Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a series of profiles of key players in the fast-paced high-tech industry and their connection to Park City and Utah.
Julian Castelli, the Park City-based CEO of VacationRoost.com, grew up in Europe and remembers his family always vacationing in private homes. "So, when I was older, instead of a hotel room," he says, "I was the guy who would find the perfect house for friends and families on vacation. It was my personal passion to get us all together in very cool places." That passion paid off nicely for Castelli when he left his position as CFO of 'Primedia' in Atlanta - a $300-million business in online listing services to join forces with a private equity firm and begin VacationRoost.com here in Utah.
"In 2006, it was still a pretty wide-open market place," remembers Castelli, "VRBO was the only big company and they were minting money, so they weren't interested in selling (though they later sold to category leader, Homeaway.com). I was chasing another company called VacationRentals.com. When that deal didn't happen and Primedia decided they weren't going to invest in the online travel space, I decided to start my own company in online travel services." And that's what drew Castelli and his family to Park City. He found out about a company in Park City called 'Mountain Reservations' that had started in 2001 and was subsequently sold to Overstock.com; then, Overstock turned around and sold it to Castelli and his partners.
For Julian and his family, the notion of living and working in Park City was the realization of a dream.
"Because 'Mountain Reservation' was Utah-based, I thought we'd end up in Salt Lake City but when I realized that half of the operation was in Park City, I just lit up," recalls Castelli. "This was the first place I'd ever skied in 1991 so Park City was a dear place in my heart. I was so excited about pulling this deal off and living here."
On the other hand, Julian's wife Jennifer was excited and nervous at the same time, with three small children uprooting from Atlanta. But they moved into their Ranch Place home in 2003 and never looked back. "We're just thrilled." says Castelli. "The initial excitement has turned into long-term gratitude. We're just so excited that we figured out this secret of living in a place where you can pursue your passion and your career simultaneously."
Castelli still calls Homeaway.com the "800 lb. gorilla in the online travel space," but is also clear in differentiating his site from theirs. "Mostly, we represent professionally managed properties, so it's a level of hospitality services you can be assured of. We also have what we call 'destination experts' who know the destinations and the properties inside out - and they're not representing just one or two homes, so there's no bias," points out Castelli.
"When you talk to someone on Homeaway or VRBO, you're talking to the owner. And to that owner, their property is, understandably, the best property in the world. What we provide is an unbiased view - think of it as a personal shopper - the kind of helpful customer service experience you can't get on any other online site It's all built around helping people get a great vacation, centered around the perfect vacation home," says Castelli.
For Park City, VacationRoost has grown into one of the area's biggest providers of rental properties, with over 4,000 homes in Park City alone. "Online travel is probably the most sophisticated high-tech, e-commerce industry in the world," says Castelli. "I wanted to pursue the concept of the online travel agency - the Expedia/Orbitz model - but do that for vacation homes, adding personalized customer service."
Castelli's company also has what he terms its 'White Label' business; essentially, partnering with specific resorts and tourism bureaus like Park City Mountain, Alta, Taos, Kicking Horse, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, all of whose they're travel experience is 'Powered VacationRoost.'
"We're a conversion funnel for these destinations - it's been a big, growing business for us." adds Castelli. "We're doing the central reservations service for them, and converting more of their prospects into customers. We like to think we're employing best practice for offering that full service, and now we offer that turn key for any of our resort partners that want that level of service." VacationRoost's 'White Label' partner services business accounts for 25 percent of the total business model.
Of course, Julian knows that at some point the company could be bought out, and the only fear he expresses is leaving Park City. "So I decided I needed more besides running my business, and started a personal investment company named 'Castles Media Company'.
That way," says Castelli, "if and when VacationRoost ends, we're not all sending our resumes out to the West Coast and getting pulled out of here."
Castelli is working toward achieving that goal through his participation in 'Park City Angels' and 'YPO', as well as investing in e-commerce and digital marketing companies. "I've invested in a half dozen businesses from Park City Angels, like 'Radiate Media' - a company working in the digital media space."
Castelli serves as their Chairman of the Board, which is just one way he "guarantees that we won't have to leave the place we love."
Peter Smaha is a writer who sold his advertising agency in Los Angeles to live and work in Park City as a branding/marketing consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com