The Wealth Scene talks to Italian businesswoman and entrepreneur, Sabrina Piccinin, the founder and CEO of Haute Retreats, the leading global luxury villa rental platform that brings together the most exclusive villa rentals, private residences, castles and chalets.
- What is your background and when did you first realize that you wanted to get into the travel business?
I spent my formative years in Italy in a town 30 minutes from Venice, Venezia, which is where I embarked on a career in the travel industry in 1993.
My grandmother, during the 30s, was the manager of a luxury hotel in Paris and my grandfather the bellman. This was a grand place where both the middle class and noble travellers chose to stay in this beautiful city. I was always excited to listen to my grandparents’ stories about their experiences while working there and all the wonderful people they met. My grandmother was the queen of hospitality. I finally received this accomplishment as well in my long 22-year luxury hospitality career.
I started working for luxury hotels in the Venice area of Italy and then in Liguria Cinque Terre, the Lakes area and USA (Florida, Missouri and Massachusetts as General Manager and District Manager for Hyatt International).
Working for hotels in distinctly unique countries around the world ensured I got a good taste of all the different local cultures and what it means staying in a place where you feel at home. I also found time to pick up ferry pilot jobs in my downtime to see more of the USA and ended up having 650 logged flying hours. While I was at it, I made sure to leave my mark on the hotel industry with my strong sense of hospitality. After traveling the four corners of the world as a successful luxury hotels general manager and the property manager for luxury villas in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, I came back to where I started my journey. I love the fact I live in between the Dolomites and the most beautiful city in the world – Venice.
- How difficult was it to get started in the industry and what was your first role within it?
It was challenging but I was passionate about traveling the world and helping people, so after I achieved my bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management, I started working in a full time job as a front desk agent in Udine. During that time I received a phone call from a company that was looking for a reservation manager in Bergamo (I was 19 years old) and I accepted. I worked with this small chain that had hotels in Liguria Cinque Terre and I thought that was the perfect way to start my career.
The general manager of one of the hotels quit right at the beginning of the High Season and my boss asked me if I felt ok to take that job, even though he knew I did not have that kind of experience, however, he thought I was crazy and very determined enough to do it. I accepted I was very young, I packed my bag and started my long career as a general manager for luxury hotels. I worked really hard and had a passion for caring about guests needs and I loved managing the hotels. I loved the challenges of solving the everyday issues to have the hotels I was managing exceeded the revenue budgeted. I had the pleasure to assist so many famous actors and actresses like Sofia Loren. Plus I could keep spending time flying.
- How did your career within the industry develop from there?
I was in Iseo Lake area working for a luxury hotel when my flight instructor called me and asked me if I wanted to join him and another couple of people on a vacation in Florida where we could fly and convert our license to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and practice our English radio communication. I decided to go. I went for a week and I loved it. As soon as I went back to Italy it took me a couple of months but I chose to leave my country and live in the USA. I could fly and work for hotel business there. It was really difficult at the beginning, but I did not quit. I applied for a job in the hotel business and I was hired by Hyatt International, I could share my experience there and I was happy to grow. I brought the Italian hospitality way to serve the guests and I could also fly (rated IFR and Commercial).
Helping people and always taking my life to a next level have taken me where I wanted. I was managing hotels and travelling. My ability to not see a problem as a real problem, but I have the real vision of the situation, actually the best scenario of the situation, and going forward from there, I was able to work towards that and succeed.
- When did you realise you wanted to start your own business or where did the idea come from?
I was happy with my career, but I met my husband and I really wanted to have children. I really enjoy being a mother and my children are my strengths. My daughter was always sick when she was a baby, we were living in Italy at that time and we were worried about her health. We went for a vacation in Costa Rica and her health after two days improved. We decided to stay. We were looking for a home where to live long term and that was not easy, especially because most of the homes we were going to check did not look like the pictures.
I met homeowners and started networking, my experience in the hospitality business and my husband as a builder was the perfect combination to start a business. Owners contacted us and our company in a short time grew from one apartment to luxury homes and luxury private residences to rent and to manage.
