Envisage lolling around with a group of close friends in a pavilion surrounded by koi ponds at Mick Jagger’s six-bedroom villa on the Caribbean isle of Mustique or having an impromptu fashion show underneath a cathedral skylight in the over-the-top closet of a seven-bedroom, nine-and-a-half bath, 10,000-square-foot manse in Palm Springs formerly owned by screen legend Elizabeth Taylor.
Or, imagine leaving the chaos of daily life behind while winding along a two-lane country road in Northern California wine country and finding yourself at Dragonsleaf, an 80-acre vineyard estate complete with 150-year-old windmill, hiking trails, and a private lake stocked with trout. Better still, picture celebrating a special anniversary or birthday with fourteen of your nearest and dearest at Villa Andrea, a secluded estate outfitted with a swimming pool, hot tub, indoor/outdoor spa, tennis court, and a screening room with THX surround sound, perched high atop 28 acres of vineyards just outside the charmingly country chic village of Glen Ellen in Sonoma.
While, on the surface, all of the above scenarios may appear to be solely the province of celebrities and savvy socialites, they are in fact anything but. Each of the aforementioned travel experiences is well within the reach of many LGBT travelers who, in increasing numbers, are eschewing cookie-cutter hotels and discovering the art of creating their own resorts by renting private homes in gay-friendly destinations around the world.
Once upon a time, the only avenues for LGBT travelers to experience a sense of complete freedom on holiday centered around gay-specific cruises, resorts, hotels, or circuit parties, but nowadays that paradigm is shifting as a result of the burgeoning vacation rental market, which now offers a viable alternative for travelers who crave more intimate, bespoke escapes tailored to their specific interests and needs. Many are finally making the connection that renting a private home, villa, or apartment can be a more satisfying way to experience a destination while living like a local.
“We have a view that many destinations, particularly food and wine destinations, are best experienced from a private home,” says Liza Graves, co-founder, COO, and Head of Marketing for BeautifulPlaces (www.beautiful-places.com), which represents over thirty luxury villas in Sonoma County and Napa Valley, including Villa Andrea and Dragonsleaf, as well as others in Provence, Tuscany, and Mexico. “It gives travelers the ability to live like a local and really try on the local lifestyle. The amenities that the private homes in the wine country offer, compared to hotels, are incredible. No hotel will ever be built on top of a mountain or in the middle of a vineyard with the different kinds of architecture, spaciousness, unbelievable private swimming pools, gourmet kitchens, and all of those things that are unique and special and give people a sense of place and connection with the wine country.”
Graves’ sentiment is echoed by Kevin Abell, the president of A Season Away(www.aseasonaway.com), which specializes in extended stay luxury villa rentals in France and Italy that range from a former chapel that has been converted into a stunning residence in one of the perched villages of Provence to a Parisian pied-à-terre once owned by a consort of the king of France.
Abell describes the A Season Away experience as being “kind of like a three-legged stool, with only one leg about the property itself.” As for the rest of the overall experience the 20-year travel veteran describes the other two legs of the stool as being “about having a friend in the country helping clients live like a local, and creating wonderful, tailor-made excursions that bring out the best in a region.”
Hotels.com, which surveyed 1,600 consumers, found that despite the fact that a vacation rental’s per room nightly rate is often much less than a traditional hotel, most people assume that vacation rentals are actually a more expensive option. Supporting the idea that vacation rentals are a more economical option isHomeAway.com(www.homeaway.com), which says its research shows that, on average, vacation rentals cost 50% to 80% less per square foot than hotels, even in popular domestic destinations like Orlando and Phoenix.Beyond the heightened awareness of a destination they offer from an experiential point of view, there are also purely economic reasons for choosing a private villa rental over a hotel. Comparatively, private home rentals generally offer more value than a stay at a luxury hotel in the same destination.
