Trying time for Tryall luxury villa owners
Hit by a raft of cancellations and a COVID-19-forced lockdown of the tourism industry, Tryall Club and Spa has been offering substantially lower rates to attract more business, but while Managing Director Aram Zerunian expects an increase in reservations for the festive season, he does not foresee a complete revival of the sector until a vaccine is available to end the deadly pandemic.
First opened in the 1950s, Tryall Club’s roots date back more than 300 years as it was first an English fort before the lands were used for sugar cultivation in the 1660s.
Today, the exclusive private getaway nestled between the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the hills of Sandy Bay in Hanover is rated as one of the most elite vacation estates in the Caribbean. Its 91 luxury estate villas, 13 great-house condos, as well as a world-famous golf course are supported by 600 employees.
Yet the 2,200-acre property, a favourite hideaway for international celebrities, politicians and business leaders, has been a shadow of itself since March when the global travel and leisure industries collapsed as many countries, including Jamaica, closed their borders to limit the spread of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19.
Although there has been a partial reopening of the tourism sector since June and the airports are seeing leisure vacationers passing through their halls again, the industry is still limping along. Villa owners are chopping their rates, which range from US$6,000 per week for a single room villa to US$60,000 for a great-house accommodation, with discounts as high as 40 per cent to entice vacationers.
“It has been hard, very difficult. I have seen nothing like this before,” said Jane Smith, who manages a great house at Tryall. “Business has come down to a trickle. Everyone’s cancelling. No property [is] doing well during COVID.”
“All properties are offering discounts to lure clients, Jamaica is a very important market now,” Smith offered. “… but there have been very few responses so far.”
However, Managing Director Aram Zerunian believes Tryall has done well despite the challenges.
“Business is slow like everywhere else, but we have done some local marketing to encourage vacations at the club,” Zerunian told The Sunday Gleaner. “While we are getting some bookings, we are also getting some cancellations from persons who were here last year and had booked their place to be back, but because of COVID, they cancelled.
“But this is not surprising because when we speak to our colleagues in other parts of the country, they are experiencing the same thing as well,” he said.
“We normally target the high-end luxury level of travellers and while everybody is affected right now, I think that level of tourist will recover faster than the mid-level group,” he continued, “… but the Jamaican market has always been part of our clientele base. The only difference is that we saw an opportunity in this climate and we became more aggressive.”
The reservation desk is kept busy with persons enquiring about Jamaica and what is being done at the club to guarantee the safety of guests, but Zerunian – who copped the 2014 Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association Hotelier of The Year award while serving as general manager of Half Moon Club in Montego Bay – believes it will take another three to four years for the Jamaican market to recover from COVID-19.
“I expect about 50 per cent occupancy for the festive season as was the case in 2019, I can’t see that changing until there is a vaccine widely available,” he said. “But it will take another three to four years to recover, like 9/11, or, similarly, the financial hardships of 2008-2009.”
Like other sector players, Tryall was forced to lay off staff during the lockdown, but apart from a few exceptions, all villa staff – approximately 400 workers – received their full salaries, while club staff that were laid off received a stipend of 30 per cent of their basic salary.
“Most of the staff are back at work, but not fully utilised, which is not unusual in this period, which is slow even in a normal year.”
Zerunian dismissed claims that the management was denying operators access to necessary resources due to non-payment of bills during the pandemic.
“I do not want to talk about my members too much, [but] that information is incorrect,” he said. “There are two members affected by water lock-offs right now and I can assure you that none of them are delinquent due to COVID.
“These goes back to 2018 and 2019 and we have made several efforts to collect money from them, and we are already feeling the pinch of low occupancy so we cannot afford to have people incurring expenses and not repaying us,” he continued.
“We are not talking about small amounts of money, we are talking about millions, and at some stage, we have to draw a line,” Zerunian said.