Some call them “isolation vacations.” Others call them corona breaks – safe travels to beautiful spots where you can cut away from your crowded daily life and try out a new normal in holiday-making without getting tripped up by COVID-19 worries.
The key is in the choice of dwelling. Say “villa” and your world opens up on a selection of magnificent manses where the only outsiders you see will be the ones you choose to see. Should you say the word “contactless,” and even those coveted hospitality services will obligingly disappear.
Vacation villas have been a long standing standard in the world of hospitality. But these are usually left to celebrities, CEOs and heads of state who prefer to forego the grand lobbies and vibrant porte-cochères for the personal garage and labyrinth of bedrooms, dining areas, recreation studios and impenetrable pool grounds to be found in lone dwelling places far afield where mountains rule and lake waters hold the sky.
Largely a best-kept secret of the rich and famous, villa vacations are having their day in COVID times. Prior to the pandemic, hotels historically dominated in performance compared to their short-term rental counterparts. In 2019, for example, average hotel occupancy rates skewed 11.4 percentage points higher than vacation rental occupancies and nearly 20 percentage points higher when compared to multi-bedroom estates.
However, as hotel occupancies bottomed out at 17.5 percent in March, down 77.3 percent from the prior year, villa vacation occupancy rates fell “only” to 36.4 percent, and has since increased 60 percent from those lows. During the stretch from early April to early July, the global vacation rental industry rebounded as pent-up travel demand led to a 257 percent increase in global bookings, according to hospitality consulting firm, STR.
Nod to the Pod
While popularity is growing, nightly rates make many of these villa vacations out of reach – especially for those who are traveling alone or as a couple. The draw, however, is the “pod.” That is, friends and family members deemed to be COVID-free who want to spend bonding moments together in a mountain chalet or a compound on the beach. With safety and more fun in numbers, suddenly a villa that sleeps eight – or 18 – pencils out to a great way to while away time during the Great Pandemic of 2020.
According to a recent survey by Virtuoso of its network travel advisors that cater to upscale clientele with precious, off the beaten path vacation recommendations, top travel trends during these COVID days include “contactless travel,” “microvacations,” remote vacations, multigenerational vacations – and travel pods. Jet-setting has been replaced by RV roadtripping; bar-hopping has been replaced by couch cocktails; dining out by dining in; turndown service by turning away service. And traveling around the world has turned into single destination sojourns.
Virtuoso’s managing director of global public relations, Misty Belles, emphasizes that vacation pods and travel pods form fast “when two or more families who have the same philosophy on social distancing come together.” Results from Virtuoso’s recent Flash Five Survey in July showed that more than three quarters of the families asked would take part in a travel pod.
Philippe Zuber, COO and incoming CEO at Kerzner International told reporters during a virtual version of Virtuoso’s annual summit that extended stays are the trend these days. “It’s not unusual to have a guest ask for 28 days of vacation. They are really asking for more stability, trust and a longer engagement with the resort, and I believe that will continue in the future.”
The Villa Life
So what, exactly is a villa vacation? Hospitality industry expert Sean Emmerton, owner and operator of Elegant Mexico and DistinguishedResidences.com, defines this concept as a private and secure home away from home but in a dream location, given to exquisite design concepts, large enough to accommodate an explosion of friends and family in spacious comfort, and inclusive of the fine amenities offered by an upscale resort.
Elegant Mexico’s inventory covers villa estates by the beach in Los Cabos, Nayarit and Punta Mita, ranging in size from three bedrooms to nine bedroom suites. All are handsomely decorated and come with a cascade of amenities that include dedicated butler, private chef, access to top golfing clubs, meet and greet transfers, stocking of desired provisions and 24-hour concierge services.
“Thus travelers can have as much or as little contact as they want and can take advantage of a host of resort amenities while spreading out and feeling securely private in their own vacation bubble,” says Emmerton.
Deb Dudley, a luxury villa manager in Puerto Vallarta who manages two luxury oceanfront villas there – Villakismetvallarta.com and Casademaeii.com – saw a 40 percent increase in requests in the usually slower summer season.
“We were really worried about occupancy and revenue projections once the pandemic hit. Then we started to see a dramatic increase in reservation inquiries around the middle of April – first from the larger cities in Mexico, then from the US.” says Dudley.
