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Eliminating the Guest Work

Bruce Wallin

In the year and a half since Steve Berkowitz became a member of Quintess, the 47-year-old Micro­soft executive has traveled with his family to an estate in Napa Valley, taken his college roommates to a ski chalet in Aspen, and visited a villa in Los Cabos, Mexico, with his wife and friends. But it was a mishap on a trip to Quintess’ home in Costa Rica that validated his decision to join the Boulder, Colo.–based club. “My brother was with us, and his car was hit by a bus,” recalls Berkowitz, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with his wife and two teenage children. “The Quintess concierge took care of everything, and her husband—who wasn’t even part of [Quintess]—brought us over to the police station and filled out all the reports. They took a stressful situation and made it not stressful.”

For Berkowitz, his family’s experience in Costa Rica underscored the primary value of his membership with Quintess, one of at least two dozen destination clubs that have opened in the United States in the past eight years. Pioneered as a business by such companies as Tanner & Haley (formerly Abercrombie & Kent Destination Clubs) and Exclusive Resorts, destination clubs purport to combine the best aspects of a resort with those of a vacation residence—minus the inconveniences of second-home ownership. Members of the clubs pay initial deposits, which can range from nearly $200,000 to more than $1 million, plus annual dues for the rights to stay in accommodations that may include a cliff-top home on St. Thomas, an apartment in Paris, or a Cape Cod–style mansion on a golf course in South Carolina. At each location, staff provide basic (cleaning, maintenance) and not-so-basic (personal shopping, filing police reports after a bus crash) services and amenities. “The groceries are always in the house when we get there; the tee times are planned,” says Berkowitz. “Everything is taken care of.”

Exclusive Resorts, the largest destination club, operates nearly 300 residences in 35 locations, of which Jeff and Maria Spears estimate they have visited 15 since they joined the Denver-based company in 2004. Jeff, 44, is an investment adviser who says that his busy schedule discouraged him from traveling—and prevented him from spending quality time with his wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 11—until he committed a few-hundred-thousand dollars to the club. “There’s no way I could have rationalized going on vacation all the time,” the San Francisco native says while lounging by a pool at the Pauoa Beach Club on Hawaii’s Big Island, where Exclusive Resorts owns 20 homes. “But when you’ve spent the money, it’s a little different.” Maria, 41, who on this morning plans to play tennis before spending the afternoon on the beach with Jeff and their daughters, agrees: “It’s forcing us to travel,” she says. “It’s forced us to slow down, relax, be tolerant of each other’s habits, and just enjoy exploring these different places together.”

The Spearses’ charter membership allows them to stay 60 nights per year in Exclusive Resorts’ homes (new members at the club’s Elite level receive 45 nights). In 2005, they used 58 of their allotted evenings—a total, Maria says, that is three times the amount of travel they did prior to joining.

Steven Gregory, a 51-year-old real estate investor and developer from Las Vegas, became a member of Leading Residences of the World last December, and already he credits the Dallas-based enterprise with changing his vacation habits. “I’ve got the dough to travel pretty much wherever I want to, whenever I want to,” says Gregory, who estimates that accommodations comparable to the club’s homes would cost him $2,500 per night to rent. “But knowing that it’s available, I’ve got a week off, and the club allows me to go where I want to, when I want to, I can be a little more spontaneous.”

Since joining, Gregory and his wife have visited Leading Residences’ home in Los Cabos five times. The Spearses’ vacations, much like those of Quintess member Berkowitz, have included family and friends. “I’ll do girls’ trips, he’ll do guys’ golf trips, we do lots of trips where we host another family,” says Maria, who recently booked a night in Exclusive Resorts’ suite at the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco for their older daughter’s birthday. The family regularly takes advantage of the club’s concierge services, as well as the private chefs that Exclusive Resorts makes available at every location. “I didn’t want to join, because I liked cushy hotel service,” Maria concedes. “But I have been blown away at how it really is the amenities of a big hotel with the privacy of your own home.”

According to the Spearses, the service at Exclusive Resorts’ properties has not always been as smooth as it is today. During their first trip to Los Cabos two years ago, the family encountered staff who were friendly, but who lacked precision and polish. “They were working out the kinks,” says Jeff. “Now it’s just like clockwork.”

Benjamin Addoms, a cofounder and managing partner of Quintess, says that his club’s members also will notice incremental improvements in service. “Every time somebody travels, we learn more about them,” he explains. “When you’ve gone with us once, you don’t have to tell us again that your kids are allergic to gluten.”

At Leading Residences’ townhouse in Perthshire, Scotland, Sheila Perera is just beginning to learn the preferences of two of her first guests. Perera is manager of Glenmor, a collection of new vacation homes a short walk from the golf courses, falconry school, equestrian center, and main lodge at the 850-acre Gleneagles resort. She demonstrates how to use the gas fireplace, home entertainment system, and automated lights and air-conditioning as she leads a tour of the Leading Residences unit, which is modest by industry standards. Three bedrooms with en suite baths, as well as a separate bathroom with a deep soaking tub, compose the downstairs, while on the upper level, a living room with vaulted ceilings opens to a balcony on one side and a dining room/kitchen on the other.

Perera has scheduled tee times, dinner reservations—even a falconry class and a tour of a local distillery—and she suggests completing the bakery form to ensure that morning breads and pastries suit her guests’ tastes. She has stocked the “American-style” refrigerator (side-by-side doors) with smoked back bacon and eggs, and placed on the black marble counters a box of Scott’s Porridge Oats, a bottle of Famous Grouse, and a bag of chicken-flavored potato chips.

