One of the world's most exclusive retreats is becoming a little more accessible.
In response to the same pinch being felt by luxury hoteliers all over the world, Richard Branson's Virgin Limited Edition collection is expanding the number of weeks the British mogul's private Necker Island home is open for individual room reservations.
Some of Branson's five other properties in far-flung locales such as South Africa and Morocco are also offering more individual bookings or value-added specials such as extra nights free to lure high-end travelers. In boom times, the properties were often booked in full by groups almost a year in advance.
"We all know that the market has changed dramatically," said Jon Brown, managing director of the collection. "People are not booking as far in advance. We need to react, give people options."
Private island discount
Necker Island, Branson's private islet in the British Virgin Islands, is the most exclusive and unusual property in the Virgin collection. It normally rents for about $51,000 a night, which covers all the costs of up to 28 guests.
Most years, it is open for just two so-called "celebration weeks," when individuals, couples or small groups can rent rooms hotel-style. This year, the island is offering six of those weeks, the first at the end of May. Three of those are "family weeks," when children are welcome.
The schedule is as follows: From May 30 (family week), for three, four or seven nights; Sept. 26, for seven nights; Oct. 3, seven nights; Oct. 10, seven nights; and Oct. 17 (family week), for three, four or seven nights. During the week of July 15, families can stay an extra night when they book stays of three or seven nights.
Brown said the cost per room, per couple will run about $25,000 for a week of all-inclusive, "barefoot luxury."
"This is different because you are in someone's house," he said. "There are no white jackets, no name badges. You get the feeling you are in somebody's house being looked after.
"It's highly likely that if you are one of a group of 28 staying there, most of the team will know your name."
It's that personal service, according to Brown, that makes the Virgin collection different.
"That's the key differential thing that we have, a little bit more soul than resorts," he said. "That's how we go about it: We try to second-guess how people want things, [which is] a lot more than listening to them.
"We ask for feedback, [and] we get a lot," Brown added. "We look at what every guest is saying, and we really give it some thought."
The lay of the island
Necker Island comprises a 14-bedroom great house and several Balinese-style houses. The $25,000 rate includes all food and drink as well as sporting activities, such as sailing, scuba diving, tennis and kitesurfing. The only things that cost extra are spa services.
"You don't get a standard minibar [and] in-house movies [but] you are in a guest bedroom and you get the usual [hotel-style] amenities that you need," said Brown.
"But it's a not a typical hotel bedroom, and you really don't want it to feel like that," he added. "If you want a TV in there, we'll put one in there. But it's barefoot luxury; it's like staying on a desert island."
Virgin Limited Edition's other properties include the Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa; Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco; the Lodge in Verbier, Switzerland; the Roof Gardens and Babylon Restaurant in London; and Sa Terra Rotja in Mallorca, Spain.
The 100-foot catamaran Necker Belle will be joining the collection in late 2009, and officials said they expect to announce two new resort properties later in the year.
For more, see www.virginlimitededition.com.