Are luxury vacation patterns shifting? Is the upscale leisure vacation market abandoning international luxury hotels in favor of posh private accommodations?
The sustained robust national economy,
particularly in relation to more sluggish foreign countries, and quickly accumulating individual wealth are having a strong impact on at least one segment of the travel hospitality industry - vacation villa rentals. That is according to Barclay H. Warburton IV, president of WIMCO, the Newport-based company with over 1,000 luxury villas in Italy, France, the U.K, Ireland and the Caribbean.
Based on demand, it appears that increasing numbers of people are looking for the very top quality, full-service vacation villas in prime locations in Tuscany, the Riviera and the choice islands of the Caribbean, Warburton
says. In addition, more villas are being taken out of the rental pool and sold to foreigners who often mansionize them.
It is no secret that this booming economy has produced a lot of new wealth. One consequence is that vacationers at the very top of the ladder are turning towards a concept of private vacation accommodations that provide
the very highest levels of service at the same time, Warburton said. Whether they are also staying at luxury hotels we can't be sure, but our demand for the highest end villa rentals, some on a scale of luxury that is
hard to believe, is climbing rapidly. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the dollar is exceptionally strong in relation to so many foreign currencies.
Warburton points out that with the French franc currently around 7 on the dollar, renting a four-bedroom villa in the South of France may well be less expensive than Nantucket or The Hamptons, where mere cottages go for $20,000 a month. The enduring appeal of Tuscany has required vacationers to seek villa rentals a year or more in advance and Caribbean locations such as St. Barts continue to command top dollar for rentals. Clearly these choice destinations are increasingly perceived as excellent value in relation to other vacation options, especially at the high end, and renting the most
luxurious of villas is the 'in thing' to do, Warburton said.
WIMCO, an acronym for West Indies Management Company, has played a leading role in meeting and, to a large extent, creating the demand. The company has its roots in the Caribbean where it began in 1983 as the exclusive
representative of the Sibarth Real Estate company, which had been renting private villas in St. Bart's in the French West Indies since 1976. After developing a villa inventory in the Caribbean (680 villas on ten islands,
including St. Barts, Mustique, Nevis, Saba and others), WIMCO expanded into Europe, notably Tuscany and St. Tropez, attracting many of the same bikini-clad clients. Today WIMCO represents 430 villas throughout the south
of France, Italy, England, Ireland and Scotland. Most recently, the company 's inventory expanded by 61% in St. Tropez and 15 new villas in Umbria, one of Italy's hottest tourism destinations. WIMCO's success has been based on providing an easily and quickly arranged luxury vacation experience that includes everything from magnificent space to fully-stocked refrigerators to
professional service help.
At the high end, clients are looking for all the services and amenities of a genuine luxury hotel plus the privacy and individual charm of a private residence situated in a prime location, often of stunning beauty, Warburton
says. The idea of being able to rent, for a week or two, an elegant villa, with features as extravagant as a private gymnasium, is a relatively young one. Warburton has seen extensive growth in the villa rental industry from the days when a private individual rented his home out for a few months -- usually by word of mouth. A cottage industry then, today villa rentals represent an increasingly important role in the luxury vacation mix, as
reflected in WIMCO's impressive portfolio.
The increasing demand for high end properties has certain challenges for WIMCO. There is the need to find more villas while maintaining quality control in everything from facilities to service, from the big issues such
as a villa's architectural appeal and location to whether the swimming pool is clean and the linens are of the very best brand. Today's affluent travelers, particularly from the United States, expect a very high level of
quality and service that we, in effect, must guarantee, Warburton says. One of the newer challenges is assuring clients that their home away from home is 'wired.
Sometimes we wonder how much these clients really want to escape -- and what escape even means anymore - when the expectation is that where ever you go, you will have complete computer, internet and cell phone
accessibility, Warburton observed. It's sometimes a challenge to assure someone that they will be connected to the world while residing, however luxuriously, in on a lovely rural hillside in Tuscany or overlooking a white
sand beach on the turquoise Caribbean. So, in effect, we keep our clients 'wired' so they can truly get 'unwired.
The major challenge for WIMCO, however, is providing a level of service expected by its clients. On a daily basis we deal with people who have a lot of money and little time to waste. They do not have time to research
and plan a vacation and they expect to work with someone who can provide the right answers quickly. Most of all, once they've decided to spend what is a large amount of money on a vacation, they do not expect to have to deal with details or little problems. They expect everything to work, Warburton said.
WIMCO responds to these expectations by doing all the work. In addition to arranging the rental, the company arranges airport transfers, provides sightseeing itineraries, makes dinner reservations at sought-after
restaurants, stocks the refrigerator with the client's personal favorites, secures nannies and other help, even makes sure the right electrical adaptors are in place.
To succeed in this business, you have to listen carefully and have the capability to respond. While historically we know that there is more interest in Europe than the Caribbean in, for example, July and August, we're not beholden to any destination or villa -- only to our client. It's in our best interest to make the fit as perfect as possible for the client,
Warburton said. One consequence of WIMCO's diligence is the company's repeat client factor of #XX percent. It shows that our listening pays off.
Warburton recommends that vacationers looking for luxury villa rentals think ahead. With more and more people moving towards rentals of private residences and away from luxury hotels, the 'shopping and tire kicking'
should begin in the fall for next summer's Mediterranean and Italian villas, for example. There's usually a flurry of activity in November with earnest bookings between February and April for the upcoming summer. But Italy has become so popular that booking up to a year out to secure the villa of choice is not a bad idea.
Because seeing is believing, WIMCO recently enhanced its service with a $XXX website that is designed to guide the client through the entire booking process. First helping with selecting a prime destination in the Caribbean
or in Europe, it then leads the user through examining and selecting the perfect individual choice, with information on pricing, room-by-room descriptions and a range of photos on each villa. Database driven, the
dynamic website is constantly updated.
In addition to villa rentals, WIMCO represents distinctive hotels and resorts in Europe, the U.K., Ireland and the Caribbean. For further information, write WIMCO, P.O. Box 1461, Newport, RI 02840; Tel:
401-849-8012, Fax: 401-847-6290, Email: wimco.com. Or visit the websites at www.wimcovillas.com or www.wimcohotels.com.
Logos, product and company names mentioned are the property of their respective owners.