The experience of renting a luxury villa should encompass more than simply finding a gorgeous property. Yes, that's important, but making sure it's the "right" property for your clients' needs is just as important. As is ensuring your clients' experience during their time in destination is memorable.
That's only one of the main luxury villa rental facts Willie Fernandez, chief marketing officer at Rental Escapes, wants travel advisors to understand.
Travel Market Report caught up with Fernandez at Ensemble's annual conference earlier this month to talk about luxury villa rentals, what makes Rental Escapes different from its competitors, and where travel advisors fit into the company's plans.
Personalized service (with a capital P)
One thing Fernandez takes great pride in is the personalized nature of Rental Escapes' service, including the service the company provides travel advisors.
Fernandez takes the lead on that. He readily distributes his personal cell number to advisors that work with Rental Escapes, and told TMR he responds to all texts and phone calls before he wraps up each day.
He leads Wednesdays with Willie, on which he opens his schedule between 2 and 5 p.m. for 15-minute appointments with any advisor that wants to speak to him. Any advisor that books a villa rental gets a personal phone call or email from him the day after the booking.
Rental Escapes also has a reward program, which rewards advisors with points for every villa booking. The points can be used for free villa stays.
In order to keep things personal, both for clients and advisors, Rental Escapes does not take any online bookings.
"We offer no online booking at all and that's by design," he said. "With no online booking, we spend an incredible amount of time talking to the advisor and getting to know what the purpose of that guest's trip is."
He added that sometimes guests want to save on the villa rental, but splurge on the experiences.
Once villa specialists have a solid understanding of what advisors' clients are looking for, they'll identify between two and four properties they feel are ideal for guests' needs, taking into account the specific needs of each group – even needs they might not have vocalized.
Say an advisor wants to rent something for a group of travelers in their 80s. "Our villa specialists know, when they select a house, to make sure there are bedrooms on the ground floor. Or, if they're looking to go to Italy, not to recommend the house where you park at the bottom and take the stairs to get to the top."
Beyond the villa
Along with the personalization it provides, another Rental Escapes' differential, Fernandez said, is its focus not only on the villas themselves, but on the accompanying experiences.
"What I tell advisors is, we provide very personalized villa experiences."
While the experience starts with the quality of the villas themselves – all properties are inspected on a regular basis – the local experiences that are available with each stay are just as important.
"While we're looking at inventory, we're also meeting a lot of the local service providers to understand the services they provide, what the experience looks like."
Such experiences can include local tours, in-villa cooking classes, Pickleball training, and almost anything a client can dream up.
Trade catching up
In business for 11 years, direct bookings have so far made up the bulk of Rental Escapes' business. But Fernandez is actively working to change that.
Today, advisors account for just under 40% of business, but over the past two years, he told TMR, "the trade has taken much more notice of us," and he's looking to grow that "even more."
"Today, I see three kinds of advisors. I see a new-to-villa advisor. I see my repeat advisors. And I see a new-to-Rental Escapes advisor. I send an incredible amount of time focused on all three."
He added that he believes more travel advisors are looking for greater choice when it comes to villa rentals, particularly beyond what their hosts or consortia offer them.
"We're seeing a lot of these member agencies who are part of consortia reach out to us. They want choice but then they get a flavor for our service, for our villas, and they stay with us and rebook with us."
He hopes for trade bookings to eventually surpass direct consumer business, he said. "Our success is intertwined with theirs."
TMR asked Fernandez, what are some of the most notable villa rental trends going into 2024?
A growing desire by many villa renters to be able to play Pickleball is one trend he identified immediately. It's so popular, he's had villa owners clear land to put up on-site Pickleball courts. Other villas provide complimentary access to off-site courts, and private lessons with Pickleball trainers can be arranged in many locations.
Another trend he's noticed is an uptick in corporate villa bookings. Often, he said, corporations will take two to three villas, putting employees in one or two of them and using another for what he calls "M&M" – meetings and meals.
"I didn't see this before the pandemic," he said.
For next year, Europe is looking to have another record-breaking season, "especially for the Paris Olympics."
He is, however, watching the Middle East, but despite the ongoing unrest, so far, there's been "no impact whatsoever" on business, he said.
Speaking specifically of Italy, Fernandez said one trend that emerged even before the pandemic, is a high repeat rate. Because owners require Saturday-to-Saturday one-week minimums, travelers will come back year after year to see different parts of the country.
"Today they come to Tuscany and in 2024 they'll go to Amalfi or Puglia or Sardinia," he explained.
For advisors in the "new-to-villa" camp, Fernandez has one piece of advice –- don't wait to start booking 2024 villas, especially for May to September rentals.
Owners started opening their 2024 seasons around Labor Day. By the end of December, most of the high-season rentals will be booked up.
"July and August are the first to go. Then June, then September."