I felt that no matter if you are in the hotel business or vacation rentals, the standards need to be the same. A great approach to the booking, check in and check out processes are key. A well maintained property with a bunch of flowers and a welcome card are small touches that for sure make differences. That is when Sabrina Luxury Collection brand was created. At the beginning we were listing only the properties we were managing directly, then we received requests from owners to list and rent their houses from other parts of Costa Rica, and we made sure to inspect the villas.
I followed the same process that I implemented during my hotel business career. Repeat guests contacted me for other destinations because they really like the experience they have working with me. Most of the time it is not the destination it is the way you approach and the way you deliver, plus they knew they always get the best of the best with me. So we started adding properties from countries outside Costa Rica.
Italy is my country, so I started suggesting and creating the travel experience my guests like. We talk on the phone and we have an interview. We go through questions like the age of the people traveling, the hobby that they have if they like sports or more the adventure and from there I look for the right house in the right place. Luxury is a very “big” word. Right now everyone just uses this word like a sort of tag. I believe when someone sells a luxury product, they need to understand what the real meaning of luxury is. Luxury is having time for you, love, family, friends and a comfortable lifestyle.
- How difficult was it to get that new business up and running.
It was hard, especially in the beginning, you cannot do anything if you are not willing to work hard. Hire the right people, but when you find the right people you need to make sure they do understand your core values. You have to sacrifice yourself and be enthusiastic to do so and then you will see results. Imagine yourself in a few years and say, ‘Okay, I want to get to this place.’ Then be patient – results do not come immediately. You need to stay strong.
- Tell us about your different brands, I know you originally started with; Sabrina Luxury Collection and Haute Retreats is a further expansion of that original brand.
We left Costa Rica due to the fact that my children wanted to attend school in Italy. So now we are back where I started. We live near Venice. Sabrina Luxury Collection is our luxury hospitality brand. My business was created out of a personal need. My brand is independent and not listed with any of the large sites.
The vacation rentals market is very new and the large sites have so many options and properties with a different range of prices, so I thought there was a need to create a platform where only the most exclusive villas were listed.
I created Haute Retreats in 2016 as part of Sabrina Luxury Collection. We collaborate with the top professionals in the luxury villa rentals market. We make sure our guests receive a 5 Star Hotel Service Experience. We receive many requests to add properties, but we keep our standards very high and we go through a very strict process before we approve the listing.
We help very important clients, from Russian entrepreneurs to large Indian families. We create that home from home feeling. I thought it was a great idea to run a company that exceeds the luxury traveller’s expectations in Italy.
- What have you found to be the best way of attracting new clients/bookings?
The best way of attracting new clients is word of mouth especially in the luxury business. I believe a nice sharp-looking website is also a key factor. I invest a lot of time in networking and it is one of the best ways to create a vast network of contacts, which is invaluable. I travel and create connections.
- What is your role within the company and what does your typical day look like?
I am the CEO and founder of the brand. No day is the same, I am dealing with extraordinary requests and meeting successful and high power entrepreneurs and business partners. I work relentlessly, splitting my time between my family and my business.
I start with a good Italian coffee, I wake up very early, I go for a walk and exercise and I take my kids to school. I go to my office and follow the operations. I am eager to make my company become the best of the best as a luxury villa rentals global platform. I love the vision and the strategy, the fact that I can make my own decisions and do what I feel is the best.
In my life the work-life balance is vital, so I don’t want to miss any opportunities to spend quality time with my children and my husband. We have a nice lunch together and in the afternoon I continue my work from my home office whilst my children study.
- What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
My greatest strengths are: The love for my children; I am a risk taker, I love challenges and having experience as pilot I take a rational approach to decision-making with a high optimistic perception of risk; determination, the more formidable are the odds, the more energised I become; knowledge seeker, I study non-stop and anticipate, I don’t compete I use my knowledge as an advantage; my creativity, I am a strong believer since I was 16 years old the sky is not my limit; my passion for what I do; open to create new collaboration and a very transparent environment. I don’t have weaknesses, I know it is hard and there are moments you experience a failure, but I see it as a challenge you just need to modify the way you approach it.
