Would you pay $2,500 for an (almost) all-you-can-travel subscription?
If the successes — and failures — of subscription-based businesses such as Rent the Runway, ClassPass, MoviePass and JetSmarter have proven anything, it’s that subscriptions aren’t just for magazines and newspapers anymore.
So, why not have a subscription for travel?
That’s exactly what Denver, Colorado-based luxury travel company Inspirato launched last year.
With Inspirato Pass, you can book a nearly endless number of stays or trips (transportation and incidentals are not included) for a monthly subscription fee starting at $2,500, or $30,000 for a year. There are no nightly rates, taxes or pesky fees to contend with, whether you stay in a luxury villa, high-end hotel or resort, or take a cruise or safari. There are more than 150,000 trips available for Inspirato Pass members to choose from — the catalog is updated daily — and you can book up to a year in advance. Inspirato also provides pre-trip planning assistance, access to a vacation advisor, on-site concierge service, partner privileges, housekeeping and discounts.
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This week, Inspirato announced some exciting new tweaks to the Inspirato Pass. Members will receive a complimentary membership to the Inspirato Club — with booking privileges and the ability to pay nightly rates — and there's no longer a long-term commitment. After paying a one-time enrollment fee of $2,500 (meaning you'll owe $5,000 the first month) you can now cancel your subscription at any time. Best of all, there are now trips with check-in dates as early as two days away: perfect for spontaneous weekend getaways.
Homes are owned and managed directly by Inspirato so, unlike Airbnb Luxe or most other luxury vacation rental providers, you’re not staying in homes that are managed by third parties or professional vacation rental managers. Hotel and resort partners include brands like Mandarin Oriental; Marriott's Ritz-Carlton and Edition properties; Waldorf Astoria and Conrad hotels by Hilton; Rosewood and other luxury independents. Cruises are from Silversea and Lindblad Expeditions, while safaris are crafted by andBeyond. The list of experiences also now includes bespoke, private dinners in New York City, an art tour in Marfa, Texas and trips to a luxury dude ranch in Colorado.
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One catch, however, is that you can’t book your next trip until you check out of your current one. This conundrum can only be resolved if you purchase a second pass: $5,000 for two enrollment fees, $2,500 a month for the first pass and $2,200 for the second (or $4,700 per month) for two active reservations at a time. You can also share your subscription with family members for $300 a month.
Last year, Mikki Cardoza, owner of Northern California-based MikkiMoves Real Estate, told TPG it “wasn’t such an easy decision” to purchase an Inspirato Pass “because it’s a pretty costly option."
Cardoza spent more to share the membership and "upgraded" to have two reservations at once, though these features no longer work quite the same way (the membership needs to stay in the family, for example). Still, she said she found herself using it all the time, for a weekend getaway to Carmel Valley with her dog and husband, and to stay at a Waldorf Astoria hotel during a work convention. “It was a fun upgrade for no stress," she said.
“When I’m looking at trips [available on Inspirato Pass], it really appeals to my personality because I don’t have to worry about the price and I can just take anything off the plate.”
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“What you pay versus what you would be having to pay,” is what sold Michael Shaw, the owner of Colorado- and South Texas-based Mike Shaw Automotive dealerships on the Inspirato Pass. Like Cardoza, he opted for the Pass that allows two reservations to be booked at a time (travelers will now have to purchase two separate passes for this flexibility) and the option to share, and he’s been pleased with his trips to Jackson Hole, the British Virgin Islands and Park City.
“With the flat fee you don’t have to evaluate whether this place is too much or, if you have more people, will that be too much for them?” Shaw said last year. “You can just look at what you want to do, where are those days available and what’s the most I can get? Sometimes you get overvalued for the money you’re paying.”
But is it too good to be true?
That’s exactly what Cardoza initially suspected but, she said, she’s starting to understand how it works — and how it’s been designed so people benefit from the subscription, but also don’t overuse it to extinction so it experiences the same fate of MoviePass.
Cardoza said she kept a spreadsheet of her trips booked using Inspirato Pass. “At first I couldn’t understand how Inspirato is making money,” but, she said, she’s noted “some limitations,” especially that she can only have two reservations booked at any one time.
“I have to wait until one reservation is completed in order to make the next one,” she explained. Juggling the timing of making a booking with availability can be a bit of a challenge.
“In Vegas, I could see lots of places that met my schedule and needs, but by the time I could make the reservation, I had limited access,” Cardoza explained. “Things disappear because people are using them.”
Inspirato founder and CEO Brent Handler told TPG he and his team spent four years trying to come up with a high-end travel subscription model “that’s simple to buy, simple to use and simple to service.” Prior to launching the pass, Inspirato solely offered a more traditional luxury travel membership club, of which there are 18,000 members and counting.
What enables Inspirato to avoid the fate of a subscription service like MoviePass or JetSmarter, he said last year, is that Inspirato and its hotel and experience partners, more or less, own the inventory, and the subscription model they’ve designed helps them manage excess capacity. The hotel and resort partners also prefer working with a partner like Inspirato Pass to book up their unused inventory because the nightly rates aren’t displayed like they might be on a last-minute hotel booking site such as HotelTonight.
“Can we come up with a subscription where people would want access to our inventory that wasn’t all going to get booked? It’s not all low-season inventory,” Handler explained. “We figured out we could come up with a subscription where they’d pay a monthly fee and they would get access to this inventory, similar to how Rent the Runway or Disney FastPasses or Netflix works. As soon as you’re done with your reservation you can book your next one.”
