For some holidaymakers, as long as there’s a beach or a pool nearby, they’re happy. Discovering the local culture is often low on their list of priorities, provided they have the magical combination of sun and sea.Villa Miela, Montenegro. Photo: Emma Heywood
But more holidaymakers want to get under the skin of a destination, and staying in someone else’s home can sometimes bring people closer to a culture. A recent survey by Booking.com revealed that more than one-third of travellers would prefer to stay in a holiday rental rather than a hotel. With growing numbers of homeowners advertising on travel accommodation sites, the role of the host is changing and expanding.
It goes beyond leaving guests lists of restaurants and excursions. But it can be complicated by the fact that many holidaymakers prefer not to have their host around all the time. Advance planning is vital, says Stéphane Fichet, who owns Marseillan Village, a collection of 25 houses and apartments in the pretty port of Marseillan in France’s Languedoc region.
We get to know our guests’ tastes, interests and wishes before they arrive and we always prepare a personalised diary for them - Stéphane Fichet, Marseillan Village
“We get to know our guests’ tastes, interests and wishes before they arrive and we always prepare a personalised diary for them,” he says. “This features a different market for every day of their stay and listings of events not on the regular tourist calendar – perhaps jazz jamming with the pizza delivery boy and the pharmacist, a library storytime session with village school children, harvest barbecues or dances in the village hall with the vineyard workers, an early morning ramble with winegrowers or a sunset walk in the nature reserve.”
Fichet also invites his guests to Marseillan’s summer and autumn wine festivals, although he is happy to be as hands on or hands off as his guests wish. “Many people see us only when they collect and drop off the keys,” he says. “We usually sit on a café terrace on market day – some guests enjoy sitting down to pick our brains on ideas for a day out.”
Knowing the guests’ needs in advance is something that Oliver Bell agrees with. He runs Oliver’s Travels, which offers luxury villa holidays around Europe and the Caribbean.Villa Miela, Montenegro. Photo: Emma Heywood
“For me, the pre-communication prior to their arrival is key,” he says. “Striking up a rapport is great, but it’s crucial to find out exactly what they’re looking to get from this holiday. For many, they’re interested in the touristic sights, while others are far more interested in the 'off-the-beaten-track' approach. “It’s about striking the perfect balance of letting your guests find their own feet and not overwhelming them with a ton of information. I’ll admit it’s a tricky act, but definitely not impossible.”
Hands on approach
Some guests might need more of a helping hand in destinations where language can be a problem. Ben and Emma Heywood own Undiscovered Montenegro, an activity holiday company based in their restored 19th-century Villa Miela in the unspoilt Lake Skadar region of Montenegro. In this southern part of the country, far away from the busy resorts of Kotor and Budva, English-speakers are thin on the ground.
Emma Heywood finds ways that guests can get involved in the local culture and create meaningful travel – whether it’s visits to wineries or cooking classes – but adds that language is occasionally an issue. “Is it possible for them to connect properly with local culture without a local host there to guide them? It depends on the area, but where we are based, we’d say it’s difficult,” she says.
“Perhaps the more confident and well-travelled types can do it – the sort of tourist who is bold enough to knock on a door where the sign says ‘Vino’ and is not put off by needing to use sign language. We encourage our guests to do just that – and the ones who have, heading off with the bicycles we provide, have had some unique experiences involving the very best Montenegrin hospitality. It can be hard for them to escape!”
Is it possible for them to connect properly with local culture without a local host there to guide them? It depends on the area... - Emma Heywood, Undiscovered Montenegro
While technology helps the traveller in the form of apps such as Spotted by Locals, it’s also an integral part of the homeowner’s business. Stéphane Fichet relies on Twitter to keep guests informed of latest events, along with tantalising photos of the canapés his guests receive on arrival. Social media is a major part of the word-of-mouth recommendations for Undiscovered Montenegro, whose Instagram feed is a useful marketing tool.
“Rediscovering wonder is something I’m incredibly passionate about,” says Oliver Bell. “My advice to travellers, in general, is that the best way to live like a local is to have both eyes open (not behind a lens) and talk to the natives, take detours and get lost in your chosen region. It doesn't need to be expensive or touristy if you do it right.”
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: What I wish I knew: six months into being a guesthouse owner
Hero photo: credit to Pixabay.com
- Getting advance information of clients’ wishes is vital
- Hosts need to take their cue from their guests as far as how much their presence is needed
- Encourage guests to discover the local area beyond the obvious
- Give information about what there is in the area. Undiscovered Montenegro, for example, has in-depth details of the region that aren’t found in guidebooks