Thursday, March 25, 2010

By invitation only holidays

Members-only online sales offer 20-60% off luxury hotels

AN ocean-view room at the Gansevoort Turks & Caicos, normally US$460 a night, slashed to US$285. A fireplace room at the US$500- a-night Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, California, for US$315. A water villa at the Six Senses’ Soneva Gili resort in the Maldives, normally US$1,040 a night, reduced to US$840.

Interested in these and other luxury hotel discounts? Sorry, they’re for members only.

Luxury hotels have long aimed for an image of exclusivity – setting prices beyond the reach of most travellers, allowing wait lists to build for restaurant reservations, and carefully generating buzz with a well-placed celebrity guest in the gossip magazines. Now, a growing number of websites are offering ‘private sales’ of 20-60 per cent off luxury accommodations to select travellers on an invitation- only basis.

In October, the Gilt Groupe, an invitation-only retail site that’s been a hit with fashion devotees, spun off Jetset, which offers discounts several times a week on yachts, villas and hotels. Soon after that, Tablet, a booking site for fashionable hotels, started its private sale from Tuesdays to Thursdays or until inventory sells out. So did Kayak. com, the popular meta-search site., another fashion- focused invitation-only site, also has begun to offer hotel sales.

Unlike last-minute sales, which offer deep discounts to travellers who can take off at the spur of the moment, the members-only deals generally offer a longer travel window. For example, the Gansevoort Turks & Caicos, on the island of Providenciales, was recently offered for US$285 a night (nearly 40 per cent off) on Jetsetter. A booking calendar highlighted the dates for which that rate was available, with options till December, more than 10 months out.

Travellers have only a limited time to book, however, and that creates a sense of urgency and spontaneity around the offers.

Jetsetter, for one, alleviates some pressure by allowing members to put accommodations on hold for 10 per cent of the trip’s cost. If the trip is not purchased, the money can be used towards another booking.

Members, generally invited to join the group by a current user, can sign up for weekly e-mail alerts about when the bargains will go live.

And all sales are upfront and nonrefundable.

Fans of private sales said that such caveats are a small price to pay for access to exclusive luxury bargains. ‘There are plenty of discount hotel booking options online but rarely do they include any true luxury accommodations,’ said Jason Klein, 31, a Jetsetter member who said that he saved an estimated US$2,000 on a weekend getaway in February to the Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Mexico. ‘It’s not as though the prices were cheap by any means,’ he added, ‘but relative to standard rates I had seen for these hotels in the past, the discounts were significant.’

Hotels like the private sales, which because of the membership requirement, generally do not appear in online searches or aggregator sites. This helps maintain the idea of a velvet rope around the deals.

The nature of the sales allows hotels to maintain control over inventory, listing only dates for sale when they have empty rooms for a limited booking window.

It’s also a way for hotels to tap into a new set of clients willing to return at full price. ‘We always want new customers,’ said Jim Monastra, marketing director at the Fairmont Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Florida, which has listed deals on Jetsetter. ‘Hopefully, the service will be great and they’ll come back.’

The sites also do a good job of curating popular hotels, which makes hotels feel like they are part of an elite group and keeps members checking back to see what new hot spot is on sale. Tablet Hotels and Jetsetter hand-select properties featured in their private sales. ‘We only want to run sales with things you’re going to brag about to your friends when you come home,’ said Drew Patterson, chief executive of Jetsetter, reciting some of its recent sales, which included the Hotel Plaza Athenee in New York and the Four Seasons Costa Rica. ‘It’s got to be exceptional.’

Kayak takes a data-driven approach, looking at trends to determine what customers are searching for and what types of properties they are staying in. ‘We can then use that information to target a smaller list of properties – ones that we already know the Kayak audience likes,’ said Robert Birge, the chief marketing officer of Kayak.

So how do you become a member? It’s easier than the sites make it sound. Tablet Hotels, for example, says that there are three ways to access the special discounts – book your next stay on the site, be invited by a member, or pay US$195 for a Plus Membership, which includes 24-hour advance access to the private sales and other perks such as free room upgrades, airport transfers or breakfast, depending on the hotel. But a Google search for ‘Tablet Hotels + private sale + invite’ in March led to the site’s Facebook page, which offered a limited-time invitation with the code ‘FBNOMAD’.

Travellers who want to be invited to Rue La La’s private sales can go to the homepage, click on the link ‘Not a member?’ and enter an e-mail address to be notified when space is available. With Kayak, it’s as easy as registering an e-mail address.

But how good are the deals compared with what you might find on your own? In a far-from-scientific check of several private sales, the sites beat the hotel’s website and other travel booking sites such as Expe and nearly every time, often by a significant discount.

‘The sales are competitive with what you might find if you were savvy enough to strike your best deal at an opaque site,’ like Priceline or Hotwire, said Mr Birge of Kayak. ‘However, you don’t need to guess on price or property, so we believe this is a more attractive option for consumers.’

Source: Business Times, 25 Mar 2010

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