During the days of social distancing, the desire for a vacation space of one’s own was strong. Everyday vacationers flocked to recreational vehicles (RV), and RV vacations peaked in popularity. Members of the 1%, on the other hand, ensured their privacy not by booking a house on wheels, but by renting out entire properties.
Hotel buyouts — when one group has full run of a place — are not new. They existed before 2020, especially for corporate groups, wedding parties, well-to-do families and even individuals seeking ultimate privacy.
But it’s clear that the pandemic affected consumers’ perception of luxury, and for many, a high-end experience is an exclusive one, where service is seamless, space is abundant and guests only have to talk to the people they came with.
According to Albert Andrew Valera, founder of Everything Travel Guy, an affiliate of SmartFlyer, many folks who had considered buyouts in the past finally tried it out over the last few years.
“The pandemic escalated and brought to light what a buyout experience could be,” he said. “People may have wanted to do it — they may have had a large room block in the past — but they never took over a property. The moment they did it, it shed a lot of light.”
People may have wanted to do it — they may have had a large room block in the past — but they never took over a property. The moment they did it, it shed a lot of light.
Andrea Nicholas Perdue, CEO of Wagonhound Holdings, agrees. She says that her buyout-only property, Reid Creek Lodge in Wyoming — which opened in 2022 — was not created as a response to the pandemic, but it was not a coincidence, either.
“As with many aspects of our society, the pandemic accelerated existing trends,” she said. “For example, many baby boomers are now the matriarchs and patriarchs of three-generation families and need significant space to travel together.”
Jon Makhmaltchi, founder of J.MAK, a marketing firm that specializes in representing high-end hotels to travel advisors, is seeing more demand for buyouts among the properties in his portfolio.
“Much like the hotel villa feel, it gives clients the sense of ‘it’s my house,’ and we see smaller properties having more buyouts, even if guests don’t use all the rooms,” he said. “Exclusive use is the way.”
Eleven — a collection of intimate, remote properties around the world — prefers buyouts of its properties over selling by the room, says Mariana Knight, sales manager at Eleven.
“This provides a better guest experience, as we only cater to one group and not all the different groups in-house,” Knight said. “When a guest does a buyout, we fully support that group with mealtimes, guided activities, transportation logistics and the ability to more easily pivot due to bad weather.”
Numerous properties interviewed for this story shared that requests for full takeovers have increased since the pandemic, from Tutka Bay Lodge in Alaska — which says buyouts now make up 40% of its bookings — to Ballyfin in Ireland — which is seeing an increase in weddings and exclusive-use leisure bookings.
And what travel advisor would not want to execute a client’s dream trip by taking over an Irish country house, a Caribbean island or a Western ranch where every detail can be customized, and where every staff member is focused on one thing: your client’s happiness?
But landing what is oftentimes a six-figure booking (and commission) for a corporate incentive, a wedding weekend, a family reunion or a special milestone celebration is not easy. White-glove service — coupled with a long booking window, the perfect property and next-level organizational and problem-solving skills — are among the essentials for successfully arranging a hotel takeover.
What It Takes
Valera of Everything Travel Guy has booked six buyouts for clients over the last three years: three corporate events, two weddings and one special birthday trip.
He says that the latter two were more challenging than corporate bookings.
“It’s someone’s personal money, for one,” he said. “And if it’s a wedding or birthday, you’re only doing it once. You have to get it right, and there is a lot more pressure to perform.”
Valera recently planned a client’s 60th birthday at Musha Cay, a private island in the Exumas owned by magician David Copperfield, with capacity for 24 guests.
Among all the logistics involved in the $500,000-plus booking — which included keeping all the guests in the dark about where they were going, per the client’s request — Valera had to arrange a private jet and a sea plane to transfer the entire party.
The day before the departure, he found out that the contracted aviation company was down a plane, a major detail that had not been mentioned in the 10 preceding calls.
If you are going to sell this level of luxury, there is an expectation that you are able to serve with a smile.
“This is where it got more nerve-wracking,” he said. “It was not a corporate event where you can move things around.”
Valera says that any advisor can do this type of trip, but admits that this breed of booking requires a lot of commitment.
“I work 16 hours a day,” he said. “To do this high level, it is a lot of hours. This is why some advisors shy away from it. If you are going to sell this level of luxury, there is an expectation that you are able to serve with a smile.”
If leisure buyouts seem too stressful, it is worth noting that corporate buyouts are having a moment.
