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THE INTERVIEW: Dan Legault, HomesAway

Homes1_2  There are few vacations that are more romantic and evocative of place than a European villa rental. And while there are dozens of agencies that rent European villas and homes, there is only one HomesAway. Yes, this Toronto-based company has charming properties in all of the right locations. But their services extend far beyond finding the perfect Tuscan farmhouse or Provencal retreat. They offer a level of service and knowledge that far surpasses that of any competitor. Dan Legault came up with the concept of HomesAway when he was president of Butterfield & Robinson some 15 years ago. He left B&R and became an entrepreneur, and came full circle recently when he became owner and president of HomesAway. Legault recently slowed down long enough to share his plans for the future.

Dan_dax Okay, so what makes Homes Away different from dozens of other villa rental agencies?

Precisely that we are not an agency…we don’t rent houses; we blend a lot of things together to create experiences, much like a great tour operator, such as B&R, does.  (Dan and Dax Legault)

Our main difference is that we team our carefully chosen homes with an exception Local Host — with all the service and guidance that provides. There are other important factors as well: we have unique relationships with our homeowners; we have exceptional knowledge of our regions, all the way to knowing the names of the dogs belonging to the antique store owners in the regions; each of our Travel Advisors in Toronto know every house (they constantly travel to see new ones), and will spend as much time as clients wish in pre-planning (though of course the best planning gets changed in a lovely impromptu way in conversation in situ with the Local Host); we produce 100-page guidebooks that, for our small patch of region, go way beyond the standard guidebooks; our Local Hosts have a Wow fund (budget), to create unique experiences on the spot. And we (our Local Hosts and our Toronto Travel Advisors) are on-call 24 hours a day to deal with any situation. We take pride in creating extraordinary holidays for people who are already subtle, sophisticated, intelligent travelers.

Where are you right now and where have you been most recently?

I’m in Sweden with my family, visiting a lifelong friend of my wife’s. A few days in Stockholm, to get the feel of this gentle, delightful city (and to meet her friends; everyone seems to know everyone else here!), and now off to the Archipelago. Most recently, I was in Paris, visiting with a HomesAway partner and friend, who has moved there for six months with his family — we’re exploring the concept of city apartments, with a HomesAway twist. And, the most recent ‘long-haul’ was to Swaziland (I was the Treasurer of the worldwide Save the Children organization); I managed to stop over in the Cape Town/Stellenbosch area to visit a long-time winemaker friend of mine.

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You recently purchased HomesAway some 14 years after you explored the concept in 1992 when you were president of luxury bike and walk tour operator Butterfield & Robinson. Can you tell us how it came about?

Sure: The fall before I began to work at B&R, my ‘Big Chill’ university friends and I rented a villa in Provence for a 10th year reunion. We called it ‘the James Bond’ house — an extraordinary house on a hilltop in the wild part of the Var…it had multiple layers of terraces culminating in a wonderful pool (all of course with this breathtaking view), a professional kitchen, and its own tennis and boules courts (we, like many others, came to believe that we invented the one-handed game of boules, with the obligatory Pastis in the other hand). We thought it such a great house. But the best thing was that during the day, small groups of friends did their own thing: some went biking in the amazing, hilly countryside, others went to Monaco, Grasse or St. Tropez, still others went exploring the nearby towns (and vineyards). But in the late afternoon, we all convened for boules, and animatedly discussed the day — and what we’d be doing for dinner! … either a huge kitchen cooking fest, or a local bistro. We had the best holiday of our lives…

…And then soon after I found myself running B&R. I developed a tremendous respect for the B&R concept, wherein all of this knowledge, intelligent service, and most importantly, a unique point of view was delivered up, primarily in the form of a B&R guide. (I later married one!). And so I blended the two together for what I conceived of as ‘B&R graduates’: those clients who wanted to more deeply and unhurriedly experience a gentle, beautiful region of Europe, and get a real sense of place as they truly ‘lived’ the region. (I have always thought that the best and most deeply enjoyable way to experience a place is to live there). And of course to do so without having to pack every day, deal with the insulation and confinement of hotels, or be in a group tour. Homes3

I launched HomesAway as a division of B&R in 1992, and asked a friend of mine to head it up. In the beginning, we used the best of the B&R guides, who lived in the local regions (some are still with us!)…and over time, we met many more extraordinary people who are now our ‘Local Hosts’. Houses that reflect the best of a region are important, of course, but it’s the Local Host that truly separates us…it removes all of the risk from a villa holiday, and it elevates it from a good experience to an extraordinary one. After all, even a sophisticated traveler takes a week to figure out where to buy the best croissants…it’s not dissimilar to visiting a new place and having a long-time friend who has been living there introduce you to the best of the region — that insider-view that only comes from living there. And of course the Local Hosts are emotionally astute: they provide as much or as little guidance and service as they sense is desired.

