Sara Whitford, once a partner at a high-powered law firm, is general counsel and senior vice president of real estate at Denver-based Exclusive Resorts, whose portfolio she’s helped grow to more than 350 luxury residences across 75 global destinations.
A private vacation club founded by AOL pioneer Steve Case in 2002, Exclusive Resorts has grown to one of the largest owners of luxury real estate in the world, according to the company. It also teams with developers and hospitality brands, including Four Seasons and Eden Roc, to manage members-only vacation residences.
“At Four Seasons Anguilla, for example, we operate Exclusive Resorts residences within that brand. They’re our residences, operated with our service standards,” Ms. Whitford said.
With 4,300 hundred members, and new membership capped at 250 each year, Exclusive Resorts “operates much like a country club,” according to the company. Members pay a one-time initiation fee of $175,000 for a ten-year plan, along with annual dues based on the extent of travel—25 travel days starts at $36,625 annually, according to its membership page. Members can share properties with family; daily rates stay the same, even at peak times.
Ms. Whitford talked to Mansion Global about why sense of place matters in design, how family travel is evolving, and why the meaning of luxury is personal.
More: Quiet in Your Home Is a True Luxury, Says Macklowe’s Director of Architecture
Mansion Global: What kinds of properties does Exclusive Resorts offer to members?
Sara Whitford: Most homes are within the $3 million to $4 million range, well-designed and professionally furnished. It’s mostly four-bedrooms for beach and ski locations, and smaller two-bedrooms for metropolitan locations. It’s a mix of residences located within five-star resorts, communities or metropolitan areas—members like all of those experiences.
MG: What’s the advantage of becoming an Exclusive Resorts member, as opposed to experiencing these destinations on one’s own?
SW: First, it’s value. We’re on a set rate, with most offerings at $1,465 per night. That can represent a real value, since the regular average daily rate for some of these residences can be four times that. Another advantage is service. Our concierge will reach out to members well in advance of a trip to make sure they have everything lined up: the grocery list to get the house fully stocked, restaurants the member wants booked, activities and wellness offerings they’re seeking. There’s a seamless transition from planning once they’re on site, because the same concierge is on site and dedicated to helping them.
More: Every House Is an Opportunity to Learn and Push the Design Envelope Further, Says Thomas A. Kligerman
MG: How have members changed their stays since the pandemic?
SW: We have quite a few people doing longer trips where they’re focused on doing more work. Some of those stays may last four or five weeks, so the member wants to ensure they can have Wi-Fi connectivity and a quiet place to work. At the same time, there’s a renewed focus on spaces where people can be with their loved ones, but in private spaces away from the public and other guests. During the pandemic, you also saw smaller groups keeping to their immediate households. We’re seeing it return to intergenerational travel, with grandparents and entire families traveling together, which has always been popular for members.
MG: What other companies or brands are in your competitive set?
SW: Time-shares might be closest. Branded residences and hotels are all complementary offerings. Our members love our club because it allows them to see a lot of places, experience destinations they may not have thought to visit and trust us to take them there. Once they fall in love with a destination, they may purchase a home there. There are very few destinations we’ve introduced members to where they haven’t bought residences.
More: ‘Be in Touch With Your Creativity,’ Says New York Architect
MG: For partners like Four Seasons, what’s the value proposition in a relationship with Exclusive Resorts?
SW: For a resort with real estate to sell, the value proposition is that we’re bringing potential purchasers to their door who are high-net-worth, or ultra-high-net-worth and highly qualified. Our members also spend quite a bit in-destination. Resorts report back on in-resort spend, and our members tend to be their highest spenders, whether it’s on the spa, restaurant or activities. And even if a property doesn’t sell real estate, our members are repeat visitors. They might come back with additional family members and rent another home or more rooms.
MG: What does your role as senior vice president of real estate involve?
SW: My team oversees all acquisition and disposition of properties in our residence collection, and I have primary responsibility for acquisition. I’m focused on making connections with brands and developers early in their development process—I mean pre-construction and pre-release, which is the best time to get into these communities. We might even get to have input on design. Even if we don’t, coming in at an early point is a win-win.
MG: What kind of input have you offered on design?
SW: We’ve offered more input on [furniture, fixtures and equipment] design. We’re seeing a trend toward clean and contemporary. Homes should have a sense of place, and a feel for where you’re staying. The modern-mountain look at a residence in Vail does and should feel different than one in Sea Island, Georgia, where you get a lighter, coastal ambiance.
MG: What’s the outlook for Exclusive Resorts as travel continues to rebound?
SW: We’re looking to expand into metropolitan areas in Europe, including Paris and London. Demand is astronomical, so we brought on additional inventory in both cities for the remainder of 2022. We’re at the finish line of a contract for four new-construction, five-star luxury residences in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico. We’re also looking to expand into California wine country, Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts, and smaller metro areas like Charleston and Nashville.
MG: What’s your own definition of luxury?
SW: Luxury is individual. It’s someone able to have what they want and what they’re looking for. What’s luxury for me may not be luxury for the next person. For me, it might mean a private pool and private hot tub where the kids can jump in the pool first thing in the morning, I can have my tea, and I don’t have to dress up to go to the hotel pool. For someone else, it might mean whatever they need to feel comfortable, relaxed and cared for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Click to read more luxury real estate professionals share their insights