A lounge at Villa Machiavelli // © 2015 Villas of Distinction
Feature image (above): Italy’s Villa Machiavelli // © 2015 Villas of Distinction
In the 2003 film “Under the Tuscan Sun,” newly divorced writer Frances Mayes reinvents herself after taking a tour of Italy and impulsively purchasing a villa in Tuscany. While the film’s beautiful portrayal of the Tuscan landscape inspired wanderlust in countless viewers, the movie also gave travel dreamers a new aspiration: the exotic life of villa ownership.
While purchasing a villa overseas may be improbable for many vacationers, crafting the perfect vacation experience in an ultra-exclusive villa setting is more in reach today than ever before.
Although it’s hardly news that vacation rentals have become wildly popular, the growing success of companies such as Airbnb and HomeAway have made it easy for travelers to upgrade their vacation experience. Vacation rentals are so popular that they now account for nearly one-fifth of the entire U.S. lodging market, according to recent research by PhoCusWright.
This consumer interest in vacation rentals could prove to be a lucrative niche for agents, especially when considering that nearly half of all leisure travelers have expressed an interest in staying in a vacation home as an alternative to a traditional hotel, according to the 2015 “Portrait of American Travelers” report by MMGY Global/Harrison Group.
“Villa rentals are hot,” said Steve Lassman, vice president and general manager of Villas of Distinction, a leading luxury villa rental organization and subsidiary of World Travel Holdings. “We’re seeing double-digit growth year after year.”
Travel Agent Bookings
The villa subsegment of vacation ownership is so desirable that even Airbnb, generally known for its affordable offerings, has a section of its website devoted exclusively to villas.
Travel agents are also noticing an increase in clients interested in staying in villas.
“It used to be that only small groups and families would ask about villa rentals,” said Ann Ronan, a travel consultant at San Juan Capistrano Travel. “Now we even have individuals inquiring about them. I just booked one client who has always dreamed of staying in a villa.”
But while companies such as Airbnb and HomeAway have put villa rentals within reach for consumers, their lack of a commission structure offers little opportunity for travel agents. Still, there are plenty of companies that do work with the travel trade.
Villas of Distinction, for example, maintains a portfolio of more than 1,600 villas in some 50 destinations around the world, all of which are fully commissionable. Additionally, Travel Impressions, part of Apple Leisure Group, operates The Villa Experience, an entire division dedicated to an extensive portfolio of villas. Even better, The Villa Experience sells exclusively to travel agents — the only villa rental organization to do so. The division was created in 2010 by managing director Robert Eastman, who founded Villas of Distinction in 1998.
“I loved the concept of dealing exclusively with the travel agent community, which meant that we would only work with professionals,” Eastman said.
He attributes The Villa Experience’s double-digit growth, which has outpaced all other Travel Impressions products, in part to positive referrals among its travel agent partners.
Lucrative Business Segment
Also stimulating the growth in demand is the changing perceptions of travelers, especially as they learn about the inherent value in booking a villa. Renting a villa can often translate into significant savings over booking multiple rooms at a luxury hotel or resort.
“Villas have always been viewed as ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ getaways,” Lassman said. “But while these homes are beautiful, they are often also a great value.”
While villa rentals can range from $5,000 per week to $100,000 per week or more, the average villa booking runs about $15,000 per transaction, which translates into a healthy commission payment. Add-on services such as pre-booked excursions, cooking classes and local drivers are often commissionable, as well. Moreover, agents can add their own fees.
Travel agents should also take note that there’s an exceptionally high repeat factor among villa renters, according to Eastman and Lassman.
Choosing a Supplier
Eastman recommends choosing wisely when picking a supplier.
“Many villa rental companies that work with agents do so only to augment their direct consumer sales and are actually the travel agent’s competitor as well as their supplier,” he said.
Lassman suggests avoiding companies that blend their villa rental program with their regular hotel bookings. He recommends choosing a company that only focuses on villas.
Ultimately, because booking a villa is about more than simply finding clients a place to sleep, picking a company with local experience is also key. The Villa Experience works only with villas that are handled by professional property-management companies with a complete portfolio.
“These companies have teams of maintenance people on hand in case anything ever goes wrong,” Eastman said.
A company that vets each villa is also important, as is a reservations staff with on-site experience. Both organizations have dedicated personnel who work closely with travel agents to make sure the client is booking the perfect product.
Plus, according to Lassman, the personalized service is key.
“I always say, yes, we’re a villa company, but we’re also an experience company,” he said.
Lassman cites a recent example: A client wanted to book Villa Giulia in Positano, Italy, because of its stunning views, but a conversation with him revealed that he was traveling with a senior who wouldn’t be able to walk the 586 steps to the town or the 59 steps to the parking lot.
“Airbnb isn’t going to ask you if your client has mobility issues,” Lassman said.
At Villas of Distinction, the booking process is also seamless. The travel agent works directly with one reservations agent who asks a number of questions to determine the best fit for the client. Reservations agents will even participate in conference calls between the travel agent and the client in order to help them find the right property.
Once the deposit is made, clients are assigned to one concierge who will be their contact for the duration of their stay and who will work with them to develop an itinerary of local experiences.
“We can create any experience in the world,” Lassman said. “As long as it’s indigenous to the area where clients are staying.”