Linda Smith is a woman who knows the value of a fish fork. As the founder of Villas by Linda Smith, an agency that rents out 57 Jamaican beach homes for anywhere from $2,000 to $38,500 a week, Smith has become a specialist in the tiny details that distinguish the truly luxurious from the merely posh. Fish forks are only the beginning.
Since starting her business in 1986, Smith has been determined to stand out. That meant she publicized one of her first villas -- still half-built -- with a mailing featuring a photo of herself in a dress, high heels, pearls, and a hard hat. Soon, the villa was rented for 23 weeks.
Now the approach is more subtle. Smith requires each of her properties to meet her standards: high-end sheets, hypoallergenic pillows, and full table service, including fish forks and demitasses. Each villa has its own onsite staff of cooks, gardeners, and maids. Some even offer over-the-top features such as hummingbird gardens, infinity pools, and helipads.
Smith didn't start as a queen of luxury. She cheerfully refers to her first property, bought as a vacation home with her then-husband, as a "dump." It didn't stay that way for long, with Smith, who had been working at a talent agency, moving to Jamaica to oversee renovations. She spent more than planned, but learned some of the money could be recouped by renting the house for $4,000 a week. "That got my attention," says the silvery-voiced 62-year-old.
After successfully renting out her second villa, Smith was hooked. In 1990 she founded Villas by Linda Smith in Cabin John, Md. Billings have grown an average of 13% in each of the last three years, thanks to the chef hired to train some villa cooks, upgraded technology at the villas, and an increasing number of repeat visitors. Revenues -- 20% of billings -- hit $3.9 million in 2004.
Before she takes on a property, Smith moves in for a week. She charges $2,500 to inspect everything from shower grout to the tennis court. She then makes a meticulous to-do list for owners to bring their properties up to snuff. "She's not just a booking agent, she's really a consultant," says George B. Lemmon Jr., who has used Smith to handle his family's property since 1997.
Next, Smith trains the villa's staff and photographs the property for brochures and her Web site. Her up-front costs average about $13,000, but Smith says she always makes the money back on rental fees. "Usually I break even with the second or third booking," she says.
Smith spends her marketing dollars carefully, placing ads only in upscale travel publications and the Sunday classified section of The New York Times. Although her Web site brings in international guests, most business comes from returning visitors and word of mouth. Jamaica's reputation for crime remains Smith's biggest obstacle. She insists the fears are unwarranted, but most of her villas are in gated communities or have watchmen.
Smith continues to tweak her formula, e-mailing owners about improvements such as plasma TVs and making sure a cooler of free drinks awaits travelers at the airport. Smith hopes the seven-person Maryland office will soon run smoothly without her so she can spend more time supervising the villas. Until then, she can often be found boarding flights to Montego Bay, lugging luxury linens and, sometimes, demitasses.
By Marilyn Harris