Small retreats in a home away from home
While renting houses, condominiums or other hotel alternatives has always been part of the accommodations mix, small groups are also finding it an attractive low-profile way to hold focused retreats or provide enticing incentive awards.
For those seeking the option of using resort-type amenities, some hotel properties offer larger private units or stand-alone homes in addition to traditional rooms and suites. In any case, F&B needs can be met through an attached resort, restaurant or local independent caterer.
One advantage of home rentals is the ability to choose destinations that may not have substantial hotel inventory, such as remote lake country in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest coast, smaller towns on the Atlantic coast, or islands, from Nantucket to Key West and Aruba to Bermuda.
For small groups or staff retreat programs needing a site with minimal distraction, a relaxed setting with unobtrusive services and 24-hour access, a house fits the criteria. Homes make for a creative setting conducive to brainstorming sessions, focus groups and strategic-planning teams. Some choose home rentals when a region is otherwise sold out or block space for executive housing. Homes may also simplify security measures for high-profile executives.
The Sanderling Resort & Spa in Duck, N.C., on the Outer Banks, has five luxury beach houses in addition to 88 traditional rooms and full-service resort amenities, including restaurants and 5,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space. “Groups use the houses for small meetings and also book additional meeting space at the resort, such as the conference center or boardroom,” says Wendy Murray, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. “If they are using the house for meetings, it’s available 24 hours a day. There are no staff interruptions and they can bring in their own food and beverage (or we can provide catering to them). It’s very versatile and the attendees love it.”
Renting homes is typically done directly through owners, a referral service or a local realty office. “We have booked vacation properties for companies to use specifically for Austin’s SXSW conference, which takes place each year in March. This year, we helped facilitate a home for the filmmaking group Poptent during the festival,” says Jon Gray, vice president of HomeAway, North America. “Many of our clients enjoy a place that feels like a home and many hotels are now incorporating design elements you’d otherwise find in a home anyway,” says Taylor Perkins, CEO of STR Austin, a property manager in Texas, whose inventory has been used to host employees from companies such as Twitter, AOL and Nike. “Vacation homes have the added community space balanced with the available privacy that some hotels lack, all without sacrificing vital elements of business such as wireless Internet and phone service. Rentals can come equipped with private pools and hot tubs, access to beaches or recreation areas, stocked bars and game rooms to cut loose in. Access to these amenities provides an instant opportunity for team-building events,” says Gray.
Cost and time requirements are a major factor. Houses are often rented by the week or weekend rather than by the night. Yet depending on the location and season, a rental (even if at nightly rates) can offer substantial savings over the costs of individual rooms and meeting space, parking, Wi-Fi access or other features at a comparable resort or city hotel.
What to Consider
Given the casual intimacy that a house provides, it’s important to be aware of a group’s dynamics and established relationships. “Usually the person planning the meeting is not actually coming to the event, which creates some disconnect between that person and the attendees,” says Murray. “Sometimes the groups want more involvement from our staff and sometimes things are planned (such as a lunch or dinner in the restaurant) and the group doesn’t stick to a schedule. We are happy to be as flexible as necessary.” She also suggests that planners ask property managers about having chef-prepared private dinners, onsite A/V services or other needs such as housekeeping, as well as about the general floor plan. At the Sanderling, for example, “The Golden Eye house is great because all the living area is on the third floor so the common areas are completely separate from any bedrooms.”
Small entrepreneurial groups, typically those with home-based remote teams or clients, can consider local housing rentals for conducting periodic meetings or onsite strategy or deadline-driven working sessions. For an upcoming travel blogger conference, HomeAway’s own PR team will rent a home in Keystone, Colo., to host members in an informal setting outside of the conference events.
Catering options run the gamut from onsite chefs to ordering sandwiches to a group cooking a meal together to share on a patio. Obviously, a house connected to a hotel will likely have ample catering options; services offered or arranged by individually owned homes will vary wildly. “In many cases, homes can include a concierge service to deliver on any needs that guests require. To entice their guests, many owners stock their pantries with dry goods and fresh, local produce, as well as equip their kitchens with the necessary pots, pans and utensils to prepare meals,” adds HomeAway’s Gray. “An owner in Austin is an esteemed chef herself and takes pride in the extensive amount of stock she keeps for her guests.”
Finding the Perfect Rental
Search for homes through established national online referral agencies and small companies with strong local knowledge.
Inquire about the size of the home, including the space necessary to conduct business.
Understand where attendees will sleep and what level of privacy is anticipated.
Ask about specifics such as parking, Wi-Fi and telephone connections.