Our recent trip to Mexico started off a little rough, but was ultimately one of our favorite trips overall.
Where to begin
It all started a year ago when we were staying in Akumal during our annual Thanksgiving holiday trip. Bahia Principe ran a Black Friday flash sale for $69/night, per person. That is for an all-inclusive resort (suite, food, drinks, alcohol included) in the Riviera Maya! Hell, I can’t rent the Best Western at home for that! So three of us took advantage of this sale for ourselves and spouses. As the time to plan the trip began to get closer, more and more people jumped on board. The price went up a little, but at $80/night, per person, it was still a bargain.
An opportunity to try something new
As the group grew, Karen and I saw an opportunity to expand our travel agent services into an offering we had been considering, a personalized “Concierge Service”. With this direct service we would be present during the trip to coordinate and handle all details for our clients so they could simply enjoy their vacation no matter what arises. With that goal in mind, we started booking the other guests and prepared ourselves for this new experience. This presented a challenge in that they didn’t all decide at the same time, so we couldn't book as a group. Instead we had to book one family at a time as each family decided to go. That isn’t unusual though, word of mouth is very powerful! Our small group of three couples soon
turned into 32 people. We booked everyone at the Grand Bahia Principe Tulum, an all-inclusive resort in Akumal, Quintana Roo, in the Riviera Maya of Mexico. Although we have been to Akumal numerous times, we had never stayed at this particular resort.
Hit the ground running (well...driving)
Our ground transportation was booked through CARM (Cancun and Riviera Maya) Tours and Transfers. I love this company! They are very responsive to calls and emails, and helped me to organize transportation for all of those people, despite many of them arriving at different times and on different airlines. We created a spreadsheet to make sure no one slipped through the cracks. CARM advertises that they won’t leave you behind, and so far so good. I have used them a few times before this trip with no problems for truly personalized service. You can even prearrange beer and water for the trip. This is a great benefit to travel agents trying to impress their clients. Once before, I used Amstar for ground transportation for a previous client and they left him and his wife at the marina, and then tried to blame him for being in the wrong place (he was not). Well, guess who gets that phone call? You got it...Me! Shame on you Amstar!
Booking the resort
Bahia Principe's website booking is impressive and well laid out. The problem is, nothing worked. Booking online typically was impossible, so I had to call them. At least the hold times only ran about 10-20 minutes, which in the current post-pandemic time is good. Once I got the bookings confirmed and we had a solid headcount, I began to try to contact the resort for some special needs. We have a group of 32 people, most of whom are related and wanted to be in the same building or at least close by. Also, I would need to coordinate dinners, massages, entertainment, etc. For the 4 weeks prior to arrival, I called and emailed. I could not get a response from the reservations office in Florida or from the resort. When I called, I got a message that said, “Due to overwhelming call volume, please try again later” and then hung up. Four weeks this went on! People were posting similar issues on the Bahia Principe Facebook page. The website offers the opportunity to check in online and select your room, which would make things so much easier when you arrive, but you guessed it, these features didn’t work either. So I resolved myself to the fact that I would have to sort all this out when we arrived at the resort and reminded our clients that things happen at a different pace in Mexico.
The check in nightmare
When we arrived, the check in process was extremely disorganized. There was a one line leading to 3 receptionists for people checking in. We added 32 people to that line and it moved incredibly slow. Some of my guests’ rooms were not correctly reserved, which explains the long wait. As expected none of the rooms were together or even close to each other. Those that booked two adjoining rooms fortunately were correctly reserved, so their kids could stay next to the parents. One thing I preach to travelers is, be patient and be flexible. As the travel industry grows back to some signs of normalcy, it can be a bit chaotic. Karen and I really had to concentrate on practicing what we preach during the check in. We arrived early evening, so everyone was tired and hungry. We did our best to keep everyone upbeat. When we finally got checked in we all met for dinner and decided to go to bed early and start fresh in the morning. After we all went to bed, at about one in the morning, our most discerning guest and his wife were awakened to a busted pipe in their ceiling, dumping water into his room and leaving a 3" pool around the bed. Fortunately, he had an adjoining room for the kids so he and his wife slept there for the night. We laughed later when I told him that there would be no extra charge for the swim up bed!
