New house rules

Exclusivity, independence and character in spades: the appeal of the private-house stay is gaining traction, says Maria Shollenbarger, as extraordinary homes become available and specialist agents reinvent the rental experience

An apartment on Rue des Martyrs in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, available for exclusive rental through OneFineStay
An apartment on Rue des Martyrs in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, available for exclusive rental through OneFineStay

Batignolles, in the 17th arrondissement, is a corner of Paris that buzzes quietly with cachet. It is situated just south of Montmartre cemetery, not far from the picturesque Rue des Abbesses, and its once working-class, now thoroughly gentrified streets are lined with elegant beaux-arts façades and dotted with a handful of sleek cafés and indie-chic boutiques. Here, behind a small door on the Rue des Dames, across a leafy courtyard and down a wisteria-shaded path, stands a stunning, three-storey contemporary house – a former warehouse, meticulously converted with polished-concrete floors, soaring ceilings and gallery-quality midcentury furnishings – set within its own private garden, verdant with bamboo and alive with birdsong. The bustling, gilded environs of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Place Vendôme, home to some of Paris’s finest hotels, can be reached in 15 minutes by taxi, but they may as well be a world away.

A balcony overlooking the street
A balcony overlooking the street

To say “some of Paris’s finest hotels” is to say some of the world’s finest: the French capital sets a benchmark for irreproachable service and sumptuous surroundings. So why would anyone who can afford one of these grandes dames choose to stay the night in a privately owned glass-and-steel town house off a sleepy lane in this northwestern quartier – however chic? Increasingly, it seems, the question is actually why wouldn’t one? Despite little visible slowing of growth in the luxury-hotel market (three are scheduled to debut in London alone before the end of 2015), there is a perceptible shift in attitudes towards the private-house stay as an alternative to the full-service hotel. Across travel paradigms – the urban weekend, the business trip, the global sporting event, even the multigeneration safari – there seems to be fresh appeal in the privacy, independence and characterful experience inherent in sleeping in another person’s (very well-appointed) home.

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While new specialists are elevating the rental-by-owner model in some large cities, others, such as Rio and São Paulo – where demand for prime-hotel accommodation will outstrip supply when the World Cup rolls into town next summer – are seeing a major switch in people’s approach to hospitality, creating room for a new niche market. And a clutch of family-owned homes and villas in Africa are also changing perspectives on what exclusivity and independence mean in a wilderness context. “From our point of view, this is absolutely a direction luxury is going in,” says Martin Frankenberg of exclusive Brazilian travel company Matueté, who has been compiling an impressive portfolio of urban villas and flats in Rio and São Paulo to match his already estimable properties in the country’s seaside and jungle reaches. While there’s no substituting the urbane buzz and singular hospitality of a destination hotel in Rio, Paris or anywhere else, Frankenberg finds that the inclination of some of his high-spending clients is “to take it further and further towards the personalised and the private. For certain self-confident travellers – people who are independent and keen to be part of a place – it’s the way forward.”

The pool at Singita Castleton, South Africa, overlooking a watering hole
The pool at Singita Castleton, South Africa, overlooking a watering hole | Image: Singita

Operating at the forefront of this shift is a pioneering, rapidly expanding company called OneFineStay. It manages the letting of over 1,000 upscale houses and flats in London, and just under 300 properties in New York. As of last month, it has introduced select portfolios of properties in Los Angeles and Paris (including the slick redoubt in Batignolles described earlier). Launched in London in May 2010 by a small team of former fund managers, OneFineStay bridges the gap between the kind of privately marketed collections operated by the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, Quintessentially or any number of small specialists (such as Cedric Reversade of Unique Properties & Events or Emily FitzRoy of Bellini Travel, whose rollcall of flats and houses in Italian cities is arguably unparalleled) and the more mass-market, e-commerce-style offerings of direct-to-user sites such as VRBO or AirBnB (OneFineStay has been referred to as “the AirBnB for the one per cent”). Its product is available entirely online via an interface that is roughly that of a (very glossily designed) hotel-search website: basic information, such as desired neighbourhood, dates of stay and number of beds required, is input, and a selection of extravagantly photographed houses and flats meeting the criteria is returned. The company’s USP is providing the authenticity, character, independence and discretion inherent in a private-home stay, enhanced by hands-on management and service not previously present in the category. Its trademarked tagline may be “the unhotel”, but it is successful because it incorporates a few key elements of the consummate luxury-hotel stay. OneFineStay staff are in constant contact with guests; a series of pre-arrival emails provides comprehensive maps, request forms for food and drink, and “home truths” – quirks and idiosyncrasies – pertaining to the property in question (a crucial component of managing expectations, especially when Grade I- and II-listed Georgian architecture or, conversely, complex high-tech security systems are involved). Bathrooms are stocked with the finest toiletries, kitchens are laden with welcome gifts from local gourmet producers or purveyors. A member of the team greets new arrivals and takes them through the house, explaining how everything works. They are given iPhones for the duration of their stay, complete with staff contact numbers and a customised app featuring listings of the best local services – from shops, restaurants and cultural attractions to Pilates classes and limousine companies – with descriptions compiled and written by both OneFinestay and the homeowners themselves.

