Is Alila Ventana Big Sur overrated? Or just overvalued?

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There’s a certain type of person that emerges whenever something starts to get hyped in the points and miles/travel world. I call it “punk-rock travel guy,” alluding to the kids back in the day that loved punk rock bands…as long as they didn’t get too big. Punk rock travel guy starts to get suspicious of any sought-after redemption or destination that everyone and their mom seems to be Instragramming about. After all, how could something really be “that good,” if everyone already knows about it?

The Maldives were that destination for a long time (and probably still are). There’s a sizeable group of people for whom the islands are a tag-word for “secluded paradise,” and watching the sun dip behind the Indian Ocean from an overwater bungalow is an unmissable, bucket-list item. There’s another, smaller group (who often has never been to the Maldives) that thinks “Meh, it’s just another beach. I can get to one of those much more easily without spending a fortune and following the sheeple.”

a wooden deck with a railing and a body of water
Le Meridien Maldives Overwater Bungalow Deck Sunrise View (watery footprints courtesy of Nick Reyes)

Some punk-rock travel guys now think that Alila Ventana Big Sur has become the “next Maldives;” an overhyped, overpriced destination whose reputation only exists because of influencers and groupthink.

For me, the idea of someplace being “overrated” isn’t terribly useful. I think that what folks like about travel is too individualized for that. Just because I like Austria and am not a big fan of Germany doesn’t mean that everyone else will feel the same way.

That said, I am intrigued by the idea of “value,” and specifically how that concept plays into what we do with, and how we feel about, our points and miles. So, let’s ask a different but related question: is Ventana Big Sur overvalued?

a group of people sitting in lawn chairs on a grassy hill
Front lawn of Alila Ventana Big Sur.

Value is a tricky thing

It can be difficult to get folks to agree on what value even means in the first place. In the “real” world, it’s easy to say that something is “worth” what someone else is willing to pay for it. If there are people willing to plunk down $75,000 on a new Porsche, then that’s what it’s worth, regardless of whether or not I personally would pay that. Others say that value is intrinsically individual: since I would never pay $75k for a car, a Porsche isn’t worth that much to me.

A similar debate goes on in the (admittedly bizarro) world of points and miles, made all the more squishy by the fact that we’re using funny-money “points currencies” to pay for flights and hotels that have an actual dollar value attached to them. To make things easier to process, many of us try to put an estimate on the relative value of points and miles by using a term called “cents per point (cpp).” The idea is that you can size-up different points “currencies” by comparing how many cents you get in redemption value for each point. But even that notion gets fudgy, depending on who you ask.

For example, some folks will say that, if they redeemed 50,000 points for a $10,000 business class flight, they received 20 cents-per-point “value” ($10,000 divided by 50,000 points). Easy-peasy, right?

Not so fast. Other people consider that 20cpp a made-up number because most of us would never pay $10,000 in actual cash for that flight. Thus, the “value” of the redemption is only equivalent to the cash value that you’d actually be willing to pay. If you would only pay $2,000 for that 50,000 point flight, your real redemption value is somewhere around 4cpp. Greg the Frequent Miler is not a big fan of this definition.

Still others will say that the maximum “value” should be marked at whatever it would cost to buy those points. So, in this example, if you could buy these fictional points for 2 cents each, that’s their maximum value. Even if you redeem them for a $100,000 flight, they’re still not “worth” more than the purchase price of 2 cents per point.

So, value is tricky. But things get even foggier when considering Ventana Big Sur.

a hammock on a deck
Mountain view balcony at Ventana Big Sur

What makes Alila Ventana Big Sur so appealing

Ventana is unquestionably stunning. It sits hillside above Big Sur, one of the most magical coastal areas in North America. The rooms feel like luxury cabins, with exposed wood, large balconies, wood-burning fireplaces and soaking tubs. Some rooms have outdoor hot tubs and showers to go along with the ocean views. They have a very good restaurant and all food is included. You can eat a multi-course meal in the restaurant, get food delivered to one of two pool areas, or have room service brought to your room. If you’re planning on going out hiking, they’ll pack a lunch for you.

There’s included happy hour drinks each day, as well as complimentary s’mores (which you can also have brought to your room). They have activities as well, like free guided hikes, evening stargazing and honey tastings. The property, though massive, feels both secluded and tucked away. If someone else were paying, most folks would agree that it’s a stellar place to stay.

Then there’s the price. Ventana Big Sur is now a Hyatt Category 8, kicking up its nightly cost to 35-45,000 Hyatt points per night, depending on whether you get peak, regular or off-peak pricing. Regardless of which season you’re in, that’s a boat load of points.

