By Donna M. Owens, For The Baltimore Sun
2:15 PM EST, December 21, 2012
When celebrity couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were wed in a secret ceremony this year, the actors skipped the splashy Hollywood venue.
Instead, their reported 17th-century location in South Carolina boasted an onsite mansion, gardens and a working farm, a setting described as "rustic" and "romantic."
These days, you don't have to be a celebrity or VIP to hold your wedding, party or special event someplace that's fabulous or out of the ordinary.
Thanks to a wave of specialty companies, websites and other experts, renting private properties — such as mansions and upscale homes — has become easier and increasingly popular.
"Luxury rentals for parties and other special occasions are a hot trend," says Jennifer Grove, president and creative director of Sky Blue Events, a full-service event planning and wedding design company in Baltimore.
"These aren't venues of a traditional nature," she says, but "fantasy" locations.
Think grand estates with manicured lawns and English gardens or stunning waterfront retreats with views of sky and shore.
Fun extras often come with the territory.
"These homes have all kinds of fun amenities — swimming pools and hot tubs, or perhaps a docking area for boats," says Grove.
A graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Grove has years of experience in the fashion retail, merchandising and special event arenas that helps her design one-of-a-kind events for clients.
She works with an exclusive network of specialists and partners, primarily along the East Coast, scouting locations her clients will find suitable for events ranging from dreamy nuptials to corporate shindigs.
In recent months, her productions have included weddings, a swanky dinner party for Chanel cosmetics, and charitable functions.
"I really try to make sure my clients' personalities and strategic visions are realized throughout their special event," she says. "You need just the right location."
One company that handles such rentals is Estate Weddings & Events, which has become a key online resource for luxury private estates worldwide that are available for weddings, events, and corporate retreats.
Owner and executive director Jamie Ehrsam founded the company in 2007, after cutting her teeth as a wedding and events coordinator.
Ehrsam explains that she found many beautiful event venues, but quickly realized there were few luxurious, exclusive sites without time limits, tourists, or traditional banquet hall constraints.
"Many brides were looking for something out of the box. They didn't want the typical venue or hotel ballroom," she says.
An idea was born: Ehrsam figured she could organize the array of private homes and estates that were available, and help clients find ideal settings for the exclusive events they envisioned.
"At the time there were lots of luxury estates on the market due to the recession," she explains. "I began reaching out to Realtors, and the word of mouth grew."
Today, the California-based operation has hundreds of listings across the country and globally, including in the Caribbean, Thailand and Australia.
"We also have a few listings in Maryland," she says.
One listed on their website is Kentlands Mansion in Gaithersburg, a classic estate built in the early 1900s. Described as "the exact type of place that many people who dream of an East Coast wedding are in search of," the site also notes its "classy, romantic atmosphere."
The six-room brick mansion has extensive lawns and gardens, mahogany-paneled rooms, grand staircases and ornate chandeliers, with a mural painted onto the ceiling of the music room. Kentlands can accommodate up to 150 guests for special events. Costs vary depending on the season and other details.
Other companies nationwide and in Maryland, are also seeing an uptick in private home rentals for parties, weddings and family reunions.
HomeAway, a Texas-based company founded in 2005, has more than 325,000 listings worldwide, including dozens in Maryland. Its website, Homeaway.com recently offered everything from mansions on the Chesapeake Bay and a cottage in Oxford, to a farmhouse in Frederick and a condo in National Harbor.
"Vacation rentals are ideal for family and group vacations, but because of the space and access to kitchens, more and more people are renting them for events such as weddings, birthday parties and corporate retreats," says Jon Gray, senior vice president of HomeAway, North America. "They offer accommodations and a party venue in one instead of having to book them separately, ultimately helping people save money."
Locally, one Maryland company offering upscale rental properties is Taylor-Made Deep Creek Vacations in McHenry, which was launched in 2008. Its inventory includes stunning lodges with views of Deep Creek Lake and a property with eight bedrooms and an indoor pool.
"We cater to brides, to corporations seeking a wonderful place to come for a lakefront retreat," says Jodi Refosco, who co-owns the operation with her husband, Joe Refosco, and brother Chad Taylor. "In the colder months, we get a lot of couples. In the summer, we see many families for reunions."
Refosco describes the business as both a year-round vacation rental site, as well as a property management company that offers a range of services.
"We take care of everything from housekeeping to cleaning the hot tub. Our brides also get a special wedding coordinator."
Some of their properties are used by the owners as second homes; others are on the market and for sale. Many are investment properties, which the owners rent out a few days a month, to make extra income.
Refosco stresses that just as the client is treated with respect, so are the property owners.
For example, each owner is assigned a representative who inspects and secures the property within 48 hours of each event. The representative inspects for any damage that may occur during a reservation and contacts the owner if repairs or maintenance is needed.
"They check every drawer, underneath every bed, in every cabinet and behind every door," she says.
The owner rep also coordinates with vendors to, say, mow the lawn or perform other tasks while the property is being rented.
"We also make any suggestions to the owner to keep the property in renting condition or any upgrades to increase owner income," Refosco adds.
There are ground rules when it comes to private home rentals for an event. Experts say that before signing a formal agreement, renters should always read the fine print and be wary of requests for you to send cash or payments using wire services.
"Some vacation property rental websites that feature luxury properties may specifically say 'yes' or 'no' to hosting special events," says Grove. "For example, some properties may clearly state 'no weddings' on their ad page."
Grove adds that while event coordinators have to be mindful anytime they're planning a party or wedding, the stakes are even higher in a private home.
"You have be aware of every single detail from where the caterer will set up, to whether there will be portable potties outside."
Still, when everything comes together — the right location, delicious food, music and so on — there's magic in the making.
"I don't think anything compares to the joy I get when a bride and groom come up to me afterwards and say the day was perfect," says Grove.
5 tips on rental etiquette
If you want to host a soiree or special event that's out of the ordinary, a private home rental may be a viable option for you. Consider the following tips.
1. Experts say the first step is checking out a vacation rental property's company website. Look at photos with descriptions of the property, location, availability, etc. If you're nearby, ask if a site tour is an option. It's a good idea to read the reviews, too.
2. Typically, the next step is signing a formal agreement that confirms details of the rental arrangement. Be sure to read the fine print. For instance, some web sites that feature luxury properties may specifically say 'yes' or 'no' to hosting special events such as weddings.
3. Payments are typically made by credit card or services such as PayPal. Although each situation varies, experts urge caution if someone requests that you send cash or wire them money for payments.
4. Cancellation policies may vary, so rental insurance may be a good idea. Once again, read the fine print.
5. Remember to treat the home you rent with respect. There's typically a post-rental inspection to check for any damages that may occur during a reservation, and you could be held liable.
Sources: Sky Blue Events, Taylor Made Deep Creek Vacations, HomeAway.com
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