- Which business leader or entrepreneur most inspires you and why?
Ferruccio Lamborghini, the founder of Lamborghini luxury cars. He started from nothing. He was born to grape farmers in Bologna, Italy. He had mechanical know-how that led him to enter the tractor business. After World War II he opened a garage and in his spare time he modified an old Fiat Topolino, he transformed a home city car into a roaring 750 cc open top two seater. He tried to compete in the Mille Miglia however after 700 miles he had to leave the race.
He left the fast cars dream aside for a while, during that time Lamborghini built the first of his “Carioca” tractors, based on six-cylinder petrol engines, but since it was very expensive in Italy, he augmented that engine with a fuel atomiser of his own creation and allowed tractors to started with petrol and after that to the cheaper diesel.
That was a real success for him. He did love fast cars and bought different Ferrari luxury cars. At times he was not happy and brought many times to the attention of Enzo Ferrari what he did not like and the improvements he thought could make Ferrari even better. His suggestions were not taken care of so he decided to modify a Ferrari himself. He successful modified his personally owned Ferrari 250GTs and he started his venture of his own high-performance exotic cars.
The way he did not give up and he created something with the attributes that other engines like the Morris engines and lacking performances of Ferrari had. A clever businessman. I had the privilege to meet his son Tonino Lamborghini last August, he also owns an outstanding international luxury brand.
- What travel brand do you most admire and why?
My travel brand, I deliver authentic experience and I listen to my guests. Like Lamborghini I listen to what are the most concerns in the luxury travel industry and turn it in to wonderful experiences for them.
- What is the “new thing” now that people are looking for when booking a luxury holiday or break?
I believe that the demand continues for the freedom that a luxury lifestyle offers in terms of money and time. There are 24 hours in a day and people want to maximise them. The advantage of our services is that we enable our guests to reach the lifestyles they want. They can contact us anytime during the day and weekend.
- What are the new emerging destinations that people want to stay at?
Sri Lanka is becoming a great destination for luxury travelers. We collaborate with Ani Villas and the estate is very unique. It is off the beaten track but with all the luxury of a 5 star hotel with the possibility of venture in great outdoor activities.
Mozambique is another beautiful and underrated country. Part of our collection is the unique Azura Resort located in Quilalea Island, perfect for a romantic escape, one of the best villas anywhere in the Indian Ocean.
- If you had unlimited time and budget, what would you book?
I highly suggest spending a vacation in Costa Rica at least once in your life. Splurge at one of the most expensive villas for rent in the Papagayo Peninsula and live a luxury vacation in a luxury place where you don’t need a watch and where you breath the freedom of a very unique place on earth.
- As you have already mentioned, you hold a pilot’s licence and have more than 650 hours of flying experience, how did that all transpire?
When I was 16 years old and after I had tried different sports and hobbies, I decided competition was not for me, I wanted to stand out and be different and grow. My goal was to have a career in the travel business and when you travel, planning is a major thing.
I chose to become a pilot and that helped at that very young age to improve my planning skills and to always push myself to get better. After only 10 hours of flight lessons my flight instructor believed I was ready to fly solo. At that moment when I took off I realised the huge amount of possibilities one person can have in one life.
The sky was not the limit. In the meantime I was also studying to get my hospitality management degree and I thought flying and studying hotel management was the perfect combination to prepare my future success. I did study a lot, but I loved it. I also worked part-time jobs during that time.
- What’s next for Sabrina Luxury Collection’s, what have you got planned for the future?
Sabrina Luxury Collection scaled up with Haute Retreats – We are going to launch Fenice Hospitality, part of Sabrina Luxury Collection brand soon, we want people to rediscover the pleasure of travelling.
Fenice Hospitality will include luxury resorts and vacation rentals. Travel Guides and itinerary suggestions depending in which month of the year you are travelling, are a couple of things that this new site will have.
Thank you for your time Sabrina and good luck with the new brands.