Even at those stratospheric prices, award nights can still be booked out months in advance. Part of the reason for this is that the property usually has cash rates that start at around $2,500/night all-in, and can go even higher, especially if you factor in the room upgrades that many elite members get while staying there. Even though you might be paying 40,000 Hyatt points/night, the fact that the room would sell for ~$2,500 means that you’re getting more than 6cpp value, triple our Reasonable Redemption Value for Hyatt points of 2.1 cents each. That kind of value, combined with the historic difficulty of obtaining awards, has kept demand for the property sky-high.

But, there’s a little smoke and a mirror or two when it comes to Ventana pricing.

a group of glasses of wine on a table
The “Marine Layer” cocktail at Ventana, served with a smoked-filled bubble on top

What should a stay at Ventana Big Sur “cost?”

Last time I was at Ventana, everyone that I heard checking-in was staying on points, which might seem surprising, given how “difficult” award stays are to get. When I was checking out, I was curious about this and asked the assistant manager, “on an average night, how many of the rooms are award redemptions?” The answer was surprising: 65-75%. On the opposite side, on any given night, a maximum of ~25-35% of guests are actually paying those $2k+/night prices.

I asked him if that was ever tough for the hotel from a cashflow perspective. He told me that it was actually great because, as long as the hotel maintained high occupancy rates, they were reimbursed at something close to the cash rate for those stays (reimbursement rates varying based on occupancy is a common practice).

So effectively, a higher cash price makes awards more attractive and, as long as they can maintain high occupancy rates, the property gets excellent reimbursement rates on those award stays.

My suspicion is that, if Ventana were relying on cash stays alone to sustain $2,500/night pricing, they’d never be able to achieve it long term. After all, they only have 25-35% of guests, on average, paying it now.

a pool with chairs and a deck overlooking the ocean

Is the property worth it?

Interestingly, neither of our visits to the property have been seamless. The first time we were there, we were given a ground-floor room right in front of one of the pools. Our patio faced the sidewalk, in full view of the people walking by. It was so public as to make the patio unappealing and we kept the window shades drawn most of the time. Not only that, but the thermostat wasn’t working and there was no way to control the heat, outside of turning it completely on or off. It was either roasting or freezing and it took two days and 3-4 maintenance visits for them to finally say “uncle” and get us a new room (which was on the second floor of the same building and much better).

The second time we visited, we asked for a second-floor room and got one with a mountain view. The heat worked, the view was lovely and it was backed by an outdoor shower…in full view of several of our neighbors. Regardless, we were thrilled with the room. That is, until the next morning at 6:15am, when the hammering began. Turns out, there were quite few woodpeckers that loved our exterior wall and would happily share that love with us, starting about 30 minutes before sunrise and continuing throughout the day.

Both times we stayed, we ordered breakfast in our room…once. Each time, our food was delivered between 1-2 hours late. During our second stay, the breakfast dishes hung out in front of our door, uncleared, for over 24 hours. Wood deliveries were forgotten on both stays. The second time, we arrived in the afternoon to an empty check-in room and waited, unacknowledged, for around 10-15 minutes. We finally were able to get someone to the front desk by calling the hotel and asking.

All that said, we love the property. During our first stay, my wife and I kept saying some variation of, “XYZ is really surprising for a $2,000/night resort.” We finally caught ourselves and decided to enjoy it for what we actually paid for it: 25,000 points of Hyatt funny-money per night…and we had a great time. So much so, that we returned again (albeit, before the hotel went up to category 8). Even now, I’d probably consider paying the “off-peak” rate of 35,000 points/night for a splurgy weekend getaway. The property is beautiful and unique, the food is very good (if not great), upgrades to some lovely rooms are easy to get. There really isn’t another place quite like it on the West Coast that you can get with points.

a restaurant with tables and chairs on a deck overlooking the ocean
View from restaurant at Ventana Big Sur

Is Alila Ventana Big Sur “overvalued?”

I’ve talked to quite a few people who have stayed at Ventana. To a person, they all enjoyed it a lot. Each one of them has also said, in effect, “I’d never pay $2,000/night to stay there.” When checking out after our first stay, I listened to a Danish gentlemen, who actually did pay cash, rake an assistant manager over the coals for 15 minutes because of similar issues to what we had experienced. He was irate at having spent (according to him) over $8,000 for a three night stay. I probably would have been frustrated as well if I had dropped that kind of coin.

So yes, in my opinion, Alila Ventana Big Sur is absolutely overvalued. This is simply not a $2k+/night property and I think folks expecting to find that will most likely be disappointed.

That said, it’s a very enjoyable place to stay. For me, it’s also an interesting example of how the cash prices we see can be deceiving, and that squeezing the most value out of points redemptions isn’t always necessary for a weekend well spent.

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