In Sonoma for instance, single rooms at the swank Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa start at around $259 a night. Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road, for around $143–$183 per person, per night (depending upon the season), a group of six could rent a three bedroom, 3.5 bath house in the rustic enclave of Kenwood with a saltwater swimming pool, heated spa, and private courtyard set amid oak woodlands with views of the San Francisco Bay. Similarly, renting Elizabeth Taylor’s former home in the noted Las Palmas neighborhood of über gay-friendly Palm Springs costs just $1,000 a night, or $5,500 for a week. With a group of as few as seven occupying the expansive home’s seven bedrooms, that works out to roughly somewhere between $112–$143 per person per night. “Sometimes people think that renting a private villa can be a little more expensive than staying in a hotel,” Graves says. “But a lot of times people don’t add up the total cost of staying in a luxury resort where they’re paying $25 per person for breakfast and there may be resort fees and hidden charges when you go to check out. If a group of eight friends spend $25 [each] for breakfast, that’s a lot of local gourmet food you could buy for $200.”
So how far-reaching is this exciting new type of personal resort that is broadly referred to as a “vacation rental?” Well, like hotels, inns, and lodges, the term “vacation rental” encompasses a wide variety of accommodations.
Although the classic perception of a vacation or villa rental has been of a house or large apartment where multiple guests stay for either short or extended periods of time, the term can also run the gamut from a château rental in the south of France, a loft in Manhattan, a cozy log cabin on a wooded mountaintop in Tennessee, an eight-bedroom villa in Capri, a lodge on a private game resort in Africa, or a private islet off the coast of Maine.
There’s even a fully furnished, two-bedroom condo off Florida’s Key Largo called the Jules Undersea Lodge, which is one of the most unique vacation rentals around. Guests don scuba tanks to emerge in a perfectly dry yet underwater apartment, complete with hot showers, TV, DVD player, stereo, phone, and fully stocked kitchen (A “mer-chef” who cooks you breakfast is optional).
Beyond the cost savings and high-end bells and whistles, the private villa or vacation rental experience offers something of greater import to the LGBT traveler in particular: the ability to connect, commune, and create special memories with friends and family in a safe, private environment free of prying eyes, potentially judgmental stares, or anything of the like.
“People are really into traveling in groups of friends or family nowadays, for special occasions and celebration vacations,” says Rob Kincaid, who owns the rental agency Vacation Palm Springs (www.vacationpalmsprings.com) along with his partner, Palm Springs City Councilman Rick Hutcheson. “About 70% of our clients want to spend more time with their family and extended family, and their vacations are even shorter than before the financial crisis. The change in the economic climate means groups of traveling friends and couples are looking for private yet affordable luxurious environments.”
BeautifulPlaces’ Liza Graves offered perhaps the best explanation of this private rental dynamic. “It’s a more intimate atmosphere where you can be relaxed and feel at home. Most of the guests who stay at our villas are usually groups of friends or family, and the privacy of a private home or villa gives people an opportunity to really connect in ways they might not in a more public setting,” she says. “There’s the opportunity to sit around, have a great glass of wine, and have great conversation without looking over your shoulder to see who’s listening in. If there’s a group of ten people that wants to dance together, they may not feel entirely comfortable in a hotel setting, but in a private home that’s obviously not a problem. You’re in control. The property isn’t in control. You control the property you choose, who’s around you, and the experiences you have there.”
This level of privacy combined with greater economy, freedom of choice, and the sheer fantasy element that can be inherent in luxury vacation rentals, at least in part, helps to explain why this segment of the travel industry has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years.
Rick Fisher, a former Expedia executive who now runs vacation rental trade shows, explains that industry-wide, the number of vacation rental units “is exploding,” but that the “majority of consumers know nothing” about vacation rentals.
HomeAway.com, which touts having the world’s largest collection of vacation rental properties, has estimated this growing segment generates more than $63 billion in revenue annually, or nearly half as much as the hotel industry.
This growth is echoed in the LGBT vacation rental world as well. “Vacation rentals are a big trend of late,” says Rob Kincaid. “Even TripAdvsior.com added vacation rentals to their top navigation bar. We started ten years ago with just six houses, but now we represent more than 200 properties, with roughly half of them gay-owned. It’s a fast-growing market, and about 20% of our clientele is gay and lesbian.”
