Rentvillas, vacation rentals in Europe
For this month's profile we talked to Suzanne Pidduck, owner of Rentvillas.com. They provide a selection of vacation rentals throughout Europe - Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland.
I have "known" Suzanne for many years, but finally met her in person at a travel show in 2008. Rentvillas.com is one of the original vacation rental agencies in the US and they know what we want in European vacation rentals.
A vacation and a whim changed Suzanne Pidduck's life and career path. In 1984 an Italian friend sent her the European villa catalog from Cuendet and she selected an 18th century villa for her one-month vacation. Suzanne and her young family, along with a small group of friends, found themselves immersed in a Tuscan postcard, in an historic home on a hill overlooking the ancient walled town of Monteriggioni.
There was a nearby village for necessities, and where the kids bought fishing poles to use in the stream on the property. They enjoyed sumptuous meals made with local produce, day trips all over Tuscany and Umbria, and evening Trivial Pursuit games under an arbor of wisteria. "It was a marvelous experience," she says.
On a whim she decided to visit the Cuendet office which was nearby and offered her services as a US agent for their villas, looking at it as a way to visit Italy more often. "I attended Syracuse University in Florence during my junior year. I kept returning to Italy to visit the family I had lived with and because I loved Florence," so representing vacation rentals seemed like a good way to keep that love affair alive.
Cuendet was initially skeptical but accepted her proposal. She returned home and sent a blurb about her new business venture to the travel editor of the Los Angeles Times. To her surprise he ran a story about her and the business was launched.
A Strong Presence Throughout Europe
Twenty-five years later Rentvillas is one of the oldest and most prominent vacation rental agencies, now representing 1795 properties all over Europe and the Caribbean, and have a staff of 11. They work with both local agencies and private owners, and still represent many of Cuendet's best properties.
Suzanne travels annually to Europe, exploring new territory and inspecting new properties. All of the Rentvillas staff members are passionate travelers, too.
Each client is assigned a personal travel advisor, one of the multi-lingual employees who has knowledge and expertise in a particular region and who can answer questions, learn about a family, their likes and dislikes, and help them select the right property for their needs.
"Our web site is not a tool to replace human interaction, but a tool to augment it," Suzanne points out. They still like to talk to clients directly. Making sure the vacation property matches their expectations is what ensures an enjoyable stay, and has garnered them a local international following, as well as mentions in publications like the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, and CNN Money.
User-Friendly Website Makes It Simple
Their exceptional website, however, is what has helped the agency grow by leaps and bounds. Suzanne's son Kevin, who is Rentvillas' CEO, designed it to be simple and usable. Everything is spelled out: detailed descriptions of the property, both interior and exterior, and its amenities; pricing and availability; terms of the rental; and customer ratings and reviews. A sidebar gives the bottom line in a glance – the basic details like number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and amenities in brief. It is all rounded out with abundant photos.
Properties are categorized for easy browsing, such as Walk to Town, Family Friendly, and Near the Water. The site allows for online bookings, 48-hour holds, credit card payments, and a clear description of any additional costs, such as electricity consumption or heating charges. It is all designed to let the client be fully informed before booking.
Rentvillas also offers a Best Price Guarantee. If a client finds a lower published rate on the same property for the same booking period, they will match it or refund the booking.
It all combines to spell success; they maintain a 98% customer satisfaction rating. Suzanne says that they receive very few customer complaints. "We focus on high quality properties and provide full disclosure at the time of booking. We find properties with an owner or representative who understands American expectations. This really is our recipe for success. Clients are given multiple contact numbers in case of problems, and we have an office in Rome that is able to resolve most issues the same day."
Advice for European Travelers
While Suzanne speaks Italian, and her son Kevin speaks French and German, she says that Americans traveling abroad don't have to be bi-lingual to enjoy their vacation. Linguistic differences don't have to be an obstacle. "I think that if Americans will leave behind the notion that everyone has to speak English, and instead bring a pocket dictionary and a spirit of adventure and a bit of patience, all will be great!"
Suzanne should know about packing a sense of adventure and patience. Her first European trip was to Istanbul for a three-month student exchange program where she lived with a family in an apartment just inside the Topkapi Gate. "While they had just installed a western-style toilet for my use, there was no shower or tub, no telephone, no car, and no hot water. Only my "sister" spoke a fraction of English. There was a small mosque right outside the window, so five times a day I listened to the muezzin call the faithful to prayer. Our apartment was just minutes away from the Covered Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, so these were almost like our neighborhood. As a result of this exotic experience I decided to major in Comparative Religions." A generation later, Kevin is married to a beautiful young woman from Istanbul!
The best periods for travel to Europe, according to Suzanne, are the months of May, June, September and October, and she recommends avoiding August when Europeans are on vacation and the heat can hinder enjoyment. Her advice for those who are thinking about booking a trip in 2010? "Book early!"
Rentvillas introduces clients to the destination with a copy of Suzanne's books. Those who rent a vacation property in France or Italy receive a complimentary copy of Living Like a Local in France (or Italy) in their booking packets, to help them make the most of their stay.
As for trends, she is noticing that everyone seems to want two things in a vacation rental these days: internet access, preferably wireless, and air conditioning. "Until a few years ago air conditioning didn't really exist in private homes in most of Europe. Now owners are being forced to install AC units." While some owners are scrambling to accommodate market demands, others still need to focus on the essentials. "A real pet peeve of mine is when owners don't provide the basics in the house, like toilet paper and common spices."
Despite its unparalleled success, Rentvillas doesn't plan to rest on its laurels. They have some surprises in store for next year to help clients experience their destination in fun new ways. "Since we all travel a lot, we are always discovering really unique things to do. We want to be able to introduce clients to an experience that very few people get to have, and we think they will love it!"
Thank you Suzanne for taking the time to tell us about Rentvillas.com!