The kitchen’s contents, as well as the home’s 1,800-square-foot size, are appropriate for their surroundings. A sprawling Mediterranean-style villa—such as the 5,800-square-foot home Leading Residences owns in Los Cabos—would appear out of place in the Perthshire countryside, as would bowls of chips and salsa and Coronas on ice.

Although Balinese in style, the Spearses’ home in Hawaii blends well with the beaches and black lava rocks of the Big Island. It is one of eight nearly identical, side-by-side residences in a private community at the Mauna Lani Resort. Each of the homes, all of which Exclusive Resorts owns, comprises a collection of pavilions that house three bedrooms with baths, a living/dining area, a kitchen, and a main bathroom. Straight through the sliding doors of the living room, a lawn and kidney-shaped pool separate the bedroom buildings. Past the bedrooms, on a grassy ledge, is a hot tub that overlooks the Mauna Lani’s North golf course.

The similarity between the homes is part of Exclusive Resorts’ strategy. The company frequently purchases multiple residences in vacation-home developments, and the properties often share identical floor plans. And while the designs vary significantly from one location to another, all Exclusive Resorts homes—whether in London or Los Cabos—are consistent in the amenities they offer. “I have my Aveda products in the bathroom, I have my washer and dryer, and I have all the same high-end appliances that I would have in my kitchen at home,” says Maria Spears. “I know what dishes and pans and place mats are there, so if I want to cook, I know exactly what I’m working with.”

For Jeff, the uniformity of features at the homes provides a sense of ownership. “You get comfortable over time,” he says. “After the fifth or sixth trip, it starts to feel more like yours.”

Most of Exclusive Resorts’ competitors take a like-minded approach to services and amenities, attempting to maintain consistent quality throughout their properties. But several clubs, including the three owned by Tanner & Haley, stray from the industry leader’s home-selection strategy. “There are two different kinds of high-end resort real estate,” says Tanner & Haley founder Rob McGrath, generally considered the originator of the destination club concept. “One grouping would be called sort of a master-planned development, where you might have 30 or 40 identical units together in one little compound. The other kind of development is individual private homes. There are benefits to both, but I would say that most of the smaller destination clubs have chosen the approach that we have taken, which is to go with an individual private home on its own lot.” 

Quintess, which has 14 homes and approximately 100 members, follows a similar strategy. “We’re geared toward people who want to travel with a larger group or who simply have large families,” says Addoms. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we buy bigger homes, but we buy more freestanding homes and we try to buy them in better locations.”

Destination clubs also take different approaches to members’ allotted time in the homes. Exclusive Resorts sells three levels of membership, with the two more-expensive programs offering additional nights and preferred access during holiday breaks. Tanner & Haley and Leading Residences provide all members equal access throughout the year, and the latter club offers unlimited nights in its homes (with restrictions on the number of reservations a member can have at any given time).

One criticism of Exclusive Resorts is that, because of the club’s large number of members, it can be difficult to reserve a home during peak periods. Michael Beindorff, the company’s chief operating officer, acknowledges that competition over the holidays is stiff. “Over spring break, you can bet that most of the mountain homes and most of the beach homes are booked, and booked well in advance,” he says. “But on average, our occupancy is running around 70 percent.”
 
The Spearses, for one, have not encountered availability issues. “If you’re flexible, you can always find some place to go,” says Jeff. “But if you say, ‘I want to go to Hawaii in five days,’ that might be tough.”

Perhaps to address concerns of potential customers, Exclusive Resorts has added to its web site a tool that allows nonmembers to check availability of the club’s homes. A recent search for a reservation during the period from mid-March to mid-April 2007 (when most schools’ spring breaks fall) showed 262 available weeks in 27 locations, including the Big Island and Jackson Hole, Wyo. A search for three nights over a weekend within a 90-day window showed 502 open slots in 27 locations.

Exclusive Resorts surveys its members annually and after each trip for general feedback on their experiences, but also to determine where to build or acquire its next homes. “What we’ve watched over the last two years, is that they listen to their customers,” says Jeff. “If they start to notice that Costa Rica is full every night and there’s no availability, they go and buy more.” Indeed, Exclusive Resorts’ three residences in Costa Rica have been in high demand, so by next summer, the company plans to have 19 additional homes in the country.

In Jeff’s opinion, any inconveniences of the reservation process pale in comparison to the headaches of owning a second home. “We have friends who have second homes, and we listen to them bitch about, ‘This is broken’ and ‘We always have to go back to this one place and we’re sick of it,’ ” he says.

Berkowitz, who considered purchasing a second home before joining Quintess, also believes he chose the better option. “I realized that I don’t like to upkeep a house and that the cost of that would actually be more than this program,” he says. “The way the houses are set up—the functionality, the concierge, all that stuff—it gave me a diversity that I never would’ve gotten from owning my own home.”

The Spearses and Berkowitz agree on at least one other benefit to their memberships: When traveling in Central America, it is comforting to have a concierge. “We went zip lining in Costa Rica, and I wasn’t worried about taking my kids, because I knew Exclusive Resorts had checked out the safety,” says Maria. “I think I would have been very apprehensive doing some of the activities that we’ve taken the kids on if it were not for the concierge saying, ‘I’ve done this. I would definitely do this one with your children.’ Their suggestions and their endorsement, it means a lot. You can’t put a dollar figure on that.”

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Photo by Janos Grapow
Photo by Jeff Cricco