The Ultimate Escapes Escape: The Anatomy Of The Destination Club Vacation
The story below deals with my Ultimate Escapes escape: an experiential vacation trip I took last month. Those who know me know that I have experienced many destination club residences and villas, and I am usually asked questions about them, as many people have heard mixed reviews, due to the well-publicized bankruptcies of Lusso, High Country, Tanner & Haley and Solstice, all within the past few years. But, the vision and the reality of the destination club remains. At present, there are probably between 7,000 to 8,000 members for DCs, and those members are fiercely loyal, due to the treatment they receive on their vacations. It became obvious, early in 2004 when the industry was in its infancy, that it encountered an unexpected consumer need (not fault) line -- the need for sanctuary and for legacy from their vacation time.
Spend all you have on loveliness,
Buy it, and never count the cost
For one white shining hour of peace,
Count many an hour of strife, well lost.
What Sara and I are saying is that the need for sanctuary -- a white shining hour of peace -- was and remains, priceless. No matter how many clubs go under, those that remain are stabilizing, due to the ongoing need of the high end vacation consumer.
"The need will always be there, and our member stories bear this out" said Richard Keith, Chairman of Ultimate Escapes, in a recent interview with me. "There have always been two parts to Ultimate; the business side and the hospitality side. The hospitality side includes our travel component. Our members and their families are traveling more now, as Ultimate Escapes is the number two non-equity based destination club in the world. In terms of members, it is #2, as it has about 1200 members. But we are #1 when it comes to numbers and varieties of destinations., which is quite important for this industry."
I recently traveled to one of their most popular areas and residences, to the Miami/Fort Lauderdale North Beach area, and stayed at the Acqualina Resort, where Ultimate has one of their residences. I have experienced two other Ultimate Resorts residences in the past four years, and always retained the sense of being exceptionally well-cared for from the Escape Planner to the Destination Host – two jobs that sound easy -- but are complex, due to the multiplicity of last second airline and travel changes. But the intensity of the care for the members and the attention to the tiniest details of the residences stayed with me. Pre-arrival grocery shopping is one of the amenities done by the Destination Host -- this is one of the things done by all the clubs, but it was only the Ultimate Escapes Host who called me on my arrival day. "Susan!" she said with a slight edge of panic in her voice, " I have been to four grocery stores today and can't find the brand of kettle potato chips you wanted. Is it OK if I substitute another brand? I have tried them before and they are just as good."
This kind of employee intensity and care is reflective of Ultimate's founder and CEO, Jim Tousignant -- a very intense, dedicated, committed man. I have written about him before, as his story of how and why he founded Ultimate defines his commitment to making the company a success. After speaking with him many times, and at length over years, I am sure it is underscored because he is one of the rare few who have been granted a genuine second chance at life, and with such a Carpe Diem gift, believe they must make the most of the time they have left to make the world a more enjoyable place. So it was with Jim Tousignant on 9/11. He was a survivor of the attacks-- having been on one of the top floors of the South Tower. He escaped to the street, then to a subway and to Grand Central Station where he took a train home. Like many that day, he decided to do something different – so he left Morgan Stanley to explore other options, including the then embryonic world of the shared residence industry. He never looked back, and founded one of the most successful destination clubs of all time.
One of the major reasons the design of an Ultimate Escapes vacation is so seductive is that it is so easy. There are usually two people planning the vacation: the Escape Planner – the person who helps you choose your flight schedule, and once you get there, your Destination Host. These are the people who determine how you get from the airport to the residence, what you can do at the residence or around it, get the best car rental deals, get the best tickets for concerts or shows if you are in an urban place, set up spa times, etc. Having both people working for a family or for an individual defines LUXURY to many. And, in my experience with Ultimate, the planners and the hosts are always available by phone, just as they say they will be. The Host meets you at your residence also and escorts you into the new surroundings. Nothing is left to chance – a good thing.
My Escape experience was about ¾ business and ¼ enjoyment: I had meetings with colleagues at the Acqualina, at lunch and dinner at nearby restaurants, and had spa treatments at the E'spa in the hotel. All were wonderful, and all were scheduled in advance according to my directives. The residence was spacious and comfortable: 3 bedrooms, 31/2 baths, on one of the higher floors, with two views: one of the ocean, the other of the Intercoastal Waterway (see below). One of the Ultimate Escape benchmarks is how electronically savvy the residences are: IPOD Nanos, computers, mobile phones, flat screen TVs in almost every room. In every way, the Escape made me feel as if I were part of the North Beach Miami scene – close enough to shopping, nightlife, great food, water sports and spa treatments, but far enough away as well.
The pricing for an Ultimate Escapes vacation is extremely varied, due to their three membership levels. Membership deposits range from $70,000 to $450,000. The variables are the number of days desired from fourteen to sixty, and the size and quality of the residences -- from 1-2M to 3-4M.