A Matueté three-bedroom villa in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro
A Matueté three-bedroom villa in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro | Image: Matueté

“We’re not a concierge service. The idea is to have authenticity with just enough assurance,” says OneFineStay CEO and founder Greg Marsh. “Staying in a house that we offer affords the sort of independence and privacy a hotel arguably doesn’t, with the confidence that nothing will go wrong” – because the company has people on hand 24-7 to contend with any issues.

Enasoit camp in Kenya
Enasoit camp in Kenya | Image: Stevie Mann

OneFineStay launched with only half a dozen properties – five belonged to Marsh’s friends and the sixth was his own Notting Hill home. Today they range from town houses on Ladbroke Grove and mansions in Belgravia that sleep eight, to a splendid Regency Huguenot house on Fournier Street in Spitalfields, facing Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church. In New York, there are pieds-à-terre on the Upper East Side, a landmarked Federal-style carriage house in Greenwich Village, and sprawling, interior-designed lofts in Tribeca. Many effectively bring the option of luxury accommodation to desirable neighbourhoods that conspicuously lacked it before, such as Notting Hill in London, the West Village in New York and Paris’s Batignolles.

The viewing lounge at Cottar’s Private Homestead, Kenya, through Explore Inc
The viewing lounge at Cottar’s Private Homestead, Kenya, through Explore Inc

The expansion into Paris and Los Angeles last month is largely, say the founders, a result of demand from clients and hosts alike (who are often one and the same, with a healthy percentage hailing from the worlds of fashion and film – finance coming a close third). In the 9th arrondissement on chic Rue des Martyrs, I test-drove a fantastically atmospheric beaux-arts flat reconfigured along loft-like proportions, with an open sitting room-cum-chef’s kitchen, Biedermeier antiques, floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with monographs and near-complete back catalogues of Italian fashion and interiors magazines, and walls hung with family portraits, fine-art photography, and sketches by the host, an accessories designer. On the ground floor is Sebastien Gaudard, one of the city’s finest patissiers (a calorific representation of his talents was awaiting me on my arrival); a few blocks to the north are the picturesque cobbled streets around the Rue des Abbesses, itself lined with smart boutiques and packed cafés. A WiFi glitch was solved in less than three minutes on the iPhone provided, thanks to a (British) representative of OneFineStay, who nonetheless volunteered to come across town in person to triple-check that all was well. Rue des Martyrs manifests the OneFinestay “unhotel” ethos perfectly: definitively individual, yet not lacking a single creature comfort or, when requested, instant service.

The master suite at Sirai House, Kenya, through Explore Inc
The master suite at Sirai House, Kenya, through Explore Inc | Image: Sirai

Los Angeles, famously one of the trickier US cities for non-natives to get a handle on, is a particularly bold venture, with the promise of its potential (it’s effectively as much a resort destination as an urban one) matched by operational challenges the management team hasn’t had to contend with previously. Should OneFineStay offer a meet-and-greet service at LAX? Does partnership with a prime car-rental company make sense? Or one with a blue-chip gym or spa – or perhaps even a private members’ club? In the early stages of roll‑out, these and other questions are pending. The properties, on the other hand – currently more than 20 – are impressive, and include a four-bedroom, steel-and-redwood contemporary in Venice Beach and a private estate at the top of Mulholland Drive with 180º city views.

