5 questions for John Cohlan, Margaritaville Holdings

By all outward appearances, 2017 is anything but a License to Chill year for Jimmy Buffett. The singer-songwriter and hotelier is expanding his Margaritaville Holdings resort empire by nearly 35 percent with the opening of four new properties: the Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman; the Margaritaville Key West (Fla.) Resort & Marina; the Margaritaville Island Inn in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; and the Margaritaville Resort Orlando.

As the former two were opening earlier this year, the company also inked a partnership deal with Karisma Hotels & Resorts to develop a line of all-inclusive properties. To come this summer is the brand’s second Pigeon Forge location as well as the $750-million Orlando resort. Here, Margaritaville Holdings’ CEO John Cohlan shares his insights on the future of the resort industry.

1. What is the greatest challenge facing the resort industry today?

One of the greatest challenges facing the resort industry today is customers’ expectations. Today’s resort customer is seeking experiences that will transform their vacation into memories that will last a lifetime, rather than just a nice place to spend the night. Resorts that want to succeed within the context of heightened competition and increasing demand for something unique will need to respond to those evolving consumer expectations. It is important to provide activities and experiences that span multiple interests and generations.

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For us, this is easy, because Margaritaville truly is the original and authentic lifestyle brand. Providing memorable experiences and transporting people into a vacation state of mind is what we do, and it aligns perfectly with the resort customer today.

2. What one prediction do you have for the future of the resort industry?

Resort branding will be more important than ever. With so many choices on the market, the new generation of travelers will want to know what they can expect from staying at your property. It’s not just about a product and a name, it’s about the experience.

3. What’s the next trend that resort owners and operators don’t yet know that they’re soon to embrace? Why?

I believe there will be an upswing of mixed-use resorts due to evolving customer expectations for activities and experiences that span seasons and generations. Mixed-use resorts are of higher value because they create more revenue streams. More uses mean more markets and higher visitor levels year-round, and contemporary property schemes such as "fractionals," condo-hotels and lease-backs can generate higher income levels by creating both a greater incentive to invest and a greater volume of potential investors.

Margaritaville offers a multitude of unique ways for guests to extend their stay in paradise, including the Margaritaville Vacation Club by Wyndham with locations from the shores of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands to Rio Mar, Puerto Rico; vacation homes at Margaritaville Resort Orlando, which is currently under development in the heart of Orlando; Latitude Margaritaville active adult residential communities in Daytona Beach (Fla.); and Hilton Head (S.C.); new all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico in partnership with Karisma; luxury residences in our One Particular Harbour development at Harbour Isle in Bradenton, Fla., and condominium units in the Margaritaville Grand Cayman Resort. Future sites are also in progress with major real estate developers. We see potential in this area and can say that in many cases moving forward, there will be some sort of mixed-use component in Margaritaville.

4. How are resort guest demographics evolving?

The ambassadors are a vital source of information for us as to what their generation is looking for in hospitality. We have found that they are primarily looking to travel to relax and connect with others—whether it’s the people that they are traveling with or new people they meet in the destination. With this in mind, communal and social opportunities for interaction are becoming key. One example of what we’re doing at Margaritaville can be seen in our lobby in Hollywood Beach, Fla. We designed the lobby to be an inviting space with groupings of comfortable couches, chairs and tables, along with a collection of indoor cabanas to create private niches for guests to meet with friends and family or take a phone call to stay connected with loved ones at home.

In addition, multigenerational travel is becoming even more important as people are looking to collect memories, not things, and having resorts that cater to each age group simultaneously.

Millennials are a major player in the resort industry today. This generation wants to experience the best, most rewarding opportunities possible. This past year, we introduced a college ambassador program and had nearly 250 ambassadors on more than 100 campuses across the U.S. and Canada.

5. To what extent is Airbnb considered a disruptor to the resort industry?

Airbnb is great for a specific segment of travelers who want an affordable, local experience. It’s a big issue for the lodging industry, of course, but I believe there is enough business for everyone. There is a certain clientele that this type of travel appeals to but travelers today are seeking choices—they want a lot of variety—so there is room for a variety of lodging options.