When Jack Samenuk checked into Zabriskie House last week, there was no mystery about whom he would encounter in the inn’s double parlor or wood-paneled dining room.
The only guests in the 11-bedroom property, which opened in January as part of the Inns of Aurora, a resort in New York’s Finger Lakes region, are Samenuk’s nearest and dearest: his mother, three siblings and their families, including two children, 3 and 4, and two Labrador retrievers. The group also invited some in-laws to join them for a private dinner and backyard s’mores on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s just going to be us; no one else will be there,” said Samenuk, 21, a model and Fordham University student who lives in New York City. “I feel like it’ll be our little home away from home.”
That arrangement — a “buyout,” where one group pays for free run of an entire hotel or resort — has become increasingly popular for travelers with means in the COVID-19 era. Zabriskie House buyouts start at $4,500 a night, depending on the time of the year, length of stay and other factors. For those who aren’t deterred by a bill in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, buyouts offer the amenities and services of a hotel and the privacy and control of a vacation rental.
“Buyouts were very ‘of the moment’ even before COVID,” said David Prior, co-founder of PRIOR, a travel company that specializes in luxury trips. “But now even more so, because you can go with friends or an intergenerational group and still feel safe. It’s almost like a reunion.”
‘A big, safe get-together’
The pursuit of “togetherness” is what motivated Juan Soria, 51, to organize a Thanksgiving trip to Dive Palm Springs, a French Riviera-inspired boutique hotel in California. Buyouts at Dive start around $2,500 a night — the cost of booking all 11 rooms at their standard rate, which starts at $225 a night — plus a one-time $5,000 event fee.
“We have a large community of friends who go to parties and events, which we’ve all missed this year,” said Soria, a technology consultant who lives in San Francisco. “And I thought, ‘I would love to just have a big, safe get-together with our closest friends and have a great time.’”
Before the gathering, Soria and his wife, Katie Moore, 47, created a Google Slides presentation that detailed hotel floor plans and other logistics, then shared it with the group, which totaled 19 adults, over Zoom. The four-night trip was given an official name (“Mission: ImPALMsible”) and mantra (“Safety, Serenity, Respect”).
Soria said he chose Dive in part because of its layout: The majority of common spaces, including a large pool area, are outside.
“There’s no way we would want to be taking over, say, a part of a larger property without physical segmentation from other guests,” he said.
Soria and Moore worked with the Dive team to ensure certain requests were met. Thanksgiving dinner seating was arranged so that “pods” — either couples or sets of couples that had been quarantining together at home — could sit together.
A unique experience
As Soria’s experience showed, having the run of the place leads to hotel and resort stays being curated to travelers’ tastes and interests. For a group of clients, PRIOR, the travel company, is customizing a buyout of Hotel Garzon, chef Francis Mallmann’s five-room boutique hotel in Uruguay. But that’s not all: Mallmann will give a master class on grilling, his culinary specialty, and be on hand to hobnob with his guests.
Bespoke trips of that sort range in price but usually start at around $5,000 a person, on top of PRIOR’s $249 annual membership fee, Prior said.
“We work with each location to create something tailored and special,” he said. “It’s like a hybrid of an intimate party and a touring group.”
At Estancia Vik, a 12-suite boutique hotel in José Ignacio, Uruguay, a new buyout package ($6,000 a night) can be customized with activities like private polo demonstrations and moonlit horseback rides.
“Usually when we have a buyout, we have all of our resources focused on that group; that makes our options even better and more extensive,” said Tomas Laura, Estancia Vik’s manager.
For six weeks this summer, a group of four adults and four children bought out the seven-bedroom main house — which usually accommodates 14 people — at Cape Arundel Inn & Resort, in Kennebunkport, Maine. They brought along a basketball hoop and trampoline, which the hotel’s maintenance team set up.
“When someone’s taking over the whole property, they can really do anything they want,” said Justin Grimes, managing director at Kennebunkport Resort Collection, which owns and manages Cape Arundel. “If we were open with a traditional model, we wouldn’t be able to just throw up a basketball hoop. Guests get a really unique experience.”
After a prolonged closure in winter and spring, Cape Arundel reopened with a buyout-only model in June. In addition to the main house, guests can take over the property’s three-bedroom cottage (or both). The switch has allowed the seaside resort to help defray some of the first-half financial losses and keep staff employed, Grimes said.
For operators like Grimes, a single large group can in many ways be easier to attend to than multiple smaller groups, even with the year’s new health precautions. One point of contact, for instance, means staff can often handle requests remotely — another way to limit in-person interaction. Dining is more streamlined, too.
“If we were operating our restaurant with a full hotel, we would have needed to coordinate dining times, party size and contact-tracing reporting, all in what is a modest-sized dining room,” Grimes said.
Before the pandemic, most luxury hotels arranged buyouts upon request. Many now offer formalized buyout packages to attract the increased interest.
“We’ve never seen so much demand so early in the season,” said Nina Libby, vice president of marketing at Caldera House, an eight-suite hotel and alpine club in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Families are excited to reunite, but people are making safety a priority during their vacations this year.”
Caldera House’s new buyout package starts at $21,900 a night for a minimum of seven nights. Experiences might include sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge or, for an added fee, a private ski session with Bode Miller, the Olympic gold medalist.
Larger hotels and resorts are also getting in the game. Groups that can fill a minimum of 70 suites can take over Casa Velas, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for $49,420 a night. The new “Tower Takeover” (price upon request) at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino allows groups to buy out one of the hotel’s three towers (the smallest has 80 rooms). The new buyout package at InterContinental New York Times Square (from $100,000 a night) affords access to a minimum of 200 rooms, the 4,000- square-foot ballroom and more.
But for William and Alexandra Cobb, 27 and 25, the fewer, the merrier.
The Philadelphia couple rented out Sheldon Chalet, a five-bedroom luxury hotel in Alaska’s Denali National Park, for their October wedding. No seating charts needed; their guest list featured only themselves.
“It had to be something that was private,” said William Cobb, a consultant for private equity firms. “We wanted something that was just us.”
Reachable only by private helicopter, Sheldon Chalet transitioned to a buyout-only model in March. The starting rate is $35,000 for a three-night minimum.
“They did everything for us,” said Alexandra Cobb, an occupational therapist. “We ate crabcakes on a glacier after taking a fixed-wing flight. We really wanted espresso martinis, and they experimented with five different recipes.”
Yet when it was time to celebrate, the newlyweds discovered they weren’t, in fact, totally alone.
“They set up a disco ball for the night of our wedding,” Alexandra Cobb said. “The staff partied with us the whole night.”