Two sisters have astutely filled a niche at the top end of the holiday property space, pairing HNWs with luxury locations, reports Christopher Silvester.
Back in the 20th century, few wealthy Europeans were prepared to rent out their grand residences to holiday guests. Part of the reason was that the owners of palazzi and châteaux didn’t know who to go to.
‘They don’t trust the big agents and the big agents don’t know how to work with them,’ says Marina Gratsos, the founder of Carpe Diem Luxury Travel. ‘I had one owner who had been approached by one of these big agents, and they sent some eighteen-year-old Swiss girl around to meet her and look at the house, which was an incredibly beautiful house built on Roman remains. The husband was a frightful grandee and he was incredibly insulted that they sent this girl around who knew nothing. And so the big agents will never get these sorts of properties.’ Grandees are comfortable giving them to Marina and her sister Ileana to represent, ‘because we’re owners ourselves and they kind of equate us on a similar social level, rather mistakenly’.
Also, fifteen years ago there was a stigma attached to renting your house out. ‘People assumed you must need the money, so that was a real obstacle, which was why you had to do it very discreetly, in a very tailored way. It’s now quite chic and you have bragging rights about who stayed in your house and how much you charged, so there’s no stigma attached to it any more, which has made a big difference in the rental market.’
Marina is often asked why people with so much money choose to rent out their houses. ‘It’s partly that you can get €50,000 that will pay for the front door and the staff get tipped,’ she says, ‘but another part of it is actually the pleasure of having people enjoy your house.’ She compares it to having a Picasso on your wall and listening to people say how astonishing and beautiful it is. ‘For these top-end houses, money is rarely the whole story. The owners want to have nice people who will like the house and they’ll always say, “What sort of people are they? Will they fit in? Will they be nice to the staff? Will they like the house?”’
Marina and Ileana’s father, Panos Gratsos, was one of four brothers in a second-generation Greek shipping family from Ithaca who inherited their business at a very young age. ‘I don’t think they actually did an awful lot of shipping,’ says Ileana. ‘It was much more women and horses and book collecting, and my father was a musician as well. Our mother was my father’s third wife.’
Marina, Ileana and their younger sister Paola were brought up in Harrow, in the house where Ileana still lives with her husband Florian, a German banker. The girls were educated at Heathfield, ‘which is where good shipping heiresses — and non-heiresses, as it turns out — got sent. The only financial advice we ever got from our father — it was the generation that didn’t discuss money, and especially not with girls — was: “Darlings, watch out for gold-diggers.”’
‘Which was the one piece of advice that never came in handy at all!’ adds Marina.
They were semi-detached from London’s Greek émigré community, Ileana explains, ‘because our mother wasn’t really in it… she was Austrian-Hungarian. And my father was a bit of a maverick black sheep’.
Their parents built a family house at Skinos, on Ithaca, for summer holidays, with five bedrooms and a couple of cottages, set in 400 acres. ‘It’s on a large piece of land, with six beaches, and the thing that made it special is that it had a marina, which is very rare in Greece. We had a wooden boat, which is now a vintage wooden boat but is still there, and speedboats, and it was very much a house tied to the sea.’ Aristotle Onassis came to Skinos by boat to visit their father, as did Gianni Agnelli.
Panos Gratsos died in 1990, so he never got to see Marina and Ileana start their own businesses. When they were children, Greece was very cheap, but by 1994 the house at Skinos really had to earn its living. Instead of hiring an agent, Ileana decided to create her own business, one that could understand her sort of house and its requirements: how to market it, what sort of people would enjoy it, how to present it to them, and how to manage them when they came. She met an old family friend, Evi Aidonopoulou, who was in a similar situation, and they started to assemble a portfolio of houses: ‘Friends of hers, friends of mine. We had the credentials to bring the houses on to the market, because we were owners ourselves and we knew how to handle things in a more elegant way. So they trusted us; they let us bring our houses on to the market. The website had to be discreet and elegant.’
Five Star Greece was incorporated in 2000. ‘I suppose for about eight years we were the only company really doing that,’ says Ileana, ‘because it wasn’t a developed market in Greece. Greece wasn’t known for upmarket villa rentals — we really pioneered it. To be honest, it’s been a steady upwards slope since we started. We started off with about four houses. But one of our first clients was Madonna, by a stroke of luck. We were able to get some really quite wonderful houses on to the market, but the owners would never knowingly agree to rent. We would go to them and say, “Of course you don’t rent your house out, it goes without saying,” because it wasn’t done in good Greek circles, “but if Madonna wanted your house for next year for two weeks, you wouldn’t say no, would you?” And the owners would say, “Oh no, of course not. Let’s talk about it.” Now we get ten people a day contacting us with houses to rent, but in those days you had to really get around the stigma.’