The once-sleepy vacation rental market really took off with the advent of the Web. By enhancing search features and expanding access, the Internet made rentals less dependent on word of mouth. Now, popular sites like Vacation Rental By Owner (www.VRBO.com) get up to 1.5 million unique visitors a month, while Homeaway.com follows closely behind. As for gay-specific vacation rental sites, hundreds of properties are listed on www.gay-vacationrentals.com,www.gayplaces2rent.com, and www.purpleroofs.com.
The most extensive site is the well-established PurpleRoofs, which mainly lists gay hotels and B&Bs, but also includes vacation rentals worldwide. Their easy-to-use listings conveniently state whether a property is gay- or lesbian-owned or simply gay-friendly, and they often offer discounts when you mention PurpleRoofs when booking. Likewise, though luxury villa rental companies like BeautifulPlaces and A Season Away are not specifically gay-owned, they do represent a number of properties that have gay or lesbian owners and can easily direct guests to those properties should they be interested in renting them.
Despite the obvious attractiveness of vacation rentals and all the amenities, space, and comfort they offer that hotels simply can’t match, many first time vacation or villa renters have fears and misconceptions about being outside the safety net of the hotel experience with which they have become familiar.
“A lot of people are just worried that they’re going to be abandoned,” says Erica Berman, creator, manager, and owner of Haven in Paris (www.haveninparis.com) which represents a collection of luxury flats across the City of Lights. “To reassure them, I always tell them that their greeter will always be around and that they can call us anytime. On top of that I tell [guests] we can organize anything they want. A lot of people think that because they’re not staying in a hotel they can’t get those services, [but] we really can provide [those services],” Berman continues. “I think when they feel like they’re not going to just show up and have a key under the mat, they already feel a lot better.”
Another fear of those who are new to the vacation rental market is that unlike hotels, which have generally consistent standards from city to city and country to country, both the quality and service level of vacation or villa rentals can vary widely, so you need to be clear about what you want before your vacation begins.
“I think the greatest fear is [whether or not] the property is going to be as represented,” BeautifulPlaces’ Liza Graves responds when asked about the concerns most often voiced by new clients. “With the proliferation of rentals on VRBO, the homes are not always as represented. Owners get into this and they’re not in the hospitality business. Pictures could crop out the trailer park next door or disguise the cleanliness of the home and that kind of thing. That’s why we find our clients prefer to work with us because they know that they’re not dealing directly with an owner. We have vetted these properties, we’re in them, we know them, we have 24/7 service so we can get there if something goes wrong.”
To be sure, with most vacation rentals, particularly those found at VRBO.com, you won’t get room service, nightly turn down service, or a front desk, but with many of the higher-end private villa companies you will get concierge service along with all the amenities and more that you might expect from a luxury hotel.
The staff at BeautifulPlaces can arrange everything from maid service, intimate dinners in wine caves, and private chefs who come in daily to prepare gourmet meals, to experiences like culinary classes, in-villa yoga sessions, and a team of massage therapists for small groups. They will even stock the kitchen with requested items prior to arrival and plan entire itineraries including dinner reservations, wine-tasting tours, and a host of other activities. For the LGBT traveler, BeautifulPlaces works closely with Gay Napa Getaways and Sonoma Gaydar, both of which are gay-owned concierge services, to ensure that the needs of their gay and lesbian clientele are met.
Meanwhile, A Season Away provides similar services for its guests along with a team of hosts—former hotel concierges.
By contrast, Haven in Paris company founder and 17-year Paris veteran, Erica Berman, says, “We refer clients to a concierge service. Depending on what the client needs, I refer them to the right person and then that person will take it from there. For very simple things like a dinner reservation or a taxi, we would do it ourselves or the greeter would definitely do it. If the guest wants detailed itineraries, we send them to the right person to do that for them.”
With that level of commitment and the obvious economic advantage of the vacation rental, it’s no wonder then that back in 2007, Brian Sharples, CEO of HomeAway.com, described the vacation rental industry to USA Today as “the ultimate cottage industry” and predicted that travelers five years hence would routinely consider a condo or house instead of a hotel room. With the industry growing rapidly, in spite of the recent economic downturn, it would appear that Sharples’ prediction is quickly coming true.