“We have seen a substantial increase in requests for long term stays from business travelers wanting to work remotely and from families. To meet the demand, we developed dedicated workspaces in each of our villas and upgraded Internet service to make sure multiple users can attend online meetings or classes simultaneously. The upside is that these guests are often staying for 30 days or more.”
JoAnn Kurtz-Ahlers, who is CEO of Hidden Doorways Travel, a curated collection of high-end resort product that includes sumptuous villas in some very intriguing places, notes that demand for villa rentals at present is “going gangbusters” so it is important to book early.
“A villa is certainly more private and the sense of space is extremely expanded from what you would experience with a hotel property, with kitchens and living rooms, even private pools,” adds Kurtz-Ahlers. “It’s usually in a beautiful private setting that allows you to control your environment. People are asking for that – people want to be with families and friends and want privacy so they are asking for this product more and more. They don’t want many separate rooms down a long corridor – they want to be together.”
An Eye for Pizzazz
The villa-style hospitality genre is popular overseas, especially with Americans who may be working in Europe or spending the pandemic abroad. While villa properties are not so common in the US, ranch destinations such as Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, WY, allow for the buy-out of private cottage set-ups on the ranch, offering all the cowboy adventure of a resort ranch but with a chance to safely sequester from guests not in the party.
Other options Kurtz-Ahlers suggests include Villa Manzu in Costa Rica, an eight-bedroom mansion on the Papagayo Peninsula with its own beach, staff, cars and concierge, and access to all the amenities available to guests at the nearby Four Seasons Resort. She also recommends villa stays at The Brando in Tahiti and Chable resorts in Mexico. Tahiti and Mexico are open to American visitors while Costa Rica is still on a limited opening protocol.
In Europe, those with a little extra cash and an eye for pizzazz will want to seek out the properties of the Ultima Collection, available for booking in the US through DistinguishedResidences.com. The Switzerland-based company currently offers six grand villa residences, whether singular estates or part of a cluster of accommodations, in Switzerland, France and Greece for the ski set, the yachting crowd, the family holiday and the business magnate.
The manses are magnificent self-contained mini resorts with dedicated chef, butler, concierge, car and driver, staffed medical spa, equipped fitness dome, private cinema, private bar and tender, pools, patios and sometimes even a restaurant. The stunning, purpose-built villas are designed as much for celebrities and as would-be film backdrops as they are for living, and not excluding swirls of eyeful décor details begging to be noticed. The locations range from tony Alpine ski villages trolled by paparazzi to Mediterranean promontory spreads to convenient urban hideaways that lend themselves not only to “pod” style vacations but to serious business gatherings as well.
“Our guests come from all over the world and they are from very diverse backgrounds and also vary in terms of demographics, origins and type of stays. The clients’ typical profile is men and women who are usually 25- to 45-year old HNW and UHNW individuals who seek exceptional experiences,” explains Gilles Repond, sales director and spokesman for the Ultima Collection.
“They travel mostly for leisure; however, we have more and more corporate events and professional stays across our properties,” Repond explains. “In Gstaad, as there are both suites and residences, we also have a lot of couples coming for a romantic escape during weekends and professionals coming during weekdays. The average stay in a villa or residence is one or two weeks. However, we often have guests renting of our properties for several months or the full season.”
Repond concurs that villa rentals are, indeed, taking off these days.
“Definitely, the concept is exploding,” he agrees. “It progressively started on one hand with the Airbnb phenomenon of a home away from home with immersion in local culture and full privacy. And now villas are sought out by groups of like-minded people who want to gather and reconnect. It’s all about authenticity, living together, sharing a unique experience, while finding the right balance between time with loved ones and me-time to unwind and recharge.”
Mix in the requirements and restrictions of a post-COVID-19 world, and for many, luxury villas have become an ideal alternative. “Traveling safely and responsibly has become a priority for many clients and it is why we have seen a growth in demand for private stays, as people are moving away from staying in large hotels with crowds to secluded stays with their ‘social bubble’,” Repond says.
Whether it’s a villa in Italy in the foothills of Umbria or a chalet in the Alps, or a whirlwind weekend escape to Los Cabos or Punta Mita, the thing about villas, Emmerton states, is the variety of options to fit every mood, fantasy, need and interest. There is no one size fits all, but there is definitely a size, design and place to fit everyone who seeks this type of stay.