I checked in on the Caribbean villa market about a year ago in a conversation with Steve Lassman, vice president of Villas of Distinction, a division of World Travel Holdings (No. 17 on Travel Weekly's 2019 Power List).
"How's the villa market doing?" I asked him then.
"Great," he answered.
I asked that same question during a March 16 interview with both Lassman and Willie Fernandez, Villas of Distinction's vice president and general manager.
What a difference a year makes.
Until the onslaught of the coronavirus, "we were doing great, bookings were strong and the year was a bright one," Lassman said. "But the bottom fell out when the stock market started to suffer, and that's when we began to feel the impact."
Although that impact has resulted in villa cancellations, "we have been able to move 90% to 95% of our customers' bookings to future arrivals," Fernandez said. "That's what they are asking for now.
"Some customers do request refunds, and we work that on a case-by-case basis," he said. "The majority want to move their current bookings to another date, some as far out as 2021."
New business is coming in, as are inquiries and requests for rate quotes, according to Lassman. Some clients, already ensconced in their villas, have extended their stays, not wanting to return to areas where the virus is circulating.
"Most of our clients are luxury travelers who have the ability to move their travel plans as well as travel by private jet," he said.
In light of the current health crisis, the company tweaked its Peace of Mind Policy by updating travel policies to ensure that vacation plans and investments are protected, adapting ease-of-rebooking procedures, relaxing several of the payment terms and increasing villa cleaning and sanitation procedures.
Travel policies, for example, now permit cancellations up to 28 days prior to arrival, and customers' deposits and payments are placed in escrow accounts, making reimbursements and refunds easier and faster. In addition, final payment terms have been relaxed and are now permitted 45 to 60 days prior to arrival instead of the previous 90-day requirement.
"Now through March 31, a date that will be extended, we give up to $750 in bonus commissions to our travel advisors for all 2020 and 2021 bookings," Lassman said.
The company's global portfolio tops 2,650 villas, with more than 1,230 properties in the Caribbean, followed by Italy, the second largest market.
The most popular Caribbean destinations currently are Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados and St. Lucia, with the average villa a five-bedroom property, according to Fernandez.
"One of the primary reasons right now that travelers choose a villa stay is that they can bring their own family and friends with them and they are not rubbing elbows with strangers in a hotel pool or restaurant, which lessens concerns over catching the virus or the danger of being quarantined when they arrive home," he said. The villas are deep cleaned after each group of guests departs, and the fully staffed villas are cleaned daily.
Every villa undergoes a rigorous inspection process by Lassman, Fernandez or another member of the team before being accepted into the collection. "Travel advisors have confidence in our product line because they know what it takes to gain entry and to maintain that listing," Lassman said.
Both men voiced optimism regarding the future.
"We are a strong company, and we will make it through this," Fernandez said. "We are committed to the travel advisor community, and there will be a lot of pent-up opportunities after this is behind all of us," Fernandez said.
"Demand will be there and we fully anticipate exciting world travels to resume once this crisis is resolved," he said.