Travel clubs have seen an uptick in their popularity amidst the pandemic with members looking to stay in private residences (Getty Images/amriphoto)
“Would you like to have dinner in the villa prepared for your family on the night of your arrival in Tuscany?” the email asks. It inquires what groceries and drinks I’d like the fridge and bar stocked with—everything from veal chops and mortadella to Chianti and vermouth—and tells me of options for in-villa massages, tours of local hilltop villages, truffle-hunting adventures and just about any other request I might have. My itinerary from soup to nuts was arranged in the weeks before I arrived by my personal “ambassador.” It’s one of the perks, I’m told, that I would regularly enjoy if I ponied up to be a private member of the travel club Exclusive Resorts.
Travel clubs have been around for decades, but recent events have seen their popularity rise during a time when the travel industry at large struggled. “There’s definitely been a COVID tailwind throughout the industry,” says Exclusive Resorts’ CEO, James Henderson. “People who were used to staying in hotels were suddenly questioning whether they wanted to be in shared spaces and dining rooms.” At the private properties on his firm’s roster, he says, guests can experience a “fabulous vacation” without leaving their villa and never have to encounter another traveller, if that’s what they want.
With 400 residences and experiences in more than 75 destinations, Exclusive Resorts is one of the biggest such clubs. They’ve just had their best year in more than a decade; they expect a 15 per cent increase in bookings in 2022 over 2021 and a five per cent increase in bookings compared to 2019, up more than 100 per cent versus the previous year.
But the price of privacy and white-glove service is steep. Memberships start at $175,000 for a 10-year plan or $275,000 for the 30-year. Most families opt to use their memberships between 15 and 30 nights per year, at $1,465 a day. Despite the costs, the club is seeing growth among families, younger families in particular, with more than 70 per cent of new members fitting into that demographic. The next biggest segment is recent empty nesters who have children in college and in their 20s.
The type of growth Exclusive Resorts is seeing is happening across the travel-club space. Inspirato was founded as a luxury private travel club in 2010. It launched Inspirato Pass, a subscription travel service, in 2019, which offers access to more than a million trips to 100-plus destinations. The $600-per-month level gives guests access to members-only rates during select travel dates, while the $2,500-per-month (plus a $2,500 enrolment fee) Inspirato Pass offers pre-selected dates with no nightly rates, taxes or fees. Inspirato’s properties range from luxury vacation homes to five-star resorts and boutique hotels, and all come with dedicated staff on-site. The company’s most recent financial filing shows they increased their number of paying subscribers by 12 per cent.
Sean O’Neill, senior hospitality editor at the travel industry news site Skift attributes travel subscription growth, at least in part, to exposure. “Consumers have become used to having subscriptions for all sorts of services,” he says in reference to the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peloton and Instacart. “Since the pandemic especially, there’s been a lot more familiarity with subscriptions for some of the older demographic that have the discretionary income.”
On the business side, he points out, “a lot of travel businesses are seeing the success of the subscription model in other verticals, like the Netflix’s of the world. It costs travel companies a lot of money to acquire and retain customers, so creating an ongoing relationship is something that’s very appealing.” Not to mention it’s a model where the revenue comes in upfront.
Some of the biggest hospitality loyalty programs—including IHG Rewards Club and Starwood Preferred Guest—derive fully half of their income from repeat customers. That’s why there are now several travel companies dipping their toes into the subscription-based pool. There are private communities of women travellers like The El Camino Travel Clubhouse, which offers members trips designed by travel experts. And there are companies like Regenerative Travel that, in return for a membership, provides a $99 credit towards booking a stay at the company’s collection of hotels and resorts. Regenerative Travel aims to have a positive environmental and social impact on destinations and the people who live there. Travel + Leisure Group, a business line from the media brand Travel + Leisure Co. launched its own travel subscription service last year to capitalize on contacts in the industry and offer curated itineraries for their members.
Despite the oft-hefty price tag, O’Neill cites the convenience such services offer as a key lure for consumers. He also believes the trend harkens back to the more traditional vacation club concept: time shares or vacation ownership programs. “If you know you’re going to save for a travel vacation anyway, this gives you a sort of routine budget for putting away that money,” he explains. “It also opens you up, unlike owning a condo, to more options.”
Find out if the subscription service model is here to stay, know what to watch out for with Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) options and read about considerations for working remotely in another jurisdiction.