Demand for luxury vacation rentals has never been higher, and for travel advisors hoping to book their high-end clients into private accommodations, time is of the essence.
"As people have started getting vaccinated, they've started getting antsy and are going back to their travel advisors," said Steve Lassman, vice president of villa product and agency relations for luxury villa rental group Villas of Distinction. "And things have just rocketed. Because there's this pent-up demand, there is definitely going to come a point where there's going to be compression in available inventory. And we're seeing some of that starting to happen now."
According to Lassman, private rentals have been in particularly short supply across select markets in the U.S., with Villas of Distinction recently ramping up its presence in destinations like Montana, Utah, Colorado, California, Florida and the Carolinas to keep up with demand. Other hot private rental markets for the company include Mexico and Caribbean destinations such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos, among others.
And although Villas of Distinction has been fielding plenty of last-minute booking requests, with some travelers planning as little as two days in advance, the company is simultaneously seeing booking activity happen further out.
"Pre-pandemic, the high-end client would maybe think about booking Christmas or New Year's earlier than other clients, and then right around Labor Day, we'd see a spike," said Lassman. "Fast forward to now, and I've never seen demand for Christmas and New Year's like we're currently seeing. By the end of May or June, we're going to be at a point where if you haven't booked Christmas or New Year's yet, there won't be much left. Inventories are getting very, very tight."
A bedroom at a Villas of Distinction property in Turks and Caicos. Photo Credit: Villas of Distinction
In lockstep with shrinking availability, rates for private rentals are surging, said Eric Hrubant, president of CIRE Travel. He cited higher-than-normal prices in markets including Maine, Montana and the Berkshires, among others.
"The pricing is crazy, because the level of interest is so high," said Hrubant. "If you're on the phone with a client and they have the perception that because of Covid everything is distressed inventory, they're going to have a rude awakening. Rentals are now more expensive than previously."
Although some clients may suffer sticker shock, Hrubant said that many others are increasingly willing to trade up to a luxury vacation rental experience, with high-end homes and villas no longer considered solely an option for the ultrawealthy.
"The very wealthy, and especially families, would always want to do rentals," Hrubant said. "But there's certainly a breed of traveler who usually travels business class and stays in a hotel suite, and the next step for them is exploring a private accommodation. It's a natural progression, and because so many of our clients haven't traveled recently because of Covid, they're fine with paying more."
Hrubant emphasized that clients now have to move more quickly than ever to land the vacation rental of their dreams. While CIRE Travel has historically been able to put private rental bookings on hold for around a week without payment, giving clients time to weigh their options, that window has been whittled down in some cases to just 24 hours.
A Villas of Distinction home in California. Photo Credit: Villas of Distinction
Anne Scully, partner of advisor development at Embark Beyond, said during a mid-April episode of "The Folo by Travel Weekly" podcast that private accommodations have proven so popular for large family groups that finding the right match has been challenging.
"We're seeing so many families, [some with as many as] 20 people, 30 people," Scully said. "And we're just trying to find great places for them, [but] it's hard to."
Scully added that clients are particularly interested in villa products that benefit from proximity and access to the resources of an established hotel or resort.
"They want all the amenities from the hotel, but they want their own pool, they want their own butler, they don't really want to see anybody else," said Scully. "But they want to know that they have the protection of that great brand."
The company's CEO discusses recent booking trends, footprint expansion and why travel advisors are accounting for a growing share of business.
Looking ahead, Bobby Gibson, CEO of Accor-owned luxury home and villa rental brand Onefinestay, predicts that demand for private accommodations will remain elevated throughout the remainder of the year.
"I'm not sure that we're going to have a traditional low season in places like the Caribbean, for example," said Gibson. "We're starting to see the consumer get engaged and book in low times just because they're so ready to get back out there."
According to Lassman, thriving private accommodation demand is helping propel Villas of Distinction toward a year of record growth.
"We're not comparing [our performance this year] against last year, but comparing against 2019, which was one of the best years our company ever had," said Lassman. "And we're currently miles ahead of 2019. We brought back every single employee who was furloughed. We have hired a half a dozen new people. And we are interviewing this week, because we just can't keep up with the demand."