The concept really took a hold when we launched it. I subsequently became an entrepreneur; my friend took the division privately in 1995, and some partners and I bought it last summer as a true labor of love when our friend wanted to slow down (he does research for us now on a part time basis).

Homes13 Now that you own the company, what changes are in store?

There are two main changes. First, we want to carefully expand around the world, going to culturally great regions that are ideal for the concept. Take Japan, for example…even sophisticated, high-end travelers find it hard to expand beyond the ‘Four Seasons in Osaka’…yet, with our concept, the real countryside of Japan is so doable (and mind-blowing). We are going to bring on new regions in Europe, as well as more exotic locations. Even the Caribbean is crying out for our approach…getting a real sense of place, in the context of an extraordinary, refreshing and inspiring holiday.

Second, we are going to do the great cities of the world…we’ll adjust the Local Host concept a bit (as people won’t have cars, generally, but will still need the guidance and support, albeit probably in a more urbane way). I mean, how many of us have wanted to "Shoot the Moon" (to twist a title) in Paris, Florence and Buenos Aires, and truly live these great cities? We’re going to figure this one out…we’re very excited. Homes11

One thing that’s always struck me about Homes Away is the finite number of properties that you work with. You’re obviously very selective. What goes into choosing a given home?

Mostly, the overall, powerful sense of "Man, I’d like to stay here for a while!" It’s interesting: each of us at HomesAway do our own ‘focus group of one’ on a place, yet there is surprising unanimity among all of us — each place must elicit a strong emotional reaction. But there are generally some things in common, of course: each must be in an amazing corner of the world that one would want to live and explore. Each must somehow contribute of themselves to the sense of place and reflect the local culture. Each must have a tremendous, soul-restoring view. Each generally has a lovely pool, and of course a wonderful place to eat outdoors. And inside, they must have a casual elegance: lovely details, ensuite bedrooms, a kitchen that is dying for someone to cook in it while the others hang out with a drink and entertain the cook. A living room that contributes to laughter, warmth and memory-making. And of course each must have a soul; we’re not into mechanical luxury. Homes6

Can you describe how a stay in Umbria or Provence might be different with Homes Away versus another villa rental company?

Sure. First, it starts back in the States….we field, on average, about five pre-booking calls from clients with respect to the houses, the regions, and specifically about matching each house to each client, and then about six more post-booking with respect to pre-planning itineraries, things to do, special requests, etc. All of these are communicated as they happen to our Local Hosts via our unique intranet, to ensure the Local Host is involved in all aspects of planning, and that nothing falls through the cracks. This communication might be contrasted with most villa agencies, particularly the web-based ones, who have vast catalogs of houses, and interact with clients mechanically.

The house is given a pre-inspection by the Local Host several days before the trip. On the day of the trip, the Local Host shops for the client (who has been asked for a shopping list; special local delicacies are added). Flowers are arranged, as is an arrival apero and selection of local hors d’oeuvres. (In Provence, lavender would figure prominently in the flower arrangements, as would a bottle of a favorite Gigondas for the apero (in Umbria, it would no doubt feature an Orvieto Classico). The guests are welcomed (or met at the train station, etc., if desired), the house is shown, an apero is drunk, and a time is arranged the next day for coffee.

The next day the Local Host will come back for coffee after breakfast, and, armed now with additional knowledge of the clients, will have thought about how best to adjust the itineraries and pre-planned things to do…impromptu planning of this sort is by far the best, and of course the Local Hosts know the regions intimately. Perhaps one of the guests in Umbria would like to go truffle hunting with the local farmer? Perhaps some of the guests in Provence now would like to do the classic bike ride to Bonnieux and Menerbes? Or explore the vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape and Tavel? The real difference with HomesAway begins to show itself. It might be the time of the little-known annual Soup Festival in the Vaucluse — where you each carry a spoon hung around your neck, and go from village square to village square tasting all the family soups in the much-contested competition? It might be having a private tour of Orvieto. Much fun discussion adjusting the daily plans is had over the course of the week as ideas unfold and desires take shape. Of course, through it all, the Local Host looks after much of the details…renting the bikes for that impromptu ride, getting a chef over to provide a cooking demonstration (one of the most fun things there is!), helping the guests send a Fedex if they need to, suggesting the perfect restaurant or antique shop, etc. The combination of insider guide, troubleshooter, and concierge, all effortlessly wrapped up in a wonderful human being who knows how to lead or gently fade back, while being available all of the time, allows the guests to truly experience and ‘live’ the best of the regions, and have the holiday of their life.

Most companies do not provide the services and knowledge-based assistance we provide. Some now do some of it, in the form of ‘concierge services’, however these services are generally modeled on the concierge services of a hotel, and use ‘concierge-like’ staff. Needless to say, there is a world of difference between one of our Local Hosts and a concierge staff person. Homes10

Is it right to assume that most of your clients have some experience of European rentals?