Jordan Rush, co-owner of Explorateur Travel, specializes in corporate takeovers, and says that although business post-pandemic has been a bit slower for her, the quality of these bookings — in terms of the events and properties chosen — have increased.
“Companies are getting together less frequently, so when they do, they want an experience for their employees,” she said. “Team building and networking are always best when done face-to-face.”
Because buyouts require a fair amount of work, advisors should be earning their fair share of the deal, says Chad Morse, founder of Cap Prive, an affiliate of Protravel International, part of Global Travel Collection.
Morse says he typically negotiates a net, all-inclusive price with the property, and adds a fee based on the trip, ranging from 15-30%, depending on the amount of work needed.
“At the end of the day, the value proposition needs to make sense for the property, the client and — as importantly — the advisor,” Morse said.
At the end of the day, the value proposition needs to make sense for the property, the client and — as importantly — the advisor.
Makhmaltchi says he sees properties offering commissions ranging from 10-30%, depending on the time of year.
And while clients booking buyouts are wealthy, Valera says that advisors must help them understand the economics around these bookings.
“Clients think they are going to get a huge discount when buying out a property,” he said. “Sometimes the cost is more or the same as the website, because there is a large disparity in the front- and back-end.”
Properties can lose out on clients whose multiday stays would have intersected with the start or end of a client’s buyout, Valera says.
“A hotel that understands that is going to build those expenses into the room rate,” he said. “Logistically, buyouts are a little easier for hotels, and it can be very profitable for them.”
Eleven’s Knight says that its hotels do not incentivize buyouts with a lower price, but often include extras and activities to add value.
Booking early is a necessity these days, especially in popular international destinations.
According to Simone Amorico, CEO of Access Italy, buyouts are rare in Italy — making up less than 10% of the operator’s total bookings. Part of this has to do with the perennial appeal of Italy and its properties, so Amorico recommends that advisors inquire about buyouts at least a year in advance.
Domestic properties tend to be more flexible. The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana can sometimes accommodate requests up to six months in advance, while Reid Creek Lodge and Tutka Bay Lodge will try their best to work with flexible dates. Montage Healdsburg in Sonoma County, Calif., recommends a year’s notice, but can sometimes work with six months’ notice during its softer seasons, winter and summer.
Valera recommends booking one to two years in advance, depending on the destination and time of year. He is currently working on a buyout for 2025 in Aspen, Colo., since it’s during the busy ski season, and the number of ultra-high-end properties there are limited.
“My job is to educate the client,” he said. “We have to look at a lot of factors. Before you pick the dates, are you competing with city events? In December, for example, Miami sells out at record hotel rates because of Art Basel. Advisors need to understand special events, holidays or other factors that would impact rates.”
Valera says that hotels that receive buyout offers sometimes might accept them — even if rooms are already booked. He says that the “really good” brands don’t usually do this, but that properties have offered to pay for his client to stay somewhere else due to a buyout offer.
A Model for the Future?
New hotels are meeting the needs of this market — regardless of whether they were designed to do so.
In addition to Reid Creek Lodge, properties such as Naviva, A Four Seasons Resort, opened in 2022 as a sister property to the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, and naturally appeals to small groups.
While John O’Sullivan, regional vice president and general manager of the resort, says that Naviva hopes to foster a community of like-minded guests, he admits that it has been popular with groups looking for an intimate, curated space.
Designed before the pandemic, but opened in 2021, Montage Healdsburg credits some of its success in attracting a significant number of buyout groups to its design. (It is tucked away in the hillsides, half a mile from the main road.)
“There has been tremendous feedback on the exclusivity and privacy of the resort, said Doug Kaminski, director of sales and marketing for the hotel. “The guestrooms are clustered together in various sections among the hillsides, allowing us to group guests together and create ‘villages’ of family members or attendees.”
The Aerial BVI, on Buck Island, opened in 2021 as a buyout-only, wellness hotel offering a private island with 17 accommodations in seven villas. And a property in J.MAK’s portfolio, Stonewater Cove in the Ozarks, is gearing up to switch fully to a buyout model in the coming months.
With all the buzz about buyouts, Valera says that advisors with the right clientele can work on securing one simply by bringing it up as an idea.
“Get on a phone call with your client,” he said. “Say, ‘I have been reading about a few ideas that are unique, and I want to present them to you. Have you thought about taking over an island? I can help you with all the logistics to make it happen.’”