It was to have been nothing less than a triathlon of leisure, and I its bemedaled champion: 18 holes of golf in Scottsdale, followed by an afternoon of snorkeling in the crystalline lagoons off Cabo San Lucas, and topped off with a morning of perfect skiing in Telluride—all in a single 96-hour stretch. In the week prior to this rigorous stint of relaxation, I had prepared myself mentally not only by getting plenty of sleep, but also by devoting my waking hours to clear visualization of my triumphs—an exercise that my wife rather insensitively characterized as “slacking off.” My physical conditioning consisted of continually swinging an invisible 5-iron, Johnny Carson–style; taking lots of long baths to acquaint my body with the warm tropical waters; and pantomiming—wherever and whenever practical—the final seconds of Jean-Claude Killy’s Alpine skiing triple-crown victory at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. True, friends and family laughed at my exertions. But then, people always laugh at the dreamers.
Alas, fate stepped in. A massive head cold—inflamed sinuses, sore throat, constant sniffling and sneezing, even an episode of partial deafness—struck me just days before the trip, effectively taking me out of commission. Suddenly a four-hour round of golf seemed more trial than treat, and schussing down the frigid slopes was simply out of the question. I might still be able to compete in my triathlon’s low-impact second leg, I told myself, given that snorkeling requires the subject only to float and stay awake; but, with heavy heart, I admitted that, rather than golfing and skiing my way to the Iron Man of Leisure title I so richly deserved, I would be stuck indoors, gazing wistfully out of windows onto the majestic solitude of the Sonoran Desert, the shimmering Sea of Cortés, and the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
Still, my convalescence had its compensations. Imagine a completely private, deluxe sanatorium where your restorative morning bath takes place in a heated infinity pool high atop a seaside promontory; where gourmet breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are prepared-to-order by a private chef and served to you at your outdoor table beneath a rustic palapa; and where “plenty of liquids” translates into margaritas made with fresh-squeezed lime juice, pitchers of which mysteriously appear just when you are most in need.
Such was the regimen at my Cabo San Lucas retreat, just one of the three properties I visited over my jet-ferried, four-day cure. Entering my private villa for the first time, I gazed across a vast, elegant living room out onto a terraced infinity pool that, in turn, perched above the broad expanse of the sea. A pair of women mixed margaritas and mashed avocados for my bowl of “welcome guacamole.” This pair, I was told by Manuela (my personal concierge), would make me whatever I wanted to eat, more or less; indeed, after one poured me a drink, they seemed most eager to discuss my order for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. I strained to think that far ahead. Time had already begun to slow down in that magical way it does in tropical climes, and I found it difficult to concentrate on anything other than what seemed, at the moment, an urgent need to discard most of my clothes and immerse myself in the pool for the remainder of the day.
Just a few hours earlier I had left Scottsdale, where, watching the play of fading light on the surrounding mountains of majestically scenic Troon North, I understood for the first time why invalids have always taken to the desert air: It really does restore the spirit. In 48 hours, I would be in Colorado, ensconced in still another flawlessly appointed four-bedroom residence, this one presiding over the slopes and famous gondola of Telluride. Though each in this series of homes was strikingly different from the others, all had one attribute in common: They are owned and maintained by Denver-based Exclusive Resorts, a company with the singularly ambitious goal of giving its clients the services and amenities of the world’s top hotels in a network of private luxury villas, estates, and apartments scattered throughout the world.
The idea was born of a frustration experienced too frequently. “I owned a second home in Vail Valley for seven and a half years,” recalls Brent Handler, who cofounded the company in 2002 with his brother and a friend, and who now serves as its president. “The first two and a half years were fantastic—we went up every weekend, we left all of our stuff there, we really made a life out of it.
“Then our life changed,” he continues. “We had kids, and the place just didn’t keep up with us. I eventually came to the realization that I was married to this house, but I wasn’t in love with it anymore. We started going less and less, and the maintenance became more and more expensive, more and more of a burden. So we decided to put it on the market three years ago, and lo and behold, we couldn’t sell it. It was painful. We finally did end up selling it, but the entire process took a long time and caused a lot of hard feelings.”
With the memory of that tribulation still fresh, Handler, his brother, and their families took a Hawaiian vacation together, piling into suites that, despite their $1,200-per-night rates, felt cramped. “We knew that there had to be a better way to match up the size that families need and want in a second home with the experience, services, and amenities of a luxury resort,” he says.
His brother, Brad Handler, formerly the general counsel for the Internet auction house eBay and currently a lecturer in law and business at the University of Virginia and Stanford, was a fractional jet owner; both brothers admired the fractional jet industry’s “anytime, anywhere” ethos. “A fractional jet owner can say, ‘I need to get from Denver to Malibu, and I want my plane to be here in six hours,’ ” Brent observes. “And the plane just shows up.” The brothers knew the same guarantee of availability would be key to the success of any similarly modeled vacation-residence membership program. “You would have to be able to say, ‘I want to be in Cabo or Beaver Creek over spring break,’ and as long as you said it a reasonable enough time in advance, you knew that you could be there.”
