Whisper it – but among the middle classes, Airbnb may be losing its allure. A recent Tweet criticising the platform sparked a viral debate, with users sharing experiences of extensive “rule books” and unreasonable check-out times. As well as the increasingly standard bin-emptying demands, there were even claims of having to mow the lawn – hardly a dream holiday.
But there’s no doubt that holiday rentals you can book within a couple of clicks have a lingering appeal, with their promise of privacy and a home-away-from-home feel. Add to this a huge array of accommodation choices, plus more niche locations than major hotel groups may offer and it’s a compelling picture.
No surprise then, that the concept has gone high-end. In recent years, a crop of gold-dipped alternatives have sprung up for the super-rich, for whom the rules don’t really apply.
One such company is A.M.A Selections, which started life as a local boutique rental agency with just 15 properties on the French Riviera. Sensing an opportunity with the rapid change in the holiday homes market, it set about creating a Europe-wide booking platform for ultra-high-net-worth individuals and now lists more than 1,000 rentals.
“We reimagined the booking experience for the luxury traveller, meeting the demand for a sophisticated alternative to Airbnb,” says co-founder Mariek Anselme.
Indeed hours could be lost perusing the megawatt properties on its website, where property filters include “hammam” and “castle” – quite the contrast to Airbnb’s “private” or “shared” room options. Naturally, the Continent’s most glamorous destinations all feature – there’s Villa Antica, a 10-bedroom villa that sits above Positano (ranging from €28,070 to €67,480 per week).
You can almost picture Succession’s Roy family having a tense meeting or difficult dinner on one of the huge terraces that overlook the dramatic Amalfi coastline. Or how about Domaine Canoub the six-bedroom St Tropez villa where your next-door neighbour would be Brigitte Bardot (prices reach €175,000 a week in peak season)?
But is there really such huge demand for six-figure-a-week holiday homes? Apparently so. A.M.A Selections says bookings in January for this summer were up 36 per cent on last year and the company expects to double its growth this year, having achieved the same feat in 2022.
An early pioneer of the genre was One Fine Stay, which launched in London a decade ago and now features properties everywhere from Lake Como to Koh Samui. It even has Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island on its books (yours exclusively from £93,707 per night – you just need to find 48 friends to split the cost with).
Chief Operating Officer David Whiteside says clients span “everyone from families looking for beautifully secluded Caribbean villas and actors looking for a luxury home for the duration of their filming schedule in Los Angeles”.
Business is certainly booming. The company has just launched a slate of townhouses in Manhattan, and properties in the Hamptons (where else?) plus Provence are slated for later this year. It’s a similar story for Plum Guide, a growing globe-trotting platform that saw its word-of-mouth bookings almost triple last year. The whimsical names it assigns to its Parisian penthouses include Gold Digger, the Duke’s Seat and Heritage Hottie – a window into the lives of the one per cent, perhaps.
Elsewhere, high-end hotel groups are also getting in on the act, marrying up the seclusion and space of villas with the service and amenities of luxury hotels. The Mandarin Oriental group recently launched its Exclusive Homes offering, opening up private homes in the likes of Mallorca, Puglia and the Alps. It describes premium rentals as “a fast-growing segment of travel” and emphasises its guests’ desire for “privacy and laid-back luxury – but with assured service and support [...]”.
As such, all properties are staffed with a concierge, chef and team of housekeepers. A private island escape off Ibiza also has its own boat captain. And in very 2023 style, rental enquiries can be made via WhatsApp.
Aman Resorts, whose hotels offer so much space for guests they almost feel like private homes already, has also launched a clutch of villas in Bali’s popular Nusa Dua resort area, featuring access to a private beach club and yoga instructors on standby.
Of course, the super-rich don’t just demand drool-worthy villas. There must also be exclusive experiences that can later be bragged about at business meetings or charity balls. When booking a standard Airbnb, the best you might hope for is a laminated sheet suggesting local restaurants or tours, but A.M.A Selections offers a host of activities to amp up your stay, with a digital concierge service to coordinate. At one of its Alpine chalets you can try a helicopter paragliding trip led by a world record-holder in the sport, or – for something a little less high-octane – how about a private mountaintop fondue lunch?
In a slightly sickening twist, the super-wealthy might not have to spend any money to stay in a dream holiday home. ThirdHome is a luxury house-swapping website, which to join you must have a second property to offer up worth at least $1 million (though the average value is actually $2.4 million and some listed reach $50 million). Following an inspection, each home is given a “key value”, which determines how much credit you earn for your own travels. Private island escapes in the Philippines, superyachts and Californian wine estates are among its 15,000-strong portfolio, with at least 200 new listings added each month.
Airbnb has had a go at attracting the more moneyed market, launching Airbnb Luxe back in 2019, which features premium (though not necessarily outlandishly plush) homes around the world. However, the company admitted that “following the pandemic we've really turned our attention to core hosts – everyday British people renting their home or a space in their home”.
Its comparatively limited success could be a brand association issue or reflective of the growing polarisation between the haves and the have-nots. The middle may be hollowing out, but clearly the market for mega-mansions in the Med has never been more buoyant.
Five of the most fabulous properties to rent
Villa Alang Alang, Cannes, France
To the French Riviera, and a cliff-top Balinese-inspired mansion rumoured to be worth upwards of €65 million. The sprawling outside space is a highlight, with mosaic-tiled pool, various cabanas and a swim-up thatched-roof bar. Inside, the master suite has a hot tub and massage area, while the jumbo gym features a full-sized boxing ring. There’s even a guest wing for your personal staff.
Sleeps 18; book it from £19,031 per night
überHaus, Lech, Austria
This ski-in-ski-out chalet in Austria’s most exclusive resort – Princess Diana was a fan – lives up to its superlative name. On-site perks include a home cinema, billiards room and a large terrace with glass-bottomed hot tub. The property also includes a private ski-butler service to guide nervous guests on the pistes during their stay, plus a Mandarin Oriental-approved chef, who creates personalised dinner menus, bumper breakfasts and a daily afternoon tea.
Sleeps 10; book it from €59,780 per week
Tosca Estate, Tuscany, Italy
As a long-standing favourite of English aristocrats, Tuscany isn’t short of plush holiday homes or, more accurately, estates. One of the finest sits an hour outside of Siena, and has been producing wine and olive oil since 1580. Naturally, there’s a fully stocked wine cellar and tasting room, but other delights include two swimming pools, a private restaurant (open exclusively to the estate’s guests) and chapel.
Sleeps 22; book it from €21,874 per week
Malibu Midnight Hour, Los Angeles
Live the American dream with a stay at this sleek Malibu beach house, intriguingly designed by US DJ Skrillex. To maximise the Pacific Ocean views, there’s an indoor/outdoor feel throughout, with the essentials of a bar and firepit flanking the infinity pool, plus enough low-slung seating for about 50 friends. Be prepared to fight for the master bedroom, which comes with its own outdoor area featuring an al fresco hot tub and rain shower.
Sleeps 12; book it from £6,793 per night
Barcelona Chateau, Spain
A chateau in central Barcelona may seem an unlikely concept, but just 20 minutes from the Sagrada Familia sits this lavish home suitable for modern-day Marie Antoinettes. Its location close to Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium suggests the owner could be a footballer – as do bling-tastic details such as the on-site nightclub (with its own entrance) and garage for 10 cars. And with four floors and two swimming pools for six guests, there’s certainly no danger of things feeling crowded.
Sleeps six; book it for free – with a “nominal” booking fee and conditional on having your own super-sized property to swap