Villas: Jamaica's hidden niche

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NEW YORK -- Villa rentals have a low profile on an island known for lively inclusive resorts. However, villas can prove appropriate for certain clients -- and lucrative for agents.

Although Jamaica's villas cannot match inclusive resorts in bang-for-the-buck value and mass-market appeal, "they are a niche that could be explored and expanded," said Sandra Lewis, owner of Travel with Sande, a Jamaica-specialist agency in Silver Spring, Md.

Lewis estimated that villa rentals represent only 5% of her Jamaica sales, with more than 90% of her clients opting for inclusives. "A villa is a tough sell, and an agent must really qualify the client as a suitable villa client," she said.

For example, clients must be able to afford it. One of Lewis' favorite properties, Hummingbird Hill in Runaway Bay, a five-bedroom, "exclusive house on a hill," is listed on the Jamaica Association of Villas and Apartments (Java) Web site at $3,740 per week in the summer and $4,550 in winter.

Client expectations will be understandably high at such price levels, Lewis said.

Agents unfamiliar with the market can turn to an expert intermediary, such as Jamaica Villas by Linda Smith in Cabin John, Md., which recently added a calculator feature to its Web site, at www.jamaicavillas.com.

The tool provides an accurate estimate of the per-person cost for a villa vacation that many people, including agents, mistakenly write off as out of reach, said Smith.

"I don't think many agents know how to book villas or realize that their clients can afford them," she said. "Once an agent books with us, they're hooked, and they get the same compliments from their clients as we do."

Lewis said that working with a company such as Jamaica Villas, which pays 10% commission, "is great, but an agent should also be familiar with the property and its location, accessibility and staff to be able to match the right product with the right client."

Arthur Mehmel, president of TourScan in Darien, Conn., described his typical villa clients as either a family or two to three couples, some of whom are serious golfers. Mehmel said he favors villas that are part of resorts for the on-site benefits for nongolfing spouses or family members.

"For almost everyone seeking a Jamaican villa experience, we recommend units that are part of larger resorts, such as the villas at Tryall, Round Hill or Half Moon Club," he said.

Clients who need a lot of space are usually happy at a condominium-style property, such as White Sands in Negril or Goblin Hill Villas in Port Antonio, Mehmel said. "These resorts participate in [tour operator] package deals and are very affordable, even in winter," he said.

Both properties also are listed on the Java Web site. Java represents 34% of Jamaica's room inventory, according to Vana Taylor, chairman.

Descriptions of member properties include the number of bedrooms, air-conditioned bedrooms and bathrooms as well as photos and weekly rates in winter and summer. Commission is 10%.

For more information, contact Java at (800) VILLAS-6, e-mail [email protected] or visit the Web site.

To contact Jamaica Villas by Linda Smith, call (301) 229-4300, e-mail [email protected] or visit the firm's Web site.

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