The Thinking Traveller offers a range of exclusive properties in Sicily, Puglia (Italy), and the Ionian Islands.
Think Sicily remains the leader in high-end, quality rental villas in Sicily, with a portfolio of around 100 hand-picked properties ranging from aristocratic estates to sea-view penthouse apartments. It was also voted the Favourite Villa Rental Company in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveller in 2011. We caught up with their Founder & Director, Huw Beaugié, to find out more.
LM: When did you found the Thinking Traveller business, and why were Sicily and Puglia such attractive destinations? What were your primary motivations for establishing the company?
HB: My wife Rossella and I founded The Thinking Traveller in 2002, with the single brand Think Sicily. Rossella is from Sicily, and I had been visiting for a decade and had fallen in love with the unique historical, cultural and geographical attractions of the area. I loved the weather and the people too, and it seemed a real shame that nobody was really catering for the needs of clients looking for a high quality villa to rent. So, we gave up our jobs in Paris, where we were living at the time, and decided to take the plunge in Sicily. In 2009, we extended our reach to Puglia, and in 2013 we have moved to the Ionian Islands of Greece.
LM: What type of guests stay in the villas in these areas and are they one-time or repeat visitors?
HB: Our clients range from multi-generational groups organising once in a lifetime holidays for extended families, to families and groups of friends and honeymoon couples looking for intimate privacy. Repeat business is very high, and we find that many customers tell us that once they have rented a villa with us, they have difficulty working with other rental companies. This return business is extremely gratifying, and is a huge motivator of our expansion plans as our clients always ask us when we plan on moving into this or that region so that they can continue to come on holiday with us without going to Sicily every year.
LM: Are your clients from all over the world or is there a certain trend where they emanate from?
HB: We have a great mixture of guests from all over the world, though our four biggest markets are the UK, the USA, Australia and Canada. Last year we organised villa holidays for clients from 50 countries worldwide. Between them, our London-based team speak most European languages, so communication is rarely an issue, and we are pretty used to understanding most cultural requirements as well.
HB: We have really driven the luxury property rental market in both of these regions. When we started in 2002, there was really no high-end property available for rent in Sicily, so we had the luxury of being able to create the business in our image. Puglia was a little further on when we moved there in 2009, but until Think Puglia, the owners of the really top properties did not have a company they could trust to manage their homes so we have really taken the business in Puglia to a new level.
LM: Which are the most exclusive villas in your portfolio and what is the criterion for them to become part of your offering?
HB: “Exclusive” is an interesting word in the villa rental business. Usually it means “pretty” or “private”. All of our houses are those things, but when we say “exclusive” we mean “only available through us”. Unusually in this business, all our villas are “exclusive” to us, in that they are only available through Think Sicily, Think Puglia and Think Ionian Islands. We never deal with a property that is also accessible through other operators as to do so would mean being unable to guarantee the quality of the properties. When we take on a new property we look for something special and a great owner. We then work with the latter to produce a villa we know our clients will love. I’d say we take on about one in fifty of the properties we’re offered, and possibly even fewer.
LM: Which destinations are you looking to add in the coming years?
HB: We have just added a range of 17 villas in the Greek Ionian Islands of Lefkada and Meganissi, where we are supported by a superb local team who can guarantee the level of service to which our clients are accustomed. We are looking at other destinations as the opportunities arise and you’re likely to see some more over the coming years. However, as we develop, we become ever more demanding of the quality of the properties and the service we are able to offer. We want to grow so that we can continue to offer our clients to travel with us to new destinations, but we are very conscious that the quality of their experience needs to improve each time if they are to return with us again.
HB: I think that companies which understand that luxury cannot come at the expense of great quality, superior service, and excellent value for money, will continue to thrive in 2013 and every other year.
LM: Going from engineering to the luxury hospitality sector must have been quite a change for you personally. What made you decide to move industries?
HB: I started out managing projects in the automotive industry, where I worked for the first six years of my career. After that I did a full time MBA and then moved to the luxury eyewear sector, where I worked for another 4 years as a European marketing manager based in Paris. Those 11 years saw me working on production lines, cat walks and design studios with chief executives, fashion models and factory workers. This gave me a huge breadth of experience that I have drawn on in so many ways since starting The Thinking Traveller.
LM: You work with your wife who is a former biologist. Combining family and business is never without its challenges. How do you divide the workload?
HB: At the beginning we did just about everything together. That was great, as starting out in business can be a lonely affair with non-stop working hours and no one to share the frustrations with. As in the early days we spent nearly all our time travelling, being about to do that with my wife and best friend was the ultimate luxury. Now we have three young children, and a staff or about 30, so the challenges are different. However, we still love it and would not change it for anything!
LM: How much time do you spend in London? Does the hot weather and your clientele mean you spend most of your time in Puglia and Sicily?
HB: After 21 years abroad, I now spend more time in London than anywhere else, and the children are at school here. However Rossella and I travel to our destinations at least once a month, and we try to organise the school holidays so that we are able to take the kids abroad and work from there. Weather wise, we’d definitely prefer to live back in Palermo, but London has a huge amount to offer, and it’s nice to live here again after all these years, for a while…..
For more information, visit www.thinksicily.com / www.thinkpuglia.com / www.thinkionianislands.com.
By Simon Wittenberg MIOJ