The Thinking Traveller is a villa rental company that offers exclusive access to some of the most desirable properties in the Mediterranean. Guests of The Thinking Traveller also gain access to local insider knowledge through the company’s on-the-ground concierge team who plan bespoke itineraries and experiences. Here, we speak to the founders Huw and Rossella Beaugié about their villa selection process, luxury retreats and their intrinsically sustainable ethos
LUX: How did was the concept for The Thinking Traveller conceived?
Huw Beaugié: We started the company in 2002. Prior to that [Rossella and I] had been living in Paris, where we met in ‘98. Rossella was a cell biologist doing her PhD in Paris and I was an engineer working in marketing at that time. Rossella is from Sicily, so we had been travelling to Sicily a lot already. We went there in November 2000 and that was the kind of the catalyst. We climbed up a mountain called Stromboli, and doing that made us decide that we would like to move there for a bit, which we ended up doing two years later.
Rossella Beaugié: We started doing walking tours first of all and then very soon my friends started saying ‘oh we’ve got this nice house on the island, would you want to try renting it out?’. So the first brochure we put together had three walking tours with volcanos and hills, and then seven villas, I think. At the time we were doing everything ourselves but it worked.
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Huw Beaugié: There wasn’t anything of great quality in Sicily so we realised that we needed to really help these villa owners to create a property and product that would fit our clients and the people we wanted to be our clients. We started advising [the property owners], helping with design and we even began advancing money to invest in pools or refurbishments. We would make contact with interior designers to help them develop the houses. Really quickly we figured that if we were making all these investments, the only way we could really work with these houses and make it profitable would be to deal with them exclusively. That is one of the things we have stuck with ever since. We started with seven houses and we now have about 220 in various destinations in the Mediterranean, but the really vital and big unique selling point is that they are all exclusive to us and that means we can still keep on investing to make sure the quality and service is right, and to have our people on the ground to support that. We are expanding slowly, being careful to always keep the quality increasing rather than diluting.
Rossella Beaugié: The secret has been that right from the beginning. For the first 10 years we were in Sicily so we were around the whole time and then we started hiring staff who are really knowledgeable people and know everybody locally, meaning they can find the best doctor if needed, the best yoga teacher or if you wanted to organise a dinner we can do that. We don’t have reps who move around, our staff work for us 12 months a year and they have insider knowledge.
LUX: What challenges have you encountered now that your main offices are in the UK and you’re based here?
Rossella Beaugié: We have developed quite slowly. There have been two regions that we were interested in but because we hadn’t found the right people or properties we wanted to offer clients, we decided not to go with them. We are happy with the regions we’re working in because we have amazing teams and the owners of properties share our priorities and ethos. The team here receive so many offers of villas everywhere, we could have 10,000 villas! We get that many offers because they see the website, they like it and we have a good reputation, but we have been careful of where we go and what we take on.
LUX: How do you select the villas to represent?
Rossella Beaugié: They tend to come to us. It is usually owners knowing us already, maybe due to our reputation amongst other owners who also have these kinds of top level properties. So what we do first of all is decide whether it’s for us and we can see that now straight away with Google and photos.
Huw Beaugié: Probably 70% of them we cut immediately. The next 30% we go further and ask for more information, and then perhaps the final 5% will end up with a visit and a detailed report and out of those, we probably only take on one property.
LUX: What are the key elements you’re looking for?
Rossella Beaugié: We are now at a stage where we know what our clients want so we have criteria, but at the bottom of it, we really need to truly like the property in terms of style and we have to know that the owner could be a good partner because it’s their house and they continue managing the property so they need to be able to reinvest and sort out problems quickly. In terms of more objective criteria, the location and views are important but it depends on the region. Greece, for example, is really all about location so being on the sea and beaches. Privacy is also important and then there are all the things like ensuite bedrooms, a good kitchen, a nice-sized pool, not being overlooked. Then once we take on the property, we have a list of stuff that they have to have such as good quality linen, appliances etc. We recommend things and then our local managers go and do what we call a quality check.
LUX: Is it important to you to have a wide range of different properties in your portfolio?
Rossella Beaugié: Yes, we have clients that have gone from a very charming, chic, three-bedroom house in Puglia and then they book our best property in Sicily, which sleeps 24 with a chef because maybe they are doing a multi generation family holiday, or it’s someone’s wedding anniversary and they want to invite everyone. So yes, we need diversity in terms of size and level of service. Some people could afford to have service everyday but they just want privacy, they want to be able to go around without clothes if they like. Then there are also different styles of property. Some people want minimal or really cutting-edge design, and some other people want to go to a place in Puglia or Sicily with traditional charm.
Huw Beaugié: We also work a lot with people who haven’t even started building. The optimum situation is when someone comes to us and says ‘I’ve bought a piece of land’ or ‘I’m looking to buy a piece of land, and what are your suggestions?’ Or people say ‘I’ve bought this ruin and what should I do with it?’ With those projects, we are involved from the beginning right through to the delivery. We suggest interior designers, architects, landscape designers, everything. Those are the villas that tend to perform the best.
LUX: Can you tell us a bit more about the experiences side of the business? What can you make happen for your clients?
Huw Beaugié: We try to make anything happen that the clients want as long as it’s not against the law!
Rossella Beaugié: The kinds of things that are becoming standard for us is that everyone wants a cook. Especially in Puglia and Sicily, people want to learn to cook and so we organise cooking classes either in the villas or on vineyards. We have three kids who were born in Sicily and grew up there which means we were able to try out things with them and find out what they found boring. From that, we designed some guided experiences with experts who will prepare the tours on two levels so that it works for the parents and it’s entertaining for the kids. Wine tasting is very requested, and water sports are popular, but then we also have occasions like weddings when people want a Steinway piano in the garden or a certain opera singer to perform.
Huw Beaugié: What we are starting to do more of is themed weeks so things like getting a celebrity chef out to a villa for a week and creating a programme for full immersion in the food, which might include cooking classes, demonstrations and tours of markets. This year, we are doing a partnership with Bodyism so that you can take a wellness instructor out with you to the villa.
LUX: What’s your approach to sustainability?
Huw Beaugié: It’s the same as when we started. The basic model of restoring or building unique properties in rural locations or old towns using local people to build, cook and garden, all of that is just inherently sustainable. Generally, you’re also using local materials and the money is staying local. The things that have been added to that model since 2004 is more use of solar energy. However, sustainable a client is they never want to give up on air conditioning, which is one of the single biggest consumers of energy in a villa so solar energy supplements that. Then the other big thing is water: drinking water and swimming pool water. Swimming pools lose hundreds of litres of water a day through evaporation so we encourage people to cover pools when they’re not using them and at night. Same with air con, setting the temperature between 24 and 27 degrees, for example, rather than at 18 degrees and wrapping yourself up in a duvet, which uses a lot more energy. In terms of drinking water, we are doing a big campaign to try and get people to install water filters in their homes, which is difficult in the Med where bottled water is standard, but it’s changing.
Rossella Beaugié: We have these little leaflets which we leave in the houses called ‘Think Green’ which have sustainability tips for guests. People are more aware of sustainability issues so it is easier now than it was in the past to encourage these ways of behaving.
View The Thinking Traveller’s portfolio of properties: thethinkingtraveller.com