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Inspired by travel #14: Passepartout Homes

How a return flight from a holiday home in Southern Italy ignited the idea for a members-only luxury holiday home rental service

Company: Passepartout Homes
Founder: Paola Fiocchi Van den Brande
Started in: December 2012

Unlike the ideas behind many of the travel-inspired start-ups featured here, the idea for Passepartout Homes actually struck Paula Fiocchi Van den Brande at the end of a holiday. Sitting on a plane to London from her holiday home in Southern Italy, she imagined an exclusive club for holiday home rentals where estate agents wouldn't let a flow of unvetted strangers into her home.

Launched in December 2012, Passepartout Homes’ members have a choice of luxury vacation rentals from private letters in locations across the globe. Not anyone can join though – free membership can only be obtained through introduction from an existing member, with non-referred members required to prove their commitment through an annual £150 membership fee.

This model, combined with a stringent vetting process for the villas themselves, ensures that owners and renters can have peace of mind knowing they are dealing with a network of like-minded, verified users.

The site now offers villas across the globe, from “über-luxury” beachfront apartments in Thailand to ski chalets in alpine France, and the carefully selected cachet of members is growing by the day.

We spoke to Van den Brande to hear her start-up story:

Where were you when you got the idea?

The idea came on a flight back to London from our holiday home in Southern Italy, back in April 2011. Although it’s a much-loved destination for our family and friends, it remains empty for long stretches of the year.

We approached a few holiday rental agencies but we didn’t feel at ease having a constant flow of strangers in our home as well as allowing the agencies to take control.

Talking to other friends in a similar position, we decided the only viable option would be to create a network of trusted individuals to whom we would feel comfortable opening the doors of our private home, while covering some of the running costs of the property.

Why were you so inspired?

My own experience combined with that of other fellow second-home owners inspired me to set up a secure platform where owners could safely promote their properties to a network of trusted individuals.

Because acceptance to Passepartout Homes is via referral from existing members, whether guests or homeowners, you are likely to create a circle of like-minded individuals, to whom the owners feel more at ease when renting their homes.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

I was actively looking to start my own business. After more than 15 years in the corporate world, I was ready to come up with my own idea.

After scribbling several useless business plans on the back of envelopes and napkins, my Eureka moment came during a visit to our holiday home after talking to rental agencies.

I thought: “I am going to do it by myself.”

Upon our return to London, I started talking to friends who also own holiday homes and found out they have never rented their property for fear of strangers trashing their belongings. At the same time, holiday homes can be very expensive to maintain and a little income to cover yearly running and maintenance costs could definitely come in handy, especially in an economic downturn.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

Registering a business in the UK is extremely easy. I was very impressed by how smooth and quick the whole process of signing up to Companies House is and how little it costs.

From conceiving the idea to launching the site it took me 18 months. The whole process could have however only taken nine months if I would have had the courage to leave my corporate job to dedicate myself fully to setting up the business. Leaving a paid job is a hard decision to make especially when you have a young family to care for and Europe is going through the dark ages.

I instead worked nights and weekends for several months until I felt my website had enough properties to keep me busy full-time.

Having worked in marketing for many years I had all the necessary contacts to develop the business idea, design the logo and develop the site.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

I first of all talked to all friends and people I knew with second-homes in the UK and abroad to gather ideas and find out what they would expect from a business like mine.

I then – of course – researched other direct and indirect competitors. There are countless rental agencies and online rental portals, however there are very few concepts like Passepartout Homes conveying a sense of exclusivity, trust and personal approach.

I found that in 2012, 2 million Italians went on holiday, and 14.9% of them travelled to their holiday home.

According to the 2011 UK Census, more than 1.5 million people have second addresses in the UK, and 11% or 165,095 people have a holiday address.

That’s A LOT of holiday homes that potentially remain closed for long periods of time, so a market definitely exists for the business.

How did you replicate what you’d seen overseas or use your experience there? Did you modify the idea for the UK market?

In order to create a service that would appeal to both owners and guests I based the business on my very own experience of renting our holiday home to friends and family.

This gave me an idea of what the homeowner’s requirements and what a guest’s expectations are.

How much did you invest in getting started?

The start-up capital was very tight and drawn only from personal savings. I had to be very careful where to spend it to ensure it was not wasted on fancy accessories rather than must-haves.

I spent the majority on the logo, web design and development – as well as a new fast computer.

In total I spent around £10,000 to set up the business.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

The website was launched in December 2012 and in January I was approached by a truly unique, exquisite and luxurious villa in Bordeaux. I was humbled by the fact that they chose Passepartout Homes to promote their jewel.

Thereafter, more stunning properties accepted to be represented by Passepartout Homes.

The company still has a very long and bumpy road ahead – but the hard work will eventually pay off.

Where did you go for advice?

I did not shy away from asking help from absolutely everyone I could possibly approach!

I also hired a marketing agency, Vaughan Gordon & Associates, to brainstorm ideas and shape the feel and look of the website.

And I was very fortunate to be able to work with the NY based law firm Reinhardt LLP, who were instrumental in fine tuning the business model and provide legal advice and support.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

Spend money on a good lawyer if you are going to establish relationships with international vendors, or in my case, homeowners and paying guests. Keep an eye on expenses especially if, like me, you are acting on a very tight budget. Be prepared to do lots yourself.

Speaking foreign languages is also always an advantage and local vendors will appreciate you speaking in their native tongue.

What are your future plans?

To expand the property portfolio to at least 100 villas and apartments worldwide and include yachts in the mix as well.