By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/2/2010 8:17:26 AM ET 2010-06-02T12:17:26

Looking for a hot deal on a hip hotel or luxury resort? What are you waiting for — an invitation?

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As it turns out, an invitation of sorts may be just a few keystrokes away courtesy of the many member-only, private-sale travel sites now popping up across the Web. With names like Jetsetter, Vacationist and Voyage Prive, they offer deep discounts and an air of exclusivity that you’re unlikely to find on Expedia, Hotwire and, for that matter, most hotel-owned sites.

Membership has its privileges
Consider a recent offering from Vacationist.com, which launched last month as a partnership between Luxury Link, a travel-package auction site, and Travel & Leisure magazine. For several days last week, the site was offering oceanview rooms at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica in late June for $254 per night. The best rate on the hotel’s own site? $339 per night, which translates into an impressive 25 percent off.

The key to the deal was that the booking window lasted only a few days (although the travel period was several months long), the number of rooms was finite and the rate was only available to Vacationist members. As with most private-sale sites, membership is free, but you have to be “invited” (more on that later) by someone already in the community.

“It’s like LinkedIn or Facebook,” says Donna Quadri-Felitti, a professor of hospitality and tourism at New York University. “You have to be invited or approved.” That, she says, provides a veneer of exclusivity that fits well with the way many people approach travel planning: “People buy travel the way they buy pocketbooks — there’s status involved.”

The fashion angle is especially apt at Jetsetter.com, which is part of the Gilt Groupe, the three-year-old, fashion-oriented Web site launched to provide online access to invitation-only sample sales. “Our members read Daily Candy, Thrillist, Urban Daddy,” says Jetsetter CEO Drew Patterson. “They’re familiar with this sort of online-newsletter approach to getting information on the parts of their lives that they care about.”

And luxury hotels and other high-end travel providers are willing to offer substantial discounts to attract them for two simple reasons. One, the recession has left many high-end hotels with too many unsold rooms, and two, the member-only nature of private-sale sites means that the discounts don’t show up on every search engine on the Internet.

“When hotels start discounting publicly they lose their luxury image and cachet,” says Jean Francois Mourier, CEO and president of RevPAR Guru, a sales and revenue management company. “This way they hit pockets that are very small and limited so they’re not publicly admitting that they’re lowering their rates.”

For those in the club, the deals can be attractive. Deluxe rooms at the Punta Islita Resort in Costa Rica on TabletHotels.com for $198 per night vs. $251 on the resort’s Web site. Five nights at the Cap Maison resort in St. Lucia for $1,692 on VoyagePrive.com vs. $2,389 on the resort’s site. Luxe living at a lower price? What’s not to love?

Getting around the velvet rope
So, how do you get in on the deals? Actually, despite the claims that you have to be invited by an existing member, it’s pretty easy to get inside the “velvet rope.” In the last few days, I’ve joined several by signing up on a parent site, clicking on a banner ad, exploring Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and, in one case, simply requesting membership.

There are other caveats, as well. In exchange for the low rate, private-sale reservations are 100-percent non-cancelable, non-refundable. You don’t go, you don’t get a dime back. (In April, Jetsetter added a “hold” feature that lets users reserve a trip for 10 percent of its cost. If you don’t purchase the trip, the funds are held as a credit that can be applied to future trips.)

Note, too, that some of the more grandiose claims — savings of 50, 60 and 70 percent — may be smaller than they appear. Some sites compare their discounted prices to hotel rack rates or the retail prices of multiple amenities in proprietary packages. And none take into account “third night free” and other proprietary deals that can be both competitive and cancelable with far less penalty. As always, it’s worth poking around before you pull the trigger.

Ultimately, of course, it’s the properties themselves that control the amount of inventory they make available to the private-sale sites and at what price. As it turns out, the luxury sector, which fell farther than other sectors during the recession, is now leading the rebound, which could spell fewer deals and smaller savings going forward.

“Hotels will continue to use member-only sites to sell rooms as long as they continue to move inventory at decent rates. But the stronger the economy, the higher the rates will be,” says author, consultant and former hotelier Daniel Edward Craig. “Now’s the time to really take advantage.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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