Mike Thiel started Hideaways International almost four decades ago, first working out of his home in Concord, then moving to an office in Littleton, and eventually setting up shop in Portsmouth, N.H. The company, which turns 40 next year, started as a peer-to-peer service for vacation home rentals, an earlier precursor to the likes of VRBO and HomeAway. Since then it’s evolved several times, with a few changes on the horizon. Along the way, Thiel, 73, and Gail Richard, his life and work partner (she joined the company in 1986), have traveled around the world to check out boutique hotel properties for the members-only newsletter that Hideaways publishes. Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Thiel.
Q.How did you start your business?
A. At the time I started Hideaways I was doing management work in oil and gas and had a stint in Saudi Arabia. I’d bought a house with a rental cottage overlooking Lake Sunapee and I wasn’t doing a good job of filling the cottage. Someone mentioned to me how they loved vacation homes, but there was no central market to find them. I’d gone to business school and was looking to start my own business.
Q. How did people find vacation rentals back in the day and how did you improve that?
A. You’d go to a real estate office wherever you wanted to go. It was all very local. I came from a techie background and envisioned a computer database of vacation homes and to match what kind of homes people were interested in. The problem with my vision was it was way ahead of its time. Nobody had computers in their homes in 1979. I almost folded the company. But, based on a press release we sent out, we got a mention in the Kiplinger Washington letter, which was a huge thing back then. They actually made a mistake, saying we would send people a directory of vacation homes for $15. All these checks started pouring in, and we realized we needed to publish a directory of vacation homes around the world. In 1981 we published “Hideaways Guide to Vacation Home Renting and Exchanging,’’ and we had a membership fee for a subscription to the catalog. The catalog became so popular we eventually turned it into a regular newsletter.
Q. When did you start your online component?
A. We were early adopters of the Web. Our first website, hideaways.com, went up in 1995. We also reserved villarentals.com and villafinders.com.
Q. You now focus more on boutique hotels. When did that happen? And what do you offer members that they can’t get on their own?
A. We discovered in the mid-1980s that the same folks who liked renting vacation homes also like staying in boutique hotels. Originally we arranged for price discounts, but we found that members really valued upgrades, like early check-in and late checkout. We also started a travel agency, so we could plan car, air, and everything else. In the early 2000s, with so many sites like VRBO listing vacation homes, we deemphasized those and moved even more toward boutique hotels and small ship cruising. Small is beautiful — it’s sort of our motto.
Q. How did you choose hotels to include?
A. We had a curation process that involved going all over the place where we thought there was a market and also where we wanted to go. We traveled several times a year from the mid-1980s until around 2012, and generally doing it in good style. I was used to traveling — my father was in the diplomatic corps.
Q. How many listings do you have, how many members, and what’s the cost to join?
A. We have about 100 boutique hotels and resorts, but we can work with any place. We have about 20,000 members who pay between $99 to $250 a year. Most of our members are between 45 and 65. But more and more, millennials are appreciating guidance and services.
Q. What’s in store for the company?
A. Like many small businesses, we haven’t done a great job of succession planning. We’re revamping the website, with the prospect of also launching villarentals.com and villafinder.com. Hideaways is changing the model to be a little more automated so our members can book directly with properties but still get VIP service. And, frankly, the next chapter is to get somebody else interested in Hideaways.
Q. What are some recent travel trends you’ve noticed?
A. One of the big things now is expedition cruising. Like we had someone starting in Alaska, going along the top of Russia and ending up in Norway and Sweden. Polar expeditions are pretty hot these days, too.
Q. Do you have a favorite travel tip?
A. I guess it would be the adage that my mother always threw out: “He who travels lightest, travels farthest, and best.’’
Q. What about your personal travels?
A. I’m a little tired of roaming the world, and I’m trying to take time to pursue some of my own personal interests, like fishing, hunting, and boating, especially sailing. I want to explore New Hampshire and Maine, go to South Dakota, and, in general, see more of the US.