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Free rental cars, dinners out and celebrity chefs: how the all-inclusive holiday went upmarket

No more watering down plastic cups of fruit punch or charging for spa access – at the new breed of inclusive resorts, more is more, finds Lucy Thackray

Tuesday 26 July 2022 15:32 BST
<p>Food at Kerkyra Restaurant, Ikos Dassia resort, Corfu</p>

Food at Kerkyra Restaurant, Ikos Dassia resort, Corfu

When was the last time you went all-inclusive (AI)? In certain scenarios – when you want to read by the pool, relax in the sun or stick to a budget, for example – they can be handy. But the gloss of having everything thrown in has dulled over recent decades, with many AI stalwarts now seen as shabby, up-selling or limiting for the reasonably curious traveller.

In response, hotel brands haven’t thrown out the AI concept – they’ve decided to up their game. Enter a new generation of “more inclusives”, “cool inclusives” and “infinite lifestyle” rates, adding luxe facilities, complimentary activities and even dinners and drives out around the destination to the timeworn concept of three buffet meals and unlimited drinks.

Ikos Resorts is one of the most visible companies shaking up the traditional all-inc concept. Its Ikos Olivia hotel in Halkidiki wowed the luxe family travel crowd when it opened in 2015 with its lavish, tasteful interiors and swankier than the usual, a la carte restaurants. Now with six resorts across Greece and Spain, it has its AI formula down to a fine art: one upfront rate with the same perks for all guests; a la carte restaurants with menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs; 30 minutes of complimentary childcare; 24-hour room service; complimentary museum tickets; multiple swimming pools; and hundreds of sommelier-selected wines in the hotel cellar. Guests even get access to a glossy, Ikos-branded Mini to drive around for one day of their stay. (The newest outpost, Ikos Andalusia, will soon have 50 Teslas delivered for lower-impact exploration of the region.)

At the start we really struggled to even use the words ‘all inclusive’, because the connotations can be negative

Lee Barker, Ikos Resorts

One of its most-hyped features is the “dine out” option, where guests can go for dinners at a partner restaurant, such as a traditional Greek taverna elsewhere on the island, with the meal included in their rate. This is a new approach – sending people out into a destination and plugging them into the local scene, rather than keeping them on the premises as a captive, spending audience. The resort even drops them off and picks them up.

TRS Ibiza sends its Signature Level guests out for dinners around the island

Another hotel brand partnering with independent restaurants is TRS, a sub-brand of the Palladium Hotel Group. This summer it launches “the Signature Level”, which gives guests in certain room categories extra, included perks. At TRS Ibiza Hotel, these include the option to dine out in rustic Ibizan agroturismos, flash beach clubs or sushi bars elsewhere on the island, plus free entry to a usually off-limits VIP area, Gravity Sky Lounge, during the day, and early check-in and late check-out thrown in. Signature guests also get access to events at the entertainment institutions Ushuaia Ibiza Beach Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel Ibiza and Hi Ibiza.

Elsewhere in the Med, high-end resort brand Domes has launched its family-friendly Aulus offshoot, “reserved only for those who wish for top tier accommodation, access to all areas, superior service, a private lounge, and premium living”. Two resorts, Domes Aulus Elounda in Crete and Domes Aulus Zante in Zakynthos, launched earlier this month. Domes’ approach is to have two tiers: a more modest, affordable all-inclusive rate – with buffet meals, for example, set in its five-star, modern-chic facilities – and a “Cool Living” tier that comes with access to private, clubby pool and dining areas, plus luxurious food and drink events from wine tastings to picnics and sunset parties.

The original gamechanger, Ikos, was a concept drawn up by the owners of Sani Resort in Halkidiki – not an all-inclusive, but a popular beach resort and a good barometer for what affluent beachgoers were after. “At the start we really struggled to even use the words ‘all inclusive’, because the connotations can be negative,” says Lee Barker, the group’s regional director of sales for the UK. “People feel that you lose quality the minute you have that label. But there was a gap, you know?”

Ikos Resorts will lend you a Mini or a Tesla for a day’s exploring

“Previously, if you said you were going to an all-inclusive in Europe, you’d get a mixed reaction,” he continues. “We said, if we’re going to do all-inclusive, we’re going to do it the best. No guest will leave the resort without being completely satisfied.”

One key thing that came out of this development stage, he says, is the “no surprises” factor. No Ikos guests are told which restaurant they may use at which time, no dishes on the menus are marked as costing extra, and they can dine on restaurant food on their terrace – the only thing they’d ever be billed for is an optional spa treatment. Another pillar was “quality”, applying to everything from interiors to food and drink products – including “brands you’d recognise, premium spirits and mixers such as Fevertree” – and products like their own-brand olive oil, honey and wine produced by Greek suppliers for the group.

No Ikos guests are told which restaurant they may use at which time, no dishes on the menus are marked as costing extra, and they can dine on restaurant food on their terrace

Perhaps, after months and years of the unexpected when it comes to travel, holidaymakers want everything sewn up well before they board their flight? For families in particular, the fixed rate becomes a real draw, once quality of environment and experience is assured.

“I’m actually a major convert,” says Katie Bowman, globetrotting editor of Family Traveller magazine. “I’ll be frank – I wouldn’t choose an all-inclusive if I didn’t have kids, but I love them when travelling with my daughter. It just takes the guilt and politics and cash out of eating, which is such a big deal when kids’ fussy eating can make or break an evening out.

“I particularly love the new trendy ones – Ikos Corfu, Amada Colossos Rhodes, Lujo Bodrum, Rixos Abu Dhabi – where the restaurants have local chefs and a la carte menus.”

Mexico’s Unico 20°87° is another resort claiming to have reinvented the all-inclusive for a new generation

High-end AI is nothing new in more remote, long-haul destinations where everything has to be offered in-resort. Tahiti’s megabucks The Brando resort does all-inclusive, while Anantara Maia Seychelles throws in in-villa yoga, unlimited scuba diving and “private dining anywhere on the grounds” as part of its rate. Mexico’s recent opening, Unico 20°87°, an adults-only Riviera Maya resort, has also claimed to “reinvent all inclusive” with its celebrity-chef restaurant, free poolside food service and local crafting experiences. In Europe, however, it feels like an emerging, thriving market.

I wouldn’t choose an all-inclusive if I didn’t have kids, but I love them when travelling with my daughter

Katie Bowman, Family Traveller

The trade-off, unsurprisingly, is fairly chunky rates – Ikos’ rooms start at £300 a night, low season, but this can rise to £700-800 in high season. Domes Aulus resorts have rooms from £160 per night in low season on their basic AI rate; more like £268 per night for the premium “Cool Inclusive”.

With two new resorts in the pipeline – a second on Corfu and a new one on Mallorca – Ikos’ Lee Barker says that what the premium all-inclusive crowd wants next is more space. The group is increasing the amount of suites with terraces, bungalows and villas in both new and existing resorts. “Clients want more space, more privacy, that’s what we’ve learnt. In 2023, we’ll introduce five villas in Ikos Porto Petro (Mallorca), with access to the resort facilities,” he explains. But largely it’s more of the same – applying the winning formula to as many locations as it suits.

So, when’s the next time you’ll book an all-inclusive? It turns out, it could be more your cup of (deluxe, loose-leaf) tea than you think.

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