High-end vacation rentals are on the rebound

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A Onefinestay property in New York.

As luxury travelers dip their toes back into travel post-pandemic, companies specializing in high-end home and villa vacation rentals are reporting early signs of recovery.

“What we’ve seen over the past five weeks is that demand is returning,” said Willie Fernandez, vice president and general manager at luxury villa provider Villas of Distinction, which has a global inventory of about 2,700 privately owned properties. “Domestic travel in the U.S. in particular is way up. And we’re seeing travelers coming to us and requesting destinations you wouldn’t typically picture going for a luxury villa vacation.”

While traditional beach destinations remain in high demand, domestic inland markets such as Tennessee, Nevada and Montana are also proving popular among Villas of Distinction clientele. 

“The average guest nowadays is looking for a vacation that they’re able to travel to within six to eight hours by car,” Fernandez said. 

Luxury vacation rental company Onefinestay, part of the Accor portfolio, is reporting a similar uptick in activity in recent weeks, notably in searches for homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. The site is also seeing a trend toward longer stays, with the average booking  now at about 14 days, versus seven to 10 days prior to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Onefinestay’s portfolio comprises about 5,000 homes and villas worldwide, with about 30% of its inventory in cities and 70% in more traditional resort markets. 

“For some months we saw nothing, and now we’re seeing that people are actively looking to book,” said Amanda Dyjecinski, Onefinestay’s chief brand and marketing officer. “And part of that demand is coming [because], with what we offer, it’s easier to stay away from lots of people. Many of our homes have features like swimming pools, tennis courts and other activities, and we offer add-on services to bring things like the gym, spa or chef to you.”

Additionally, travel advisors are accounting for an increasing share of Onefinestay’s business.

“Pre-Covid, around 20% of our bookings were through travel partners, but [post-Covid] that share has reached up to 50%,” Dyjecinski said. “Now that people feel that travel is somewhat riskier, things are more complicated and people are less inclined to just search on a platform and book something.”

Villas of Distinction’s Fernandez has witnessed a similar trend, with the travel advisor channel driving the company’s “biggest increase in demand.”

“With everything happening, I think the travel advisor is going to be more critical than ever before,” Fernandez said. “Travelers are going to want to shift a lot of the risk of doing it themselves and rely on an expert who is able to rebook them, get refunds or help them figure out alternate plans and destinations if needed.”

In May, Villas of Distinction increased its bonus commission for advisors from a maximum of $750 to as much as $1,500. It also implemented a new policy wherein clients who reach out to book direct are instead connected with a travel specialist in their area. 

Meanwhile, in the wake of Covid-19, both Onefinestay and Villas of Distinction have put a renewed emphasis on their brand commitments to cleanliness and safety standards. 

Both companies’ business models revolve around promising fully vetted and inspected accommodations with on-the-ground staff and 24/7 concierge services.

“If you go on Airbnb or Vrbo, they have millions of properties,” Fernandez said. “But it just isn’t possible for any of those sites to properly inspect homes and communicate with homeowners to ensure the safety and well-being of their guests.”

While home and villa demand is likely to remain largely domestic-focused through the end of 2020, Fernandez expects to see a solid rebound for European and other international bookings going into 2021 and 2022.

Likewise, Onefinestay’s Dyjecinski said she remains confident that as borders reopen and flights resume, demand for European travel will bounce back. The company is moving forward with a foray into the south of France, though its original plans to have about 250 new villas in the destination online by April have been delayed.

Onefinestay has 40 new villas active for booking in St. Tropez and aims to send personnel into Cannes and the rest of Provence to vet additional villas shortly. 

“We hope to get those villas up and operational on our site before the end of the year, because we know that going into the new year will be a key booking period,” Dyjecinski said.

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