Handler added, “Because hotels have inventory that isn’t going to get used, we can get that inventory and pass tremendous value along to our Pass holders. It might be that a Pass holder wants to go to Paris in a month and if they called the hotel, it might cost $5,000 a night but we, at Inspirato, might be getting that hotel for only $2,300 a night.”
In this instance, the customer doesn’t have to worry about the nightly rate, and the hotel drives up its occupancy.
Paul Tumpowsky, CEO of New York-based luxury travel company Skylark, said last year that Inspirato’s subscription model “is interesting and it does seem like, for the right type of flexible customer, they could probably take at least three to four really great vacations a year.” He added, “You’d have to be very flexible to make the most out of this,” but the way Inspirato has designed the subscription really maximizes their ability to fill the inventory it has in terms of homes and hotel rooms.
Handler said Inspirato Pass “works really well for people who don’t have children in school, and have flexibility in their schedules. It also works well with families who do have children at home but can travel multiple times a year.”
And with so many people learning and working remotely due to COVID-19, it makes sense Inspirato would pick now to revamp the product.
“The pent-up demand for travel is increasing during these times of isolation and the need to book safe, reliable and flexible trips is paramount at this time," Handler told TPG. "By transitioning to a full subscription model across both Pass and the Club it helps our members prioritize their vacations in a stress-free environment."
Case in point: Pass reservations can be canceled at any time, up to 72 hours before arrival, with no penalty whatsoever. Inspirato has also introduced enhanced cleaning and safety standards that can be strictly enforced since, unlike a standard vacation rental property, Inspirato "manages and controls ... [its] collection of branded vacation homes."
"With many people able to work remotely for the first time ever, Inspirato provides them with the reassurance that their health and safety will be maintained," Handler added.
Related: TPG’s safe travel guide: How to minimize risk on your summer vacation
Last year, Tumpowsky said, “In all honestly, maybe it seems like it could be a repackaging of the vacation club concept, but there are lower expectations because you’re paying less and making sure there’s tons of inventory,”.
Handler thinks Inspirato Pass, however, is not at all like a traditional luxury timeshare or membership club because the investment isn’t as high and there are no nightly rates, points or rules involved.
“Luxury travel, as a rule, is highly idiosyncratic,” Handler said. “It can be like airline tickets. Sometimes it’s $4,700 and other times, it might be only $1,800. When we did our research, we found that affluent consumers had high disdain for nightly rates. They didn’t understand them and they felt funny paying them. Why would a 450-square-foot hotel room cost $1,300 one night, and $2,000 another night?”
Handler says that during the beta testing of the Inspirato Pass, which took place in June of 2019 in Colorado and the Bay Area of Northern California, the company sold 100 passes. Following the launch in July of last year, the company was "selling north of 20 [passes] a day.”
Even now, despite travel coming nearly to a halt all over the globe, Inspirato says August 2020 sales exceeded the initial forecast.
Related: What will the future of travel look like? TPG asked 16 industry experts
Can the Inspirato Pass be improved?
As Cardoza noted last year, timing your trips as an Inspirato Pass holder can be a bit of a challenge.
She said while she finds value in being an Inspirato Pass holder, “It does take effort ... and there is a little bit of a stress factor that I have to pay attention to,” in reference to the booking and timing of trips.
For more complicated trips, both Cardoza and Shaw said they were sticking with luxury travel agents instead, though they agreed that, increasingly, Inspirato Pass was becoming their first go-to option for booking most travel.
“If I were to plan for a big trip with Inspirato Pass well in advance, I wouldn’t be able to make another reservation for a long time,” Cardoza said. “It would have to be something really amazing, otherwise I would feel like I’m just prepaying it.”
Shaw also said the number of available experiences on Inspirato Pass can be a bit overwhelming — and that was when the inventory was around 60,000. Over the last year, that number has more than doubled.
Unfortunately, Inspirato Pass still doesn't have the ability to connect with loyalty programs.
Last year, Handler said there was interest from hotel partners. “We would very much like to be loyalty positive, so to speak, from an earn standpoint," he said. But Inspirato confirmed that, like booking through any online travel agency or a third party, there's no link to a traveler's loyalty program memberships.
Advice for Potential Subscribers
Cardoza and Shaw both said that for anyone considering buying an Inspirato Pass, it’s essential that you make the most of your subscription.
“Be diligent about scheduling the next trip — and the next trip,” Cardoza said.
“I would say check it out for sure, but just make sure you put it to good use just like any other subscription you’re paying for,” Shaw said. “It’s an incredible value if you use it. It’s been great so far," Shaw said last year, adding that he thought it would "only [get] better.”
Handler and his team said, “We’re hyper-focused on making the experience better and better, especially by adding more hotels, experiences, residences and continuing to grow the portfolio. The larger and better the portfolio, the more Pass holders, and the more inventory we’re able to acquire. There’s that network effect that’s happening. The better we make it, the more people want to be a part of it.”
And for those who doubt the soundness of this subscription model, Handler said, “There is a lot of inefficiency in luxury travel market thanks to high costs, low variable costs and low occupancy. We’re filling in the void of the excess capacity that exists in luxury hotels and homes and making them useful when they would otherwise be empty. It’s not dissimilar to what Uber did when people had excess capacity in their cars. We’re doing the same thing with unsold hotel rooms and homes.”
Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman.