A COVID-19 outbreak, pissed-off customers, and a public fight with local government.
For a resort chain that promises “a no-worries vacation,” Sandals Resorts seems to be plagued with them.
Earlier this week, the Barbados Health Ministry de-listed the Sandals Barbados Resort and Spa as an official “quarantine hotel”—one of few locations where newcomers to the island can stay while awaiting the results of two negative PCR tests required to move freely around the island. In a statement, the ministry cited several “verified complaints” of COVID-19 protocol breaches at the 280-room, all-inclusive resort, and warned that it would take “similar actions” against any other property that failed to uphold the island’s rules and regulations. It also announced the arrest of three tourists suspected of breaking quarantine rules.
Hours later, the Jamaican-based hotel chain shot back with a statement of its own, claiming that it had been blindsided by the government's announcement. The resort claimed it had refuted all allegations of protocol violations in writing and requested a meeting with the health ministry, and was “amazed” to learn about the de-listing in the local press.
“We do hope that the Minister of Tourism, the Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Officer, who have not yet been to our hotel to see the protocols in operation, can prioritise a visit to do so,” the resort said in an unusually acerbic statement to Barbados Today.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Sandals spokesperson said its Barbados resorts have an “exemplary record in the industry” and claimed the allegations against them were unproven. (The health ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but did issue a press release apologizing for insinuating that the quarantine-dodging tourists were in any way connected to Sandals. They were not.)
It was not the first time the hotel chain had sparred with local government officials. Two weeks earlier, the health ministry in Grenada, a Caribbean island of 111,000 people, announced an outbreak of 26 cases originating from the Sandals Resort there. Within days, the number of active cases reached 44, doubling the island’s total case numbers since the start of the pandemic. The ministry deemed the situation a “health emergency” and quickly enacted a 10-person cap on all gatherings, as well as a ban on indoor dining and, in the days that followed, a 10 p.m. curfew.
While Sandals initially promised to collaborate with local health authorities, it has since come out swinging against government officials. In an open letter published by several local outlets, Sandals Grenada General Manager Peter Fraser called reports tying the outbreak to his resort “completely unsubstantiated” and expressed his “great disappointment” in government officials for not correcting them.
Days later, the deputy chairman of the Sandals Group, Adam Stewart, announced the closure of the Grenada resort until Feb. 3, blaming the decision not on the outbreak but the government’s own indecision.
“Because the government is starting to shift and is unsure of how they will go forward with their own protocols and tourist entry requirements, we must wait for them to finalise a plan so we can have professional conversation about how that’s going to affect our customers, our operation and our staff,” Stewart said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Sandals spokesperson claimed the initial reports of an outbreak at Sandals had been “proven inaccurate.” The spokesperson cited a second round of PCR testing that resulted in zero positive cases among its 432 employees, and claimed that a number of the initial test results were false positives. The Grenada Public Health Ministry did not return multiple requests for comment.
The sentiment among locals appeared to be in favor of the chain. A columnist for The New Today accused the government of making Sandals a “sacrificial lamb” in its ploy to reopen tourism, and accused them of “press[ing] a panic button while an investigation is pending and not yet complete.” Members of the country’s left-leaning National Democratic Congress claimed the government had allowed Sandals to circumvent safety protocols and called for the immediate resignation of the two ministers directly involved.
Customers, however, directed their ire directly at the chain. In the days surrounding the outbreak, negative reviews began pouring in for the Barbados and Grenada locations, with guests accusing the resorts of selling them rooms on which they did not deliver. One angry customer wrote on TripAdvisor that she had paid $4,000 for a 4-night stay in a swim-out, only to be downgraded to a “small, dimly lit room” with no air conditioning and no warning. “I’m all for keeping people safe, but be honest about the service you provide and don’t take money for something you can’t provide. This is below the quality of a 1 star motel room for the price of 5 star."
One man, who asked to be identified only as Jim, told The Daily Beast he booked a room at the Grenada resort on Dec. 14 but received no notice of the outbreak that had been announced the day before. Instead, he received a frantic email two days later telling him to contact the resort “immediately.” He said the hotel told him it would no longer be accepting new visitors, and the best they could offer him was credit toward another location or a 50 percent refund. (The hotel changed their tune after Jim posted a particularly cutting TripAdvisor review.)
A Sandals guest named Mike, who also asked to be referred to by first name only, said he had initially booked his honeymoon at the Grenada resort but switched to Barbados when the Grenada property was shuttered. Upon arrival at the airport, he said public health officials told him he and his wife had taken the wrong test and would have to quarantine on the hotel property until they could get new tests. When he reached Sandals, however, the resort staff informed them they would be confined not just to the hotel property but to their room—a much smaller accomodation with no view of the ocean or pool. After spending less than 24 hours in complete isolation, Mike and his wife decided to pack up their bags and leave.
The most frustrating thing about the whole experience, Mike said, was the conflicting information from the resort and the government.
“We didn't know, do we believe the government people or do we believe Sandals?” he said. “I get it, they have rules they have to follow, [but] my wife and I were just like, ‘This is not worth the money we spent to be here.’”
In a statement, a Sandals spokesperson said the company prides itself on having the highest return guest rate in the industry, and noted that more than 90 percent of guests at Sandals Barbados and Sandals Grenada share positive reviews on TripAdvisor.
Jim, on further reflection, admitted it was “probably really a stupid idea in the first place to imagine I could really get away.” He said he and his wife, who works in the medical field, were planning on rescheduling their vacation for after they had been vaccinated. But he would not be booking it with Sandals.
“I think it was an absolutely ridiculous way to handle this,” he said in a phone interview. “It would have been very easy to offer and process a refund upfront. I would not have felt adversely about them. Now I am quite convinced I will never book another trip with them."