A major tour operator entered the villa business rather quickly last year when Travel Impressions hired Robert Eastman, the founder of Villas of Distinction. Turns out, after Eastman sold his villa company to Creative Leisure, he sat on the sidelines for a year to honor a non-compete agreement. During his downtime, he crafted a plan for a new villa enterprise. Knowing he didn’t want to get into business on his own again, he interviewed five tour operators and decided to go with Travel Impressions as he was impressed by the top management team.
Today, The Villa Experience by Travel Impressions has venues in the Caribbean—St. Martin, St. Barts, Anguilla, Barbados, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos—and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. In Europe, the company has villas in the south of France (think the Riviera and Provence) and Italy (primarily Tuscany and Amalfi, with a touch of Lake Como). In Mexico, villas are available in Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Maya. And in Hawaii, The Villa Experience is offered in Maui, the Big Island and Oahu.
Travel Impressions is indeed a mass-market operator, but it has created a dedicated reservations team, which is specially trained to sell villas and responds to a dedicated toll-free number (888-284-3786), Eastman tells Luxury Travel Advisor.
Reservationists are aware that the villa experience is one that needs to be tailored for each client, so the first step in the process is to interview the client to find out what their needs are. (A typical question is, ‘What type of hotel do you like to stay at?’) Eastman says this is so they go to the right island that has the right infrastructure for the services they are looking for. Next up? Finding the right house is vital, Eastman says.
Once the right venue has been determined, services are set up with a “never say ‘no’ attitude.”
For that, Eastman depends on the local partners he’s established over the years in each venue; ideally, this will be someone with at least 20 houses in their inventory who can step in if there are any issues with the house, which, after all, doesn’t have the size of the staff at a hotel.
A concierge in The Villa Experience’s home office liaises with those on-the-ground connections; some of the local operators have their own concierges as well. Either way, the crafting of a client’s trip program always begins in the main office for such services as pre-stocking the kitchen with food, arranging for transfers from the airport, securing the services of a private chef or even chartering a private yacht for the day.
Helpful Hint: Eastman recommends travel advisors always arrange to have a chef come in the first night of the trip because clients are usually not yet settled, and having someone cook for them gets the vacation started on the right foot.
Renting in Tuscany? Eastman has found a lovely little company that provides custom tours for small groups; it’s ideal for villas clients, he tells us.
Next up for the company is southern Spain, and apartments in London and Paris. Clients have also been asking for Costa Rica—a logical expansion market it appears, Eastman says.