Not all heroes wear capes
Up to this point things seemed bad… But now for the good part. The next morning we contacted the manager of the resort, Berónica. She met with us and we discussed the issues we have had, from the website not working, to the check in fiasco, and a water leak. She had already addressed the water leak when it happened. The resort cleaned all of the guests’ clothes and put them in another room (a little better one). The guest was happy, so I was happy. I also had another guest coming in 2 weeks to another Bahia property and couldn’t get their issue resolved because of the lack of response to emails and phone calls. Berónica said that she would look into it and fixed that issue by the next morning. She gave us her cell phone number and told us to call her if she could help in any way. From the time she got involved, we looked like concierge pros. She helped us book a reserved terrace for dinner for 32 at their Mexican restaurant Tequila, which was wonderful. She helped schedule everyone for their massages and their Covid tests for the return flight home. Whenever we needed something that we couldn’t immediately work out ourselves, we texted her for advice. When our guests couldn’t get reservations to a particular restaurant in order to join their family, we texted her and she made it happen and answered any question we had immediately. This is the kind of response one would like to see when bringing that many guests to any resort. Berónica said she would make it right and she did that and then some. Once she got involved, everything went smoothly and everyone forgot about the first day. Sometimes everything is about knowing how to find the right person and it is these personal relationships that make a concierge service successful.
But what about the resort?
As for the rest of the resort, I have to say my expectations weren’t that high to begin with considering the price. Having said that, I was wrong and it was a great experience. The resort was clean and very well maintained. The pool was super nice and not crowded at all. The food was amazing, and the staff was wonderful. It was clear they were short-staffed, but they went out of their way to provide great service. The resort had live music entertainment every night and always drew a crowd. I still don’t know how people danced so much in the heat and humidity, but it didn't slow anyone down. The only things closed were the pool swim up bar and the casino. Yes, they have a casino! The one thing I missed most was poolside service. If you wanted a drink, you had to walk to the center bar for drinks. By the time you walked back to your spot, you had pretty much finished your drink. Being expert travelers, we brought our own Yeti cups which the bartenders were happy to fill for us. This kept the drinks cold and cut down on trips to the bar. I was told their sister property Bahia Principe Luxury Akumal does offer poolside service. The resort has a beautiful beach, but it was overrun with sargassum. That’s Mother Nature’s fault. The resort did their best to rake it up, but to no avail. It just drifted right back up on the shore. It was all along the Riviera Mayan coast.
Having fun while there
We didn’t get to spend a lot of time at the beach due to the sargassum (it was just that time of year). On the fly we booked an excursion to Cenotes Casa Tortuga Tulum (Turtle House) Park. If you don’t know what a cenote is, it is a fresh water spring, usually underground, where the rocks around it have collapsed. While generally very cold it is a gorgeous swimming experience with rocks to jump off of and caves to explore. Casa Tortuga has four cenotes and is working on a fifth one. Entry is about $30US, which is very cheap. They have a brick oven pizza place near one of the cenotes if you get hungry, with some really good pizza! We discovered how good it was when starving. We descended on them as a group and ordered what seemed like 20 pizzas. They just kept cooking them and handing them out, even when a brief rainstorm broke out.
We also wanted to introduce our guests to our favorite restaurant, La Palapa in Chemuyil, just outside Akumal. There you will find a small, neighborhood restaurant with the best food ever! It is nestled in a neighborhood that many newcomers describe as “scary.” Admittedly, to someone new to the area, it may seem that way, but rest assured it is a very safe place. Look past the stereotype and you will see friendly people waving to you and kids playing in the street. The food is fresh off the boat. When you order fish they will bring a tray of the catch of the day for you to personally choose from. The ceviche is fresh and delicious! Their prices are very reasonable too, not like the tourist prices you pay in the big cities.
What could go wrong?
We combined the cenotes and La Palapa into a one-day trip. Now this is where things started to get tricky with a group of this size, but we enjoy a challenge. Its kinda like herding cats, but with the help of a local friend who is way more fluent in Spanish than I am (shout out Rosalba!), we pulled off the day-trip without a hitch. With almost no notice, she coordinated three vans to stay with us for the entire day. They picked us up at the resort and took us to the cenotes and waited there while we swam and ate at the park. They then took the teenagers back to the resort (they had their fun), and the rest of us went on a shopping trip in Tulum. After shopping, we were driven to La Palapa, where the drivers once again waited while we had dinner and drinks. After dinner, they brought us back to the resort. Having them booked for the day saved us a lot of time not having to stand around and wait for transportation and made for an amazing day trip.
After it was all said and done, it was amazing trip. Despite the rough start, it was one of the best travel experiences we have had. Everyone enjoyed themselves and the trial run of the Concierge Service was a huge success. This is bound to be an add-on service for us in the future, but it did remind me I need to get better at Spanish. The guests continuously told us they had an awesome time. They rarely had to do anything other than tell us what they wanted or needed. All of them commented (and continue to do so) that they are ready for us to start planning the next trip. It was discussed at the breakfast buffet, and Isla Holbox looks like this group’s next vacation spot. Remember, we were there to scope out that island in Mexico last November (see my Holbox blog). A group this large will be a challenge for such a small island and it's boutique hotels…but challenge accepted. I think we made some life-long clients but also made some amazing friends that we will travel with over and over again. I’d call that a win-win!