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From renting estates to hotel buyouts, travelers are looking at private travel to keep their distance

August 15, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

When travel slowly began to renew in May 2020, there was an immediate rebound in the vacation rental industry. That upward trend remained consistent throughout regular shoulder seasons (generally spring and fall) as people worked remotely and kids attended virtual school. Since then, demand simply hasn’t waned as travelers rush to homes away from home.

For ages, people have rented vacation homes and villas, private islands, and houses of famed authors. Yet, this past year, resort communities, such as Mexico’s Quintana Roo—a popular respite for almost half a million American tourists over the holidays—are facing dramatic demand where families find privacy and seclusion and couples discover peace away from the urban hustle. Rather than small rooms, the expansive comfort of residences and hotel buyouts offer more personalized and luxurious vacations.

The upward trend of self-catering in the U.S. allows the humdrum aspects of life to continue, but in dreamy destinations, making the need for isolation not only accessible, but sought out. Black Tomato, a luxury travel agency, saw sustained interest in inquiries and bookings at exclusive-use properties (a 61% increase from 2019) with highly privatized experiences, including private flights and boat charters to and from everything. In general, clients are seeking places where the natural world surrounds them.  

Entering the pandemic, Vacasa—a luxury home rental company with more than 30,000 existing homes—endured low demand. But from March 2020 through March 2021, reservations were up 113% from 2019, revealing a strong preference for larger, multi-room properties. At the same time, guests seemed more willing to spend on vacations compared with pre-pandemic times, with the average total reservation cost growing 22%, most of which is driven by extended stays and slightly higher average rates.

ThirdHome experienced similar booking trends for its collection of 11,000 homes across 95 countries. “The lingering sensitivity toward safety, quality, and cleanliness is certainly present, with service and convenience standards at an all-time high,” says Mike Brock, senior director of operations. Additionally, drive-to markets remain in high demand for those eager for a change of scenery. Bookings for the membership-based home exchange are historically consistent in Western ski homes and resorts as popular destinations. But the past year, its summer inventory in those locations is a hot-ticket item.

The Residences at Aspen Valley Ranch is Aspen’s only whole ownership private luxury serviced ranch.
Courtesy of Aspen Valley Ranch

To adapt to demand such as this, The Residences at Aspen Valley Ranch opened in May 2021 as an offshoot to Aspen Valley Ranch. Because of the area’s uptick in visitors during low seasons, particularly those looking for luxury homes with all the bells and whistles of a hotel, the company opened six dwellings with access to the sister ranch. “When you’re renting a $20 million home versus renting even the most luxurious suite at a hotel, your experience is very different,” says Simon Chen, vice president. The homes allow for pressure-free lounging, couch potato days, and movie nights, with the bonus of endless activities and amenities nearby.

Eighty miles east of Seattle, Suncadia—another resort-residential hybrid—has 80 vacation rentals, which jumped 39% in bookings compared with 2019. As leisure travel gains steam, so do reservations. With full kitchens and restaurant delivery, there’s no need to leave. “We are hearing from visitors who come here seeking seclusion and wide-open spaces,” says Katie Sheppard, director of marketing. “They also like having easy access to all of the resort amenities. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Hotels themselves are expanding to exclusive use or are seeing massive increases in their villa bookings. Hotel Amparo, a five-bedroom boutique hotel in Mexico’s San Miguel Allende, launched its Residency at Hotel Amparo during the pandemic for groups of 10 to take over the entire property for only $500 per night. This includes private (but not inclusive) use of its full bar, restaurant, and lounging areas. At Sonoma’s MacArthur Place, the new Exclusively Yours package accommodates groups staying in one of the duplex or fourplex cottages. The hotel will block out the remaining rooms to ensure absolute privacy from neighbors not in the party. “Many of our rooms already were equipped with private balconies, porches, or patios, but we wanted to take it a step further and offer the option to book an entire cottage or series of rooms,” says Liddy Parlato, the creative marketing manager.

A patio view of the Jasmine Cottage at the MacArthur hotel in Sonoma, Calif.
Courtesy of the MacArthur Place Hotel

On the other hand, Hyatt Indian Wells—a full-service, 45-acre resort with 43 two- and three-bedroom villas—has seen a massive rise in bookings of its existing fully equipped private villas. When the resort reopened four months after the pandemic’s initial shutdown, its villa occupancy rose by 40% compared with 2019, with a 33% increase to daily rates. The villas are situated in pods that multigenerational groups are taking over. In addition, each villa has a private backyard, and the property now has a BBQ Butler who cooks for guests in the privacy of their area.

Domestic travel is flourishing at the moment, both via air and land. And as COVID seems as unpredictable as ever, there’s no slowing the popularity of stretching out in a home or a section of a hotel that is exclusively yours.

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