Such was the genesis of Exclusive Resorts, a club whose members enjoy access—as of this writing—to more than 70 different luxury residences in more than 20 of the world’s most desirable vacation destinations. By the time these words reach print, however, the number of available homes in the company’s portfolio likely will have risen. “The most important number in our club is actually a ratio: six-to-one,” notes Brad. “If six hundred new people join, we’ll add a hundred new places.” And since they began accepting memberships in early 2003, he says, they have been buying properties nearly nonstop. “We’re on a steady climb.”
This impressive economy of scale is partially leveraged by members’ initial (and 80 percent refundable) deposit of $350,000. Depending on which type of plan the member signs up for, he or she is entitled to spend from 30 to 60 days annually in any of the Exclusive Resorts properties, for fees ranging from $15,000 to $19,000 a year. All of the residences boast at least two bedrooms, with most offering three or four. (The memory of that claustrophobic Handler family trip to Hawaii has never quite dissipated.) Amenities such as oversize flat-screen televisions, plunge pools, and hot tubs are typical.
So is a vigilant, though understated, devotion to personal service. Greeting me upon arrival at Troon North was a bottle of wine that I had requested through the questionnaire that Exclusive Resorts invites all its guests to fax in before their visit. Depending on how long you plan to stay and how homebound you plan to be, everything from a can of cashews to a fully stocked larder can be purchased ahead of time, obviating the need for any epic grocery-store expedition on arrival. Though the form had listed as red wine options Cabernet and Merlot, I, being a Pinot Noir man through and through, indicated as much. I had not even set down my bags when I noticed the bottle of Pinot displayed on the kitchen counter.
After pouring myself a glass, I toured my residence: three bedrooms downstairs, including the master that opened onto the mountain-facing deck, where water trickled from a fountain built into my private plunge pool. Upstairs, I discovered a fourth bedroom with an adjacent loft space where a top-of-the-line laptop with a high-speed DSL connection sat humming to itself atop a desk—discreetly, as if it understood that thoughts of work struck a harsh note amid so much natural beauty. The concierge’s office, just a few steps away from my front door, was happy to arrange a tee time for me that afternoon at Troon North Golf Club; I begged off, blaming my cold. But even a relatively brief visit to the driving range was enough to evoke wonder at the juxtaposition of colors and topographies: magenta rock formations sandwiched between bright-green links and the vast expanse of cloudless blue sky.
Upon my return to the house, the concierge’s office notified me that a dinner reservation had been confirmed at Eddie V’s Edgewater Grille, the restaurant I had heard several people mention as the best seafood establishment in Scottsdale. Every Exclusive Resorts member has access to a personal concierge—a professional whose job is to ensure that the refrigerator is stocked with your favorite beer; that chefs are made aware of your favorite foods; that tee times are secured, children’s ski lessons arranged, and marlin-fishing expeditions booked.
A few months after the company had begun operating, the Handler brothers knew they had probably stumbled upon a winning notion when Steve Case, the cofounder of AOL, offered to buy a 50 percent ownership stake and joined the company’s board of directors. Feedback from members also suggests that the Handlers’ concept—grafting luxury-resort-style amenities and services onto the experience of staying in a wide variety of spacious private residences—is an idea whose time has finally come. “I’d always felt that people never really used second homes enough to justify the cost,” says member D. Michael Van Konynenburg, the president and CEO of Los Angeles–based Secured Capital Corp. “Plus, you’re just stuck going to the same place over and over again. I had been investigating the possibility of buying a couple of different homes with a couple of different people I knew, so that we could all have multiple places to go. Then this caught my attention. I didn’t really know that this type of thing existed, but I was definitely predisposed toward liking it. And so far, it’s exceeded all of my expectations.”
PGA legend Hale Irwin became a member after his son met Brent Handler at a Colorado Avalanche hockey game one night. “They got to talking about the concept,” Irwin recalls. “My son brought it to my attention, and it kind of went from there.” Irwin, too, likes the fact that the plan allows one “to have a home away from home without the hassle and unnecessary expense of keeping an entire house,” but he says he especially likes the ever-burgeoning selection of destinations: Hawaii’s paradisical beaches, the Mexican Riviera, Colorado ski resorts, Scottsdale, Manhattan. “It really gives you an opportunity to spread the pleasure around.”
So what does a professional golfer do on vacation? “What I do is not play golf,” Irwin reveals. “That’s why it’s great for me. Most guys go on vacation to play golf. I may go out and take a look at the courses, check them out—I have my own golf course design company—but for the most part, I become a tourist. If we’re in a city, I go to the art galleries; if we’re in the mountains, I do the hikes. I just enjoy being away from the office, which for me is the [PGA] Tour.”
With Hale Irwin as my inspiration, I bucked convention and determined to spend what little time I had in Telluride shopping, walking, eating, relaxing—anything to keep me from lamenting that my low-grade fever prevented my appearance on the slopes. I took the gondola into town, among whose coffeehouses and bookstores I finally discovered the inner peace that only Hale Irwin and a handful of enlightened others must know. So what if I did not golf in Scottsdale, or reel in a marlin in Cabo, or ski in Telluride? I still have plenty of time to train for the next leisure triathlon. In the meantime, I do believe that during my four-day Exclusive Resorts experience I set new personal-best records for guacamole-eating, window-shopping, channel-surfing, and hot-shower-taking, none of which is anything to sneeze at.
For more information on Exclusive Resorts and other vacation-residence programs, see page 82 in the May 2004 issue of Worth magazine.