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But if three days at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills with a pool above Sunset Boulevard constitutes a lifestyle choice (the pool at the Four Seasons Los Angeles on Doheny Drive or the recently refurbished Beverly Hills Hotel is probably no less beautiful, so this is ultimately a discourse about privacy), a different set of imperatives applies in Rio and São Paulo: namely, a lack of enough suitable luxury-hotel accommodation. It is particularly conspicuous in Rio; while two promising new properties, the Glória and a Hyatt, are in development, neither is projected to be finished before the World Cup kicks off in mid-June. Enter Matueté’s Frankenberg, who has long specialised in private-home stays in the more remote areas of Brazil, such as the Pantanal and the Amazon, which are characterised by a dearth of hotels of any sort. “In the past, it was more difficult to find short-term, high-end rental options [in Rio and São Paulo]. But two things are happening: first, there is a lot of relocation going on among wealthy Brazilians – those with homes in São Paulo are acquiring second homes in Rio. Second, there’s a huge market for foreign investors; they are scooping up property, and they are very amenable to what we do.”

What Matueté does is not dissimilar to what Onefinestay does in providing a comprehensive oversight of the private-house rental experience and ensuring that most basic services are in place – maids, a stocked kitchen and so on. (Unlike OneFineStay, though, Matueté will also lay on drivers, entertainment, top-class chefs and, when requested, security.) Frankenberg will sometimes put a staff member  – or “concierge” – on site fulltime, as much to manage the concerns of the host as to cater to the needs of the guest. “We’re there, available by phone and in person, from the day our client arrives to the day they check out,” says Frankenberg. “This, of course, imparts confidence to the owners, as well as to the guests. We’re not just handing over the keys and hoping for the best.” When we spoke, he was already considering the development of an app along the lines of that offered by OneFineStay, with easy-to-access local insider information. His properties in Rio range from flats in modern high-rises in desirable Leblon – a safe, eminently strollable and very chic neighbourhood – to a three-bedroom villa overlooking Rodrigo de Freitas lake in Ipanema.

Authenticity, independence and character take on quite different forms in the deep wilderness. But the cachet of getting under the skin of a place – not to mention the privacy attendant to an exclusive house surrounded by several thousand hectares of reserve – remain the key draws. In this context “it’s above all about comfort”, says Cherri Briggs, owner and managing director of blue-chip Africa specialist Explore Inc, known for her access to private camps, heritage homes and estates in Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. “Houses are about kids,” she notes. “They’re wonderful celebration spaces. But really, they are even more exclusive than an exclusive camp takeover. Beyond the atmosphere and the privacy, you can really unwind – if you want to skip the evening game drive and drink champagne by the pool, no one’s going to make you feel guilty about it.” Briggs’s preferred properties range from modernist in Kenya – the sprawling Sirai House hung with Andy Warhols, and the sleek new Cottar’s Private Homestead, with its cathedral ceilings and indoor-outdoor sitting rooms – to traditional in Zambia, including the perennially popular one-time home of Robin Pope, progenitor of the Zambian walking safari, in South Luangwa National Park, and a mansion on the banks of the Zambezi, a few miles upstream from Victoria Falls.

In South Africa, Luke Bailes, founder and CEO of Singita, speaks of “exclusivity within exclusivity” in relation to his decision this year to renovate his family vacation home, Castleton, on the private Sabi Sand reserve and offer it for guests to book on an exclusive-use basis. “[Our guests] don’t necessarily want to own properties anymore, but they do want to feel that the house in which they stay is their own.” While Castleton has been refurbished to a luxurious spec, with a new gym, wine cellar and tennis court, along with the original pool, it retains elements of Bailes’s family history.

And it’s this, ultimately, that informs another attraction of a stay in a private home. It is a window into an insider’s existence, a setting that encourages a more original and profound sense of place. It’s the context for a different narrative. The owners of Enasoit, on the edge of the Lolldaiga Hills in northern Kenya – a prominent international family with roots in Norway – have begun quietly opening their bush home for exclusive use by small private groups. As well as being in a prime setting for game (the mess tent is situated directly in front of a salt-lick, subtly spotlit in the evenings, so guests can observe the likes of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and zebra coming to water during cocktail hour), it’s a location that is steeped in character. Nordic sheepskins adorn the sofas and floors, and the family’s tomes on history and wildlife line the walls, there for the guests’ taking. The daughter of the owner recalls suggesting to Enasoit’s managers, a couple who have long been in her family’s employ, that personal mementoes should be stored away when guests were in residence to make them feel more comfortable. “‘Oh no, but you’re wrong’,” they said to me. “‘All of that is exactly what everyone loves so much about it’.”

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