Mitch Willey has always been an admirer of the finer things in life. Within five minutes of sitting down for cocktails with us, Willey was recounting the story of his “rich uncle” with whom he would meet at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The St. Regis Washington, D.C. — then called The Sheraton-Carlton Hotel — for lunch. For Willey, a son of working-class parents from Springfield, Virginia, the gilded ceilings, high-powered lobbyist diners and the ornate décor made an impression. He’d someday be able to have the same.
Willey’s story isn’t quite a rags-to-riches tale, but rather a different perspective on one man’s vision of the American dream — a chance to not only fulfill his passion for business and the law, but travel as well. We sat down with Willey over dinner at his flagship property, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Clifton Inn, to discuss his thoughts on the next new luxury travel trend.
Impeccably attired in a fitted pale gray suit, Willey looks around at his wife, Emily — a perfect counterpart in a pale cream silk sheath and matching jacket — and all that he has created and smiles over his Sam Adams. He has reason to be happy. Since purchasing his first property more than three decades ago, Willey has flipped more than 40 homes around the globe, including the popular Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, which earned the acclaimed Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star award for the first time this year and also stands as a member of Relais & Châteaux, an accomplishment Willey calls “an incredible honor.”
The property, which he acquired in 1983 while still a law student at the University of Virginia, was in “almost uninhabitable” condition, he says. Willey still recalls long days and nights spent refurbishing the circa-1799 home. The bathrooms, with deep-soaking claw-foot tubs and windows overlooking the grounds, are his favorite addition. The Four-Star, tasting-room style restaurant is a close second. Once home to former Virginia governor Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. (who was also Thomas Jefferson’s son-in-law), the 17-room inn on the National Register of Historic Places is on the verge of a major expansion. A planned conference center with cottage-style accommodations will bring the total room count to more than 70 in the next two years, each a carefully considered addition to the aesthetic of the 100-acre plot. Willey envisions a haven for visitors to his alma mater, as well as a destination retreat for businesses up and down the East Coast.
But Willey wasn’t content with just one property. In his travels as a partner with global public affairs consulting firm APCO Worldwide, he stayed extensively in high-end hotels around the world, even living internationally in cities such as Brussels for extended periods. During these trips, he was continually frustrated by lack of privacy and family space, a quest that led to his own personal passion — the renovation of more than 40 homes worldwide, ranging from a 16th-century French penthouse to a modern desert home in Palm Springs, California.
And, like any good entrepreneur, he saw an unmet market need and moved to fill it. In 2001, he founded Time & Place, a luxury vacation rentals website bolstered by his own properties across the globe. Today, the website, which was sold in 2012 to Club Holdings (parent company of Quintess), services more than 300 luxury homes and condos in locations ranging from Anguilla to Zermatt, Switzerland.
It’s the service and vetting process that sets Time & Place — and its similar contingent of luxury home rental services such as Villas of Distinction and Inspirato — apart from the VRBOs of the world, Willey says. Each destination offers a native-language concierge who can do everything from arrange private after-hours shopping at Hermès to navigate to the closest hospital at a moment’s notice. The company also caters to owners by taking care of the rentals’ security, cleaning and bookings.
Willey says he expects savvy travelers — particularly millennials and older, affluent, active jetsetters — to continue to mine resources like Time & Place because private home travel offers better space and services. He also says that it provides group and multi-generational travel at a better value than you would find at many luxury hotels.
But Time & Place sets itself apart by honoring a by-the-reservation fee model, rather than a membership base, to serve groups such as parent company Quintess or Exclusive Resorts. It also helps his more “adventurous” traveler base, which plans more frequent trips in more varied destinations than some vacation clubs and club models offer.
By all estimations, Willey is now the one making impressions with his own Four-Star hotel and other businesses. But it’s never enough. As dinner drew to a close, Willey abruptly checked his watch — it was late, he said, and he must depart. He had to prepare for a 5 a.m. flight, poised for an early morning television engagement. Time and place, it appears, waits for no man — not even Mitch Willey.
Photo Courtesy of Clifton Inn