“I just wanted to take a moment of your time and introduce myself as the Quintess travel specialist that will be assisting you in planning your trip to Paris,” announced the first e-mail, a month or so before our planned vacation in April. “We are able to assist with flights, car rentals, airport transfers, local activities, dining reservations, spa appointments, golf tee times, personal chef dinners, entertainment, grocery shopping and anything else that you may require.”
That e-mail was a bit daunting. My wife and I used to be fairly rigorous vacation planners. But since the birth of our daughter two years ago, the limit of our vacation planning seems to be ensuring we have packed enough diapers. The mere idea of a “travel specialist” struck me as over-ambitious.
But we had to go through with it, as this was a journalistic exercise. After interviewing the founders of Quintess – one of the number of exclusive residence clubs being established to cater to the wealthy traveller – for an FT Wealth article last year, they invited me to visit one of the homes gratis to understand why the experience was so unique. Since I live in London, the Paris destination seemed the right one.
Whatever you call the industry – exclusive residence clubs, destination clubs, luxury fractionals, high-end timeshares (although the industry would never use such a downmarket description) – you can certainly describe it as growing. There are now more than 15 big companies in the category, up from three a little more than two years ago. Total sales for destination clubs totalled $450m in 2004, up from $140m in 2003.
The idea driving the growth is simple. Traditionally, well-heeled travellers had two choices: buy a vacation home or two or stay in luxury hotels. Both options had advantages and limitations. The best exclusive residence clubs aim to combine the best of the two while removing the worst.
The offerings vary in price, accoutrements, ownership structure and quality of residences but the best of them are the same. For an initial payment (typically in six figures), customers get an ownership stake in a group of luxury homes around the world, with the ability to vacation in some of these for a certain amount of time during the year.
For instance, membership of Quintess, which costs between $175,000 and $345,000, grants owners access to 16 homes around the world (with an average value of $4m) for 15 to 30 days a year. Like a country club, your membership fee can increase in value as the club grows, adding an investment component. The deposit is fully refundable in the first year and 80 per cent refundable after that. And you don’t have the routine problems of upkeep with a far-flung home.
All of these services look good on paper. But there remains the sceptical journalist’s suspicion that this is all a gimmick. One of the benefits of wealth is that you can afford to buy yourself several pieces of real estate and that this can even serve as a good investment. Why bother to join a club that would limit the investment upside?
It took our family’s road test of the concept in Paris to grasp quite why these clubs might be worth paying for. Particularly for those caught up in the daily grind, who do not have the time to do much planning for a few days away – and it would appear that these services are mostly being used by working executives, not retired people – there is a differentiating factor that makes this type of travel a unique experience: the destination host.
“Upon arrival at your Quintess home, Anande, our destination host, will greet you and your guests, give a tour of the home and answer any questions that you may have,” informed another e-mail from my Quintess travel specialist a week before our trip. That missive also included the expected weather conditions and confirmation of our chauffeur service from the station.
I managed to draw up a list of groceries for when we arrived in the Paris apartment and sent a few requests for dinner and event reservations.
Among other variations on the theme, there is Crescendo, which is structured as a private equity fund so that you get to share directly in any capital gains, and Exclusive Resorts, which appears to be the largest in the fledgling sector with more than 1,500 members.
We pulled up to the apartment on Avenue d’Iena, straddling the Eighth and 16th arondissements, to find a fantastic location with a residential feel one rarely gets at big luxury hotels. Our host, Anande, was there to greet us – a pleasant, sophisticated twentysomething Canadian who was raised in France. Anande proved to be the perfect host. But first, a tour of the apartment.
Tucked away on a quiet street, the building was pleasant but nothing extraordinary. Anande informed us that the building had originally featured art deco splendour but the lobby had suffered an unfortunate makeover in the design-challenged 1970s that was currently under improvement. Once we made our way to the fourth-floor apartment, we got a better inkling of what the holiday had in store.
The place was a sophisticated, well-apportioned, two-bedroom/three-bathroom home that felt more spacious than its 1,200sq ft. Every room featured a view of the Eiffel Tower, with the glimpse through the French-door styled windows in the main bedroom especially lovely. The refrigerator and pantry were stocked with everything we had asked for – with a fresh baguette, cheese and chocolates on the table, awaiting our arrival.
For a family on vacation it had everything: bright, cosy furniture, sprawling beds, marble baths, a comfortable, well-lit kitchen. It felt like home, only in Paris.
“The crucial element is making our members feel like they truly belong – like they are at home,” Ben Addoms, Quintess’s founder, told me before the trip. It aims to have 35 homes this year – it has mountain venues in Aspen and Vail, beach homes in Costa Rica and St Thomas, and retreats in California’s Napa Valley. The number of Quintess homes is far fewer than the 200 offered by Exclusive Resorts but Addoms, a former executive at Excite@Home, said Quintess meticulously chose homes where he would want to stay. In finding its New York City destination, for example, it passed over an apartment at Trump Tower, opting instead for a property on the Upper East Side that required months of extensive renovation.
Quintess also touts its concierge service, which helps members make the most of their vacations – from stocking the fridge with speciality items or hiring personal chefs to arranging theatre tickets in Paris and dinner reservations in Costa Rica. And for us at least, that turned out to be a key advantage.
“If you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty of making some tentative plans that might be the best way for a family with small children to experience Paris,” Anande told us, kindly not mentioning that our busy, far-flung plans might not be perfect for a family with a 26-month-old. “Would you like to hear them?”
The plans my wife and I made for our three-day trip covered the basics – the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower and a stroll down the Champs Elysées.
Anande’s plans were much more sensible for a family with a small child. They included a trip to Jardin d’Acclimation, a children’s amusement park that could only exist in this city. Mechanical horse rides and carousel rides through manicured grounds, a small zoo and other attractions were the highlight for our daughter.
Later, our driver took us to a nearby park for a picnic with the best local produce, cheese, sandwiches and chocolates. Once finished, Anande schedule a guided tour of Montmartre with Brian Haldeman, an American friend of hers who happens to be a resident and art history aficionado. By this point, my scepticism had been thoroughly overcome and I was enjoying a great weekend.
So, a final assessment. There is a good chance that the average client of Quintess is more accustomed to being pampered than I am. It is also possible they were trying hard to impress a journalist.
But with the sector in its infancy, and many new competitors trying to enter, this is a buyers’ market. Whoever you join is likely to be trying their hardest to keep new clients happy. The concept is much more than a gimmick. If the players all continue to execute as well as Quintess did during my brief dose of Paris in the springtime, expect the destination club industry to grow much further.