In focus: private home rentals

Childhood holidays saw my parents loading my siblings and me into the car and driving to France through the night. We’d pitch up, bleary-eyed, at a small gîte, where we’d spend two blissful weeks cooking barbecues on the terrace, splashing about in lakes, and enjoying overly competitive ping pong tournaments and swimming races in the pool. 

Private home rentals have come a long way since then. From castles to cottages, posh penthouses and vast villas, this simple, DIY holiday model has evolved into a thriving luxury market, complete with concierge services, destination management companies, private chefs and in-house spa treatments, with staff to source sold-out tickets and stock the fridge before you’ve arrived.

“Nowadays, it’s not like you book and then you’re on your own. You can get the 24-hour room service and concierge of a hotel but obviously much more private,” says Richard Frampton of independent agency Hurlingham Travel, who says he’s seen a spike in interest for this type of accommodation among his high-net-worth pool of clients. Across the industry, others are reporting the same: A&K Villas has seen a 12% increase in online villa enquiries year on year; Simpson Travel says villa bookings are up; and dedicated private home rental companies like Onefinestay, Luxury Retreats (a trade-friendly arm of private home powerhouse Airbnb) and Oliver’s Travels are also enjoying roaring trade.

Rapid growth

The latter, founded as Simply Chateau in 2003 by Oliver Bell and Ravi Sabharwal, has had a stellar year, with most of its regions growing at more than 70%. A partnership with Marriott International has furthered its reach, and the company was recognised by The Sunday Times as one of Britain’s 100 private companies with the fastest-growing sales of 2019.

Onefinestay has established itself as a staple of the private home rental sector. Launched 10 years ago with a single destination (London), today the company – snapped up by Accor in 2016 – offers 5,000 properties across four continents. “Short-term rentals have gone from alternative accommodation into the mainstream,” says Lavina Liyanage, chief markets officer for the company’s City Collection. “Accor invested in the private rental market because demand for this unique experience was increasing.”

Privacy premium

Privacy and exclusivity continue to be big drivers for this type of accommodation among affluent or high-profile clients. Large groups of friends enjoy the freedom to make noise, while for time-poor families, the flexibility and home-from-home nature fits well.

The desire for experiential travel and one-of-a-kind holidays has also prompted travellers to pick private homes over large hotels, with properties often becoming more alluring than the destination itself. “Before, villas were very much about the cultural experience – you’d get people who specifically wanted to go to explore an area,” says Philip Leighton, head of villas at A&K Villas. “I find for a lot of people now, it’s [more about] the property itself – the architecture, the design, the facilities. The house is becoming the wow factor of the holiday.”

Clients are indeed spoilt for choice. Oliver’s Travels’ standout properties include a 900-acre private island in the Cyclades, Greece, and a château in France set within the ruins of a medieval castle. Onefinestay, meanwhile, offers a Park Avenue mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a chic Beverly Hills home in Los Angeles owned by a film director.

“Enquiries can be really obscure,” adds Frampton, who has even arranged for one of his clients to take over a whole village just outside Bucharest in Romania.

Destinations such as France and Spain continue to lend themselves well to private home rental holidays, with Simpson Travel expanding its French portfolio to include the Aquitaine region.

All things considered, the future looks rosy for the private home rental market. And there’s never been a more crucial time to tap into it. As Frampton says: “With the rise of Airbnb, and a lot of people outside of the industry booking that sort of accommodation themselves, the travel industry has to catch up to not lose out on that part of the market.”

Ask the expert

Private home rentals are great for a range of clients but especially for multigenerational bookings. A&K Villas’ Philip Leighton says the operator has seen particular growth in bookings by grandparents, with this demographic having the income to book special properties for their children and grandchildren. Rob Kenton, managing director of Triangle Travel, adds: “Larger villas with annexes, home cinemas or games rooms are perfect for these clients. They want a home away from home – but better than home!”

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