While essentially every single vacation segment has suffered from the impact of COVID-19, some are recovering better than others thanks to the nature of the market.
Villas of Distinction, the full-service premier luxury villa provider, is one of those segments. Although Villas suffered from the virus’ impact, it is now seeing a return to business with a booking window that has compressed to the point where some people are calling and booking villas for a super short-notice vacation.
“We used to have a very long booking window that has compressed tremendously. People are calling and saying to us ‘I want to get away this week, this month.’ We are seeing the booking window really compressing. The business is that much brisker,” Steve Lassman, the vice president and general manager of Villas of Distinction, told Travel Market Report this week.
Part of that, Lassman said, is that villas lend themselves to a faster return-to-normalcy—private accommodations that make it easier to social distance and allow guests to avoid interacting with others—inspiring some confidence in Villas’ clients.
“It’s more comfortable for them. It’s a lot more comforting for people going away than going to a 1,000 room hotel,” he said.
There are private pools at most of the villas and staff on-call (all wearing masks) to bring in necessities if clients don’t want to venture out. There’s also the kind of unique properties that are difficult to find elsewhere—some with ice skating rinks, lazy rivers, laser tag arenas, tennis courts, and others near hiking trails or bodies of water.
“There’s so much to do in a safer environment,” Lassman said.
Food-wise, everything is prepared inside the villas’ kitchen, and there are no eating spaces shared with anyone outside of the vacation group, which has made the prospect of vacationing away from a hotel or a resort more attractive to a lot of clients, driving more business for the company.
Most of that business is going to properties within the U.S.—Florida, Hilton Head, Hamptons, and more—and some in the Caribbean and Mexico. Villas is currently working to add more product domestically, something that has its challenges as the company doesn’t sell villas sight unseen. But it's adjusting and, according to Lassman, is working on adding others in the Tennessee Mountains, on the West Coast, and in Montana, as well.
All of Villas’ properties are required to meet health and safety protocols issued by the Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA), which hosts rules for disinfection, PPE, cleaning, inspections, maintenance, and more on its website.
If a property’s owner doesn’t meet those standards, Villas removes it from the database, which has happened, but is fairly rare.
“Most of our home owners understand that we are living in a different world.”
Travel advisor communication and dedication
Lassman told TMR that, prior to COVID, somewhere between 75% and 80% of Villas’ bookings were coming from the travel advisor community and the rest was coming direct to Villas.
Then, when COVID hit, Lassman and his team made a decision to manually try to shift that higher toward advisors.
“When COVID first hit we wanted to be the company to help that advisor community,” Lassman said. “We started back in late April or May trying to drive consumers to travel advisors.”
Part of that philosophy showed up in the terminology Villas’ was using in its own market—“We strongly recommend using a travel advisor. If you don’t have one, we can recommend one to you”—while other parts showed up in special offers and bonus commission opportunities for advisors, which the Villas team hoped would help them recoup some lost revenue from COVID.
Lassman also helped kick-off a Wine Down Wednesday series, where him and his team would get a Zoom call weekly (then bi-weekly) with advisors who wanted to ask some questions or simply get introduced to the product, in an informal setting.
Villas has also done live remote viewings of villas, the last couple were in Orlando and Jamaica, where a staff member would virtually walk advisors through villas to get them introduced to the product. That outreach, and Villas’ place in the COVID travel landscape, has led to a major bump in interest from advisors.
“We’ve seen interest in Villas probably triple or quadruple from travel advisors.”
For advisors who haven’t booked Villas before, Lassman told TMR that his team tries to make it as easy as possible for them to be introduced and start sourcing clients. Aside from the advisor portal and its preferred relationships with agency groups, Lassman and his team also have a direct hand in welcoming advisors in.
“When an email comes in from someone who never used a travel advisor, I’ll look for advisors in our network who live near the consumer, and we’ll do a direct handoff between the consumer and the advisor.”
Lassman believes that handoff gives advisors “a fighting chance of earning the booking.”
Even before COVID, Villas was built on support from travel advisors. Lassman said that he believes “it would be a lot tougher a road without them.”
“We have long term relationships with all the consortiums. We have been working with them for years. As we vet the villas, they vet the customers for us, which is very important” (Villas’ high price point won’t be suitable for guests with a low budget).