A daring concept that proved popular

March 02, 2003|By Cheryl Blackerby | Cheryl Blackerby,COX NEWS SERVICE

John Issa's idea for his Jamaica hotel, the Negril Beach Resort (now Hedonism), was radical in 1976. The "all-inclusive" resort would include all premium-brand liquor, wine and beer, even the mini-bar.

"People told me this formula would never work. Only the French had been able to do it, and Club Med charged for drinks," recalls Issa. "They said the guests would overdrink. I didn't know how much it would cost until we did it."

The guests must not have imbibed too much, because the resort was an immediate success.

Issa was confident because he had noticed something peculiar in the travel industry: In the soft economy, only two areas of travel were doing well -- cruise ships and Club Med. The cruise ships attracted older travelers and Club Med was full of young backpackers. The only common denominator was they were inclusive except for alcoholic drinks, tipping and some activities. Issa's instincts told him to go further and be "Super-Inclusive," and include all alcohol, tipping and activities.

He opened the all-inclusive Couples resort in 1978, and that resort, too, was thriving when other Jamaican hotels were suffering. His friends were amazed. He didn't go broke with open bars, and had managed to keep the resorts at a reasonable price.

Issa, 62, a charming Jamaican millionaire whose family has been in Jamaica since 1893, now owns 20 all-inclusive Super-Clubs, which include Breezes, the Grand Lido resorts and Hedonism. (He sold Couples.)

Another observation in the 1970s contributed to his success: He had noticed that travelers to the Caribbean were changing.

"In the early days, only professionals, senior executives and the rich came to the Caribbean in winter. Then we started seeing young honeymoon couples," he says. It bothered him to see the couples scrambling for money. "The check came and I would see the wife taking out her purse, too, to pay the bill. I wanted a hotel where someone on a budget could live like a king."

His first resorts were affordable for the nonwealthy, and were "cashless," meaning absolutely everything was included in the room rate. The wife would never have to open her purse.

Then he noticed something else that prompted SuperClubs to take yet another direction.

"A lot of wealthy friends would join me at the hotels, and loved the all-inclusive idea, a place where they didn't have to chase the waiter for the check. Nobody likes to be constantly nickeled and dimed. These were people who could afford anything and they loved the hotels."

So SuperClubs' Grand Lido hotels were born -- luxury hotels with spas and golf courses for people with money who wanted the ease of the all-inclusive. The all-suite Grand Lido Negril, which included 24-hour room service, valet service, laundry and dry-cleaning, manicures and pedicures, opened in 1991.

A large percentage of Issa's customers are repeat guests. That's because once you stay at an all-inclusive, he says, it's a hassle to go anywhere else.

Issa gets annoyed when he stays at a Miami hotel and the bill keeps growing. The thing that irks him the most is paying for parking. "Why don't they just add $2 a night to every room and say the parking is free?"

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