on the blog and reporting on Collette. I’m travel with me, myself, and I, my favorite travel partner.
I’ll have to follow up with you when you get back from that trip. I want to hear about it!
I’m looking forward to it. I love escorted tours. I’m interested to see how it is different from the last time that I traveled with them.
Absolutely. Well, thanks again. We really appreciate it and happy travels and enjoy Colorado.
Thank you. Take care.