With our first-time clients, it’s about half…the villa idea is growing very strongly, yet people are rightly concerned with the potential risk of having a disappointing holiday. Of course, we have many repeat clients as well, and our client satisfaction rate is something in which we take great pride.

What are some of the perks and amenities that your most demanding clients are looking for? I understand that your Scottish property in Perthshire, Meikloeur Castle, comes with its own 18 hole golf course, for example?

Although we do have some of the world’s wealthiest people as clients, our clients aren’t really into ‘over the top’ luxury…they come with us not because they want to rent Richard Branson’s island, have 20 servants, and fill out a questionnaire on their individual desires for their bedroom’s minibar, etc., but because they want that gentle, refreshing and inspiring sense of ‘living’ a quietly beautiful and culturally rich part of the world. Our clients expect as a matter of course to have things come off without a hitch, and the house to be a lovely, wonderful extension of the region, and it goes without saying that we provide internet access at all our houses and will arrange for rental cars be delivered, etc., but for the most part they are not mechanical things, but imaginative, impromptu ones. They want ideas and insider knowledge, and the support that comes with that, such as arranging brilliant, impromptu picnics (in one case a wedding!), superb local chefs for some of the nights, their own Ferrari (with a guide in his own Alfa!), exceptional private tours, unique one-way walks with a shuttle back, etc. At Meikloeur Castle, most clients want to golf the Old Course at St. Andrews (which we can arrange), and simply take an evening stroll on the Castle’s course! Our returning clients (who truly now understand and appreciate the value of a Local Host) generally just want another brilliant and wise Local Host, and take things from there…

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How about the active part of these vacations? Sitting by the pool sounds like fun but how about biking or walking?

Most people prefer a relatively ‘relaxed-active’ vacation: lovely two hour walks, exploring the towns and villages on foot, wonderful bike rides to a perfect lunch spot, kayaking the gentle, beautiful Dordogne (downstream!) with their kids, etc. Naturally, we can arrange anything, but most people prefer soft adventures around the region rather than climbing L’Alpe d’Huez. But if they do, the Local Host will be waiting at the top with a dry shirt and a cold Kronenbourg!

And can you arrange private tours in a given region?

Absolutely…we know the best private guides for each of the key sites in a region. For example, our guide for the Academia in Florence gets rave reviews (and front of the line access, too). We can also arrange unique tours, as well, such as a private tour of the Sistine Chapel, self-driven Ferrari tours down the hidden backroads of Italy, the Old Course at St. Andrews, or private wine tastings at the best-known houses (or the least-known!). And for less formal sites, our Local Hosts are great ‘guides-on-the-spot’.

Is there still a demand for homes in Tuscany or are clients looking for something a little off the beaten path?

Our clients are now starting to want to experience additional regions that are indeed off the beaten path…and they have trust that HomesAway will pull it off for them. This is why we are now venturing to Eastern Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, for example. However, Tuscany, like, well, most of France, is still hugely in demand, even for discerning, sophisticated travelers. I think of it in my classic ‘focus group of one’ way: I personally like to have a yearly ‘fix’ of France or Italy, and then on another holiday, do something different. Many of our clients feel the same. Also, many others have visited Italy and France, but on a tour or doing the hotel thing, and so want to experience living these places on their next foray. Homes8

Can you explain a bit about your ratings?

Our ratings primarily reflect the ‘luxury’ level of the house. Of course, this is different than the reasons why we choose a house in the first place, of course. Each of our houses must have that quality of "an extraordinary holiday will occur here-ness". And for example, I might often prefer a 3-laurel house over a 5-laurel house in a particular region (better location, for example). However, to provide guidance with respect to the luxury level (3-laurel house are less luxurious, less elegant and more casual), we rate them.

How about price. What sort of range are we talking about?

We are in the high-end business, and our prices reflect that. (We generally don’t do the ultra-high-end, like Richard Branson’s island, as mentioned). Generally speaking, they range from about $US 7,000-20,000 per week; our Scottish castle is an exception.

Several additional points about price should be made. First, a villa holiday at one of our homes is significantly cheaper on a per person, per couple or per family basis than a comparable hotel-based vacation (and generally far more enjoyable, too!). This value is helping to drive the growth in the villa business. Although some people get an initial sticker shock, when they consider a comparable trip, they then realize the tremendous value in a villa vacation.

Second, we are marginally more expensive than a comparable villa stay, reflecting our increased services, primarily, of course, the services of our Local Host. We feel, of course, that we provide the difference between a ‘risky-to-good’ holiday and a brilliant one.

Are there any new countries or regions where you’re scouting houses for Homes Away?

Yes. Charla, our ‘product director’, was just in Croatia and then the Caribbean to scout regions and houses, and I am going to Argentina. Next on the list is Ireland, Greece, Poland and South Africa. Of course, it’s a long list, and it includes Japan, India and Vietnam, too, in upcoming years.

The details: 800-374-6637; www.HomesAway.com 

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