The last few years has seen a radical shift in the holiday market. There is a trend away from formal luxury hotels towards a more relaxed style of holiday, unbounded by set mealtimes and dress codes.
The image of self-catering has changed from the “cheap and cheerful”, for those who couldn’t afford hotels, to a fashionable alternative for a carefree holiday. It offers a chance to blend in better with the local lifestyle of an area than being behind a gated complex.
When we looked for ourselves we found a big hangover of self-catering accommodation from the old days. Quality was compromised because it was simply assumed that those staying in self-catering accommodation would be undemanding in their standards. We founded Marks Places to give us the sort of self-catering we wanted, quality self-catering.
Many holidaymakers who have been staying in hotels for years are now considering self-catering as an economical alternative, but they have been put off by memories of poor self-catering experiences in the past. The proverbial damp cottage with inadequate heating or holiday home that is little more than a mobile home lingers on. We aim to provide an alternative that is reasonably priced, not the “super luxury” that only the very rich can afford.
When our children were small we realised hotels just weren’t flexible enough to meet their needs. Suppose a child wants spaghetti, not the menu choice, at 6.00 in the evening when the hotel restaurant is still closed? What about warm milk at 10.00 at night? We tried a few specialist childcare hotels. They were astronomically expensive and the standard of the accommodation itself was often poor. The self-catering we tried was frequently very basic. In the end the only solution was to buy our own holiday home.
We bought our own chalet in Switzerland because we love to ski and it doubles up as a fantastic summer holiday too – two holidays for the price of one. To help fund the purchase we started to let it, and discovered rapidly that a lot of other holiday makers found themselves in a similar dilemma. Short of huge luxurious villas for the rich, luxury self-catering just didn’t seem to exist. Many guests book from year to year.
Several families who have stayed with us asked if we had any other destinations. In the end we took the plunge and bought a ruin in southern Italy. Almost no one other than Italians went to Puglia then, now it’s become much more fashionable, but still much nicer than the overcrowded north. Beaches can still be empty in summer. It took three years to renovate the property and create a second family dream holiday home. The guiding principle was the same. It’s somewhere we wanted for our family to enjoy our holidays. It had to be good enough for us, and on that basis would probably satisfy others.
We finally had our first family holiday there in 2008 – everyone loved it. We are following exactly the same recipe as before. Choose a really good location (we looked at more than 100), make sure the house has a totally authentic local architecture (actually there are two properties). Furnish them in local style, but with a lighter, airier twist. Make sure all the luxury items and conveniences are there, but make it suitable for children if there are any, so everyone can relax.
But we have also discovered our properties are popular with another group. Couples who just want to sink into the local life. Some want to paint – the scenery surrounding both properties is spectacular. In the case of Italy, several have been keen to get involved with the olive tree farming – all help welcomed! Some just want to chill the pool or read a good book whilst watching a mountain sunset. All of the properties are set in areas of natural beauty that has encouraged many to go walking. Often two or three sets of friends want to travel together. They want enough space to give each other room, but still be together. Our properties are perfect for that.
Since then we have added two English country cottages that have won a Trip Advisor Excellence Awards. Based in the beautiful Cotswolds it is just 90 minutes from London but is convenient for a whole section of central England including Oxford, Stratford and Bath. The cottage is in a village mentioned in the Domesday Book, complete with 11th century church and 16th century pub.
Our latest property is an 1860 French village house in the South Eastern Languedoc region of France. In a medieval village amongst vineyards it has been restored to its former glory as a house of wealth gained from wine making. It has a large pool even though it is in the middle of a village, just a short walk from restaurants and cafes.
We are now looking after two more properties in Brittany and Barbados. Perfect dream holiday destinations for my own family. It takes a lot of time to find exactly the right places. Rush it, and we will compromise on standards, something we are not willing to do. Holidays are a big item for all of us, and we all travel with high expectations. We are entitled not to have any “snags” such as a motorway hidden round the back or a noisy nightclub a few doors down!
Have a great holiday.