Five Star Greece works on a regular basis with about 70 properties. ‘We know of a lot more,’ says Ileana. ‘We do rent mainly to families, so it’s not that one has to turn something into international hotel-style suites. Most of our clients are families. They either go with friends or as a multi-generational thing or as a celebration, so we very much prize the family feeling of all our houses.’
Many Greek owners don’t like air conditioning, but the customers will expect it, along with bedside lighting. ‘Bedside lighting is my particular bugbear,’ says Ileana. ‘Well, Greeks, obviously are a southern and passionate race and they don’t think bed is a place for reading, so they very rarely have proper bedside lights. And when I say to them, “A lot of our clients are English and American and they do like to read in bed,” they look at me in horror and say, “Why?” I say, “Never mind, just put bedside lights in there.” So those are the sort of quirks that we look out for.’
At the bottom end of the range would be a nice four-bedroomed house, near the sea, for about €5,000 a week, with a lady from the village who comes in and does all the cooking and cleaning. At the top of the range are grand Mykonos or Corfu houses with jetties and private beaches and full staff. ‘We take pride in being able to satisfy quite challenging demands,’ says Ileana. ‘That’s why the clients come to us. The only thing we ever said no to was a Russian lifestyle manager whose client wanted us to stage a pirate event in the bay, which would culminate in blowing up the pirate ship — you know, setting the pirate ship on fire. We did say no to that one.
‘Mykonos is having its little moment in the sun — its St Tropez moment. Prices there are reaching, and passing, €150,000 a week now. It has to be a large house: eight, nine bedrooms, lots of staff, tennis courts. If you’re going for the bottom end of the range, there’ll be a cleaning lady who’s there, but the owners all take care of their own housekeeping and house management. After that, it really depends on the level. In the grand houses of Corfu, the owners really staff them with everything you could possibly want and if our clients want something extra, we arrange it — with the owner, quite often. And then in the middle, some owners might have a cook; some might not — it depends where the island is. We can staff up according to clients’ wishes.’
Five Star Greece has stayed small ‘because clients want personal service’. Apart from Ileana and her partner, Evi Aidonopoulou, there is someone who helps with sales, someone who deals with post-sales, and ‘someone who does young person’s stuff… social media. We keep it small so that clients have the same person they can talk to year after year. We have a lot of repeat clients and a lot of word-of-mouth clients, and they like to have continuity.’
When Five Star Greece had been going for several years, it began to receive enquiries about properties outside Greece. Owners ‘were coming to us and saying, “Oh, we hear you rent out Skinos. We’ve got a palazzo here or a château there.”’ So Ileana suggested to her sister that she should think about doing a parallel business that stayed away from Greece but did the same thing in other places. Marina went to work for two years for a tour operator to get a feel for the business and then started Carpe Diem Luxury Travel.
‘My model’s slightly different,’ says Marina, ‘because, as I work directly with some owners, I’m more of a consultant, so people come to me and ask me to find stuff. I’ll find them a house and the owner of the property pays the commission. But I’m not destination-specific. I have a prized collection of houses all over the world, I know the owners, and we work together. But then I have a broader spectrum, which is finding things for people. I’ve got a client now — a repeat client — who wants to do a Dracula tour in Transylvania. So he’s asked me to find him a villa. And I don’t really provide the same ground services that Ileana does, because I’m not destination-specific.’
Italy and France are Carpe Diem’s biggest destinations because that is where Marina knows more people. The costs are a bit higher, says Ileana, ‘because you get better value houses in Greece — so for €8,000 you can get a nice four-bedroomed house by the sea in Greece. A four-bedroomed house in Italy by the sea is about twice that price.’
‘Yes,’ adds Marina, ‘because Greece has a lot more sea, and more houses, more islands, so there’s a bigger choice. My houses in St Tropez, for example, are €300,000 a week, and Caribbean houses can be $300,000 .’
‘The thing is,’ Ileana points out, ‘because I only do one country I do a big range, whereas Marina has many countries and just skims the cream off the top in all her countries.’
There are around 30 properties in Marina’s ‘private collection’ — the houses she knows, where she works directly with the owners. The broader selection is where she finds properties to order.
