Exclusive Resortsâ Pandemic-Driven Success Underscores the Value of Private Travel

Feb. 12th, 2021

For the vast majority of travel-industry executives, the global pandemic was detrimental to their businesses and forced sweeping changes to their daily operations. But for James Henderson, CEO of the private-travel club Exclusive Resorts, business is booming.

“Overall, we’re seeing higher levels of demand than we’ve seen for quite some time,” says Henderson, who is British with permanent U.S. residency. “When people are looking to travel, especially today, they want security, they want peace of mind, and they want well-being for themselves and their family.”

An Exclusive Resorts home in Sea Island, Georgia. 

The company recently announced that 31 families became Exclusive Resorts members in December, marking its best month for sales since 2011. Members pay a one-time initiation fee for a multi-year membership, as well as an annual fee based on the number of travel days each year, granting them access to the portfolio of homes and concierge-level service from on-site teams to manage trip details. Henderson says the company strives to keep membership intimate (currently about 4,000 families) to help limit the occupancy for its homes, while carefully vetting new members (just 150 per year), who typically come through referrals. Henderson partially credits the recent increase in membership to the drastic flight from crowded hotels and resorts during the pandemic, with Exclusive Resorts’ large portfolio of private vacation homes enticing wealthy families who budget for multiple vacations every year.

“In a time like this, people tend to gravitate towards homes rather than hotels,” says Henderson. “So, our model of providing an international platform of large luxury homes, a very high level of personalized service, cleanliness, and housekeeping has been very appealing.”

An Exclusive Resorts home on the Caribbean island of Nevis. 

In addition to an uptick in membership, Exclusive Resorts also saw five times as many reservations for trips lasting 2-plus weeks in December 2020 compared to December 2019. As many people continue working remotely during the pandemic and remain largely quarantined with their immediate family, a change of scenery is increasingly appealing. Exclusive Resort’s portfolio of nearly 400 luxury vacation homes all around the world gives its members a wealth of destinations to choose from. A recent survey of Exclusive Resorts’ members found that bucket-list destinations in Italy (Tuscany, Lake Como, and the Amalfi Coast) have remained popular, as have destinations in the Caribbean and Costa Rica. But because of global travel restrictions, most members are taking more local vacations.

“What we’re seeing right now is a lot of demand for domestic drive-to destinations or destinations that are a relatively short flight away,” says Henderson, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like many members in the area, he has taken frequent weekend trips to Northern California wine country in Napa and Sonoma counties, because he and his family can easily drive there for a quick getaway.

Exclusive Resorts’ Norrbom Estate in Sonoma County, Calif.

“What we’re finding is that members will book a number of large bucket-list trips over two years,” explains Henderson. “They’ll book trips to the Caribbean or locations that require more of an effort to get to—and then they’ll fill in their schedules with a bunch of short-term trips—especially now. There has been this pent-up demand for travel, with a shift towards private clubs and communities, but because most of the usual activities aren’t available during the pandemic, we’re also really seeing an increase in demand for private experiences, which is something we’re very good at.”

Exclusive Resorts’ Sunset View home in Sonoma County, Calif.

Last fall, Exclusive Resorts launched a partnership with luxury road trip company All Roads North to offer its members pre-determined or custom itineraries for road trips with stays at multiple homes along the way, paired with experiences. Exclusive Resorts always offers experiences in addition to vacation homes, but never before as part of a pandemic-friendly road-trip itinerary. Its experiences range from private wine tastings at high-end wineries to private chef-prepared meals and cooking classes in the home. The company can also arrange outdoor experiences like golfing, skiing, and hiking, all of which have been very popular as travelers crave outdoor activities where they can easily maintain social distance.

An Exclusive Resorts road trip to Napa Valley in partnership with All Roads North. Photo by Stefanie Michejda

Another thing that Exclusive Resorts does particularly well is ensuring the health and safety of its members, while also handling travel logistics, which are especially challenging during a pandemic.

“Right now,  one of the things that we’re navigating through is, if you travel overseas, you need to have a COVID test to get back in the country,” says Henderson. “So, we’ve set up relationships where we have a strong footprint—like in Cabo and Costa Rica—with local providers, who will come to the homes to give you on-site COVID testing, so you don’t have to go to a clinic in a foreign country to get tested.”

An Exclusive Resorts home on Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica.

While the pandemic has certainly turned travel on its head, Henderson thinks the industry, especially the luxury segment, is ripe for a major rebound. But even as COVID vaccines become more widely available and people across the wealth spectrum start travelling again, their priorities will change.

“COVID has made people very aware of the importance of maintaining physical health on vacations, while also being with family and friends, because we’re social animals and there’s only so many Zoom calls you can handle. If anything positive can come out of this pandemic, it’s the realization that life is fleeting and all these things you think you might do at some point, you should just go and do them.”

Photo by Stefanie Michejda

As CEO of Exclusive Resorts, an important part of James Henderson’s job is to sample his company’s homes and experiences. Henderson, a San Francisco Bay Area resident, recently took a pandemic-friendly Exclusive Resorts road trip (curated by All Roads North) to Northern California’s Napa Valley, where he stayed at an Exclusive Resorts residence and experienced a private wine tasting lesson. 

An in-home meal prepared by a private chef is among the many experiences that Exclusive Resorts offers. Photo by Stefanie Michejda

Photo by Stefanie Michejda