“It just felt like I was in another world,” he said. The experience was a contrast with his life in Los Angeles, where he doesn’t own a car: “It was a step up from Uber.”
At top hotels and resorts this holiday season, look for lines of luxury cars. They are for guests, even ones who cannot afford their own chauffeur-driven Rolls — or for that matter, have children who render sporty wheels impractical.
What’s under the hood with these cars is something between a soft sell for the automaker and a perk the resort can offer that it doesn’t have to pay for. But no one is trying to hide that.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is to associate Lexus with great hotels, and we help them by being in association with a great brand,” said Steve Jett, the national manager of digital and engagement marketing at Lexus. “Their clientele is in our wheelhouse, with household income over $250,000.”
Mr. Jett said that Lexus has partnerships with 15 hotels in the United States, including Pebble Beach Resorts, which has 25 sporty Lexus cars, and Aspen, which has mostly sport utility vehicles – all of which any guest can drive.
All the hotel has to do is keep the cars visible and promote them to their guests. To take out one of the cars, guests have to show a driver’s license and sign a liability form.
Kevin Geanides, general manager of the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif., said there were huge advantages for the hotel, which uses some of the Lexus S.U.V.s to shuttle guests around while lending others out for excursions.
“We don’t have to buy $700,000 worth of vehicles,” he said. “The other upside is it’s a brand that aligns with Post Ranch, with our property and values.” The rates at the hotel reach $4,000 a night.
The Post Ranch requested hybrid S.U.V.s from Lexus, to match its eco-friendly image.
But if you’re a guest staying at one of these hotels with brand-new BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes or Audis out front, what can and can’t you do?
Philip Kendall, general manager of the Solage resort in Calistoga, Calif., said he wanted guests to use the four Mercedes vehicles on the property as an extension of their stay in Napa Valley.
“You’ve normally got two kids in the back seat, and here you can take a two-seater coupe and no one is watching you,” he said. “Or no one is saying you can’t go any faster, or you can’t put the top down.”
BMW offers a program, called its Resort Driving Tour, that brings its newest cars to resorts during their peak season so guests can test them. After six to eight weeks, the cars are gone.
“Our team works on-site to run an expanded consumer test drive,” said Tim Rittenhouse, experiential marketing manager for BMW. “We try to embed ourselves as a service for the hotel guests.”
At Sea Island, a resort on the Georgia coast that has the BMW resort program, guests use the cars to live out their fantasies on the islands around the resort, said Parra Vaughn, the establishment’s chief marketing officer.
“They take them and try to really test them out,” Ms. Vaughn said. “They’ll find that one little stretch on Saint Simons and test it out.”
The rest of the year, the resort has seven 7-series BMWs, the automaker’s top-of-the-line sedan, that guests use for more mundane commutes like driving to a restaurant.
There are limits to what guests can do with these free cars. Usually they cannot reserve one. “You’d be miserable if you were waiting for a car to come back at 1,” Mr. Kendall said.
And guests get the cars for only a finite amount of time, generally four hours. This limits how far they can go. “You’re driving around in the valley,” Mr. Kendall said, speaking of the Napa area. “You’re not to take it to Cleveland.”
For top guests, there seems to be no end to what a high-end resort will provide — given a bit of notice. Brad Gerstman, a lawyer and government lobbyist in New York, said that on a recent trip to Tel Aviv he requested an armored vehicle so he could make a trip to the West Bank.
“I’m a proud supporter of Israel, and I wanted to see the military installations,” said Mr. Gerstman, who counts Donald J. Trump as a former client.
But what he got from the Hilton in Tel Aviv was not what he expected. “It wasn’t a hollowed-out tank,” he said. It was a Cadillac Escalade.
“It was very much a regular passenger vehicle, but they told me it could take a rifle round into the side, or if this kind of explosive went off, we would be protected,” he said.
So proud was the concierge of the armored Cadillac that he tried to sell Mr. Gerstman one of his own.
“He was pointing out all the highlights of the car, and said this can become available for you,” said Mr. Gerstman, whose home is on Long Island. “I live in Nassau County. I don’t think I need one out here.”
Some automakers have more structured programs, following up directly with guests who test-drive their cars.
The Audis at resorts, in places like Aspen and Vail, Colo., are used to shuttle guests around, said Loren Angelo, vice president for marketing at Audi of America. When the carmaker does let people try them out, it’s also a potential sales opportunity.
“When the consumer signs up, we then follow up with an experience in their room and a thank-you note and an offer for the next time they’re considering a vehicle,” Mr. Angelo said. “There is more structure to it. It’s more of an experience than a test drive.”
In some instances, being driven is the luxury. Hotels have long had cars to take you to dinner or chauffeur you to the airport. But these rides have generally been in more workmanlike cars or S.U.V.s.
The Peninsula Hotels group has a long tradition of using Rolls-Royces to pamper guests. In Hong Kong, the hotel has a fleet of the luxury cars in green.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Peninsula in Beverly Hills was given a brand-new Dawn in August. Guests who stayed in suites going for up to $10,000 a night were given itineraries and allowed to take the $350,000 Rolls-Royce model for a spin.
“It’s understood that it’s fun for the local community,” said Offer Nissenbaum, managing director of the Peninsula Beverly Hills. “The type of guest who gets into the car isn’t going to disappear.”
The rest of the time, the hotel has a Rolls-Royce Phantom to drive guests around Beverly Hills.
But for some cities, such a program may be more trouble than it is worth. A few years ago, Hank Freid, the president and chief executive of the Sanctuary Hotel in New York City, bought two Bentley Continental GTs for his property, which is in Midtown Manhattan. He had just returned from a trip to Miami Beach, where the hotel had Lexus sedans to shuttle guests around.
“We felt a Bentley was more of a wow factor,” he said. But a few years into the program, he gave up the chauffeured Bentleys: “Uber came along.”