The sisters’ latest business venture, UltraVilla, is a brainchild of Ileana. For a while the sisters had been asked to put up their portfolios of properties on big web portals. They always said no, although they were willing to have their companies exhibited there, but that didn’t appeal to the web portals.
‘It struck me that what is needed in the villa world is a sort of platform where villa companies can all exhibit together,’ says Ileana. ‘Because it’s been quite hard work educating people on what a villa rental holiday is: what to expect, what to demand, who to go to. So I thought the best thing would be to bring together all the people who are the best in their field — the best for every region — and exhibit together, as if we were a trade show. So UltraVilla is really providing a space for those professionals to exhibit and for our clients to find them. When we select members to exhibit on UltraVilla, the touchstone has always been, “Would I refer my clients to these people?” It’s very much geared to finding the right people to give the right service to a certain type of client.
‘People — whether it be the travel agents or the clients — are quite scared of the world of private houses, because you don’t know what you might find on the internet; you either haven’t got time or you don’t trust it. I had one travel agent who said she wakes up in a sweat when she has a client that wants a private house, because they don’t know what to do. The world of private villas is a minefield… and UltraVilla is a directory to guide you through the minefield.’
Launched in June last year, UltraVilla already represents 42 companies that represent high-end private villas. ‘We are very selective — we get approached by people every week wanting to join and we turn most of them down. So I’m very pleasantly surprised to see how fast it’s grown on the member-acquisitions side. It means we can go on being very selective, and we’re going to start expanding the category a little bit, so it’s not just villa companies. We’re going to be taking on lodges in areas where there isn’t really a villa company, like Alaska. No one does Alaskan villas, but there are lodges.
‘We still have our client in mind. It’s just that he might also want to go on safari, or he might want to stay in a lodge, or he might want to take a private island, or he might want to go yachting. So we’re going to start expanding the product a little bit, always with this hypothetical client in mind.’
UltraVilla’s only income is the annual subscriptions paid by the members it exhibits. It doesn’t take bookings or charge commissions. They want to offer the clients a choice of the best, not to monopolise them, hence they have a handful of Italian specialists and three Greek companies. ‘We aim at the top 5 per cent in any area, and I think after that it’s probably enough,’ says Ileana. ‘The Caribbean is broken down into its islands, so we have a St Barths specialist, we have an Anguilla specialist, we have a Barbados specialist. We’ve got a couple of specialists who can actually cover the whole Caribbean — it’s a big area. And each island is jealously and ferociously managed by its specialist.’
Marina adds that there are also a couple of specialists like her, ‘who, if the clients don’t see what they’re looking for, they can then come to us and say, “We’re looking for this,” as if, you know… So they have a safety net. I’ve always said more people come on board if there are fewer destinations covered, but at the moment we don’t want people to think that they can’t find what they’re looking for.’
‘The market has become very crowded, definitely,’ says Ileana. ‘The market has become very crowded and, of course, the big web portals and the big fund-backed businesses really go for size — I mean, they’re numbers boys, they’ve never seen a client in their life, and they want to do something that is scalable — and UltraVilla is not scalable, because we are very much limited to the best. And as the market expands, it’s much more important, I think, to have something like UltraVilla, which focuses on… the word is “curating”, which I hate, but that is actually the word.
‘What we do at UltraVilla is we endorse the companies. At UltraVilla we don’t go round inspecting the properties. Our own businesses and all the members of UltraVilla will all have inspected their properties. Now, some clients ask for personal endorsements or, you know, references from other clients. Personally, I see very little value in that, because it’s very subjective. I mean, we’ve had clients rave about a house and we’ve had clients who didn’t enjoy it.’
Marina says that 95 per cent of the feedback she gets from clients is about the staff. ‘You know, they won’t remember the bedrooms, but they’ll always say things like, “The highlight for us was the day that Giovanna taught the children how to make ravioli,” or, you know, “Stefano went and took them picking blackberries,” or whatever it is — that’s the thing that they will remember more than anything. So, for me, anyway, the fact that the owners have brilliant staff is a key ingredient. People will put up with a couple of things that they’re not ecstatic about if the staff are fabulous. That’s another thing that you don’t get in hotels.’
For Ileana, it’s all about the houses. ‘I wouldn’t be able to sell anything to clients if I hadn’t seen it myself,’ she says. ‘Actually, the joy of my job is going to see these places. If I didn’t do that, I might as well be selling nuts and bolts. It’s quite a passion, private houses.’