Hotels expand into Airbnb territory by offering private homes
Sat., May 21, 2022
With Homes & Villas by Marriott International, members of the Bonvoy loyalty program can use points or a combination of cash and points to pay for their rental, including this chalet in Lake Tahoe. (Courtesy of Marriott International)
Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel company, tucking travelers into nearly 1.5 million rooms in more than 8,000 properties. Yet, when I embarked on a recent quest for accommodations in Annapolis, Md., the hospitality behemoth did not lead me to any of its brands – four in Maryland’s state capital alone – but to a charming pied-à-terre with a gourmet kitchen, a balcony fit for Romeo and Juliet and a staff quick to assist with issues major (unlocking the door) and minor (locating the ground coffee).
“Welcome to ‘The Port.’ Our team is here for you,” read a note from the owners of iTrip Vacations Annapolis, the property management company that oversees the home for Marriott. To my relief, they really meant what they wrote.
Over the past few years, hotel chains have been venturing into the short-term rental market, a domain long dominated by peer-to-peer platforms populated by individuals moonlighting in hospitality. The arrangement is straightforward: The homeowner provides the residence, and the hotel or its industry partner handles the rest, such as processing the reservation, recommending or booking excursions, troubleshooting problems, tidying up during the stay and deep-cleaning after checkout. Travelers also receive hotel benefits – loyalty program awards, access to resort amenities – without having to step inside a lobby.
For instance, vacationers who book through Onefinestay, the high-end rental company that AccorHotels purchased in 2016, can earn and redeem points with Accor’s Live Limitless program. In London, renters receive special deals, such as the Pamper Package, and discounted rates at the Sofitel London St James, an Accor brand. Relais & Châteaux, which has a constellation of five-star lodgings, pairs its private home guests with its Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants.
“Business travelers, as well as many leisure travelers, value what Airbnb lacks and what hotel brands do best: availability (hotels cannot delist at short notice), professional hospitality, brand standards and loyalty program perks,” said Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. “This is why most major hotel companies are extending their brands into private homes.”
Among the handful of players, Homes & Villas by Marriott International boasts the largest inventory and broadest reach, with approximately 60,000 properties in about 75 countries, a mix of vacation rental stalwarts (France, Mexico, Hawaii) and unusual holiday spots (Qatar, Kazakhstan, Mauritius). (For context, Airbnb claims about 6 million listings.) Accor’s Onefinestay comes in a distant second with 4,500 homes, villas and chalets around the globe. Relais & Châteaux entered the game in April 2021, and its portfolio has grown to 585 chalets, castles, vineyard estates and other types of boutique habitats on six continents.
Mandarin Oriental Exclusive Homes, which launched in March featuring properties from StayOne, and Auberge Resorts Collection have a more limited menu, with eight and nine properties, respectively. Graduate Hotels, which targets college towns, is the newest arrival: The company plans to roll out Graduate Homes in Oxford, Miss., this fall, just in time for Ole Miss football season. So far, four homeowners have signed up. The rental program is also recruiting residences in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Knoxville, Tenn.
“We are looking for centrally located single-family homes with outdoor space and adequate parking,” Kevin Osterhaus, president of Graduate Hotels, said of the company’s criteria. “They must also be unique and upscale.” The company does not dictate the decor, but it will provide linens, toiletries and, if necessary, dishware. It will also assist with housekeeping and concierge services and even cater meals and arrange transportation. The homes, which will rent for roughly $1,500 to $3,000 a night, may appear on other rental sites, but, Osterhaus said, Graduate Homes will retain exclusive rights to the properties during major college events such as graduation and homecoming.
The hotels do not always have a lock on the rentals; many pop up elsewhere online. Mandarin Oriental shares its listings with StayOne, which brought its inventory to the relationship. During my search for Annapolis digs, I found several “Marriott” properties on booking.com, Vrbo and iTrip Vacations Annapolis, which manages the Annapolis-area homes and apartments for the hotel chain. However, with the curated collections, you don’t have to slog through pages of duds to find the aces; the hotels perform the grunt work for you. “There is so much out there – thousands of homes, shared rooms and basements,” said Jennifer Hsieh, vice president of Homes & Villas by Marriott International, referring to the less-discerning rental sites. “There is no quality filter.”
Hsieh said Marriott created Homes & Villas in response to the booming share economy. “We saw it growing,” she said. A 2017 survey of Marriott Bonvoy loyalty members was also a motivating factor: Nearly 30% of respondents said they had strayed from the fold to book a private property. The company hoped to entice them back with rentals that carried Marriott’s seal of approval, plus the promise of points.
“Airbnb doesn’t have a loyalty program,” said Madison Blancaflor, an editor with the Points Guy. “The ability to earn and burn points, plus the customer support and service, are major benefits.”
Similar to hotel room bookings, Bonvoy-ites can pay for their rental with points or a combination of points and cash. They can also earn points and even pocket enough rewards to fund a future vacation. Scott Mayerowitz, executive editor of the Points Guy, accumulated $1,220.75 worth of Bonvoy points on a five-night condo rental in Vail, Colo. He chronicled this impressive feat in his March piece, “How I triple stacked and earned 210,000 points and miles on an epic Marriott Homes & Villas booking.”
“Marriott providing a rental experience and its loyalty program is huge,” Blancaflor said. “But it won’t make sense for every traveler. People need to do the math.”
For my maiden rental, I tapped Marriott because of its extensive regional options and less stratospheric rates. Its search tool produced 30 options for the Annapolis area, which I winnowed down to three. Then two, after I determined that a mid-century ranch house named Admiral’s Retreat was too far from the water. Then one, after my preferred dates for Eastport Easy, a townhouse with a neighborly front porch, disappeared. When I plugged in the days for the Port, Marriott’s calendar would accept only a minimum of three nights. Accustomed to negotiating with Airbnb owners, I clicked on the “contact property manager” button and asked whether I could reserve two nights. An iTrip Vacations representative replied with a yes.
Before I could commit, I had to complete a simple equation. (To compare apples to apples, I plugged the three-night rate quoted by iTrip and Marriott into the calculator.) ITrip’s total was about $300 less than Marriott’s, but to reap the savings, I would have to forgo Bonvoy points. As a lackadaisical loyalty member, this was not a major sacrifice: I have only 2,800 points, or $16.80, which would take barely take a nibble off the $1,322 price tag. Additionally, I would earn 4,318 points, or about $26, on the rental because Marriott grants points only on the base rate ($863) and not the extra fees ($152 in taxes and a ghastly $307 cleaning fee).
I sided with the savings, booking directly with iTrip. Even so, I owe Marriott for introducing me to the Port. The one-bedroom apartment was spotless and stylish. The property management team was attentive and responsive. And the welcome gift of red wine and crab-flavored potato chips was much appreciated, especially after a sunset stroll around the harbor.
I returned home relaxed and enlightened. Going forward, I will use my membership number on future Marriott stays so I can one day rent a private vacation home courtesy of the hotel chain.
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