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As my fellow diners dug in to their sea urchin and gold caviar royale, I sat patiently awaiting my amuse-bouche, wondering if this two-Michelin-starred restaurant at Shangri-La Hotel, Paris had forgotten me. As quickly as the thought entered my mind, it was swept away, as one of L’Abeille’s smartly dressed servers glided over with a colorful creation.
“The chef prepared this especially for you: with no dairy,” he said as he delicately set before me a plate of spider crab topped with Provencal rhubarb and asparagus, along with a custom menu prepared by executive chef Christophe Moret that accommodated my dietary restrictions. Later, I would retire to my 600-square-foot suite and its picture-perfect view of the Eiffel Tower, where a staff member would stop by with my preferred nightcap: jasmine green tea.
Of course, not all luxury travel experiences must involve edible gold or expansive views of iconic landmarks, but shrewd travel advisors know that the best high-end trips necessitate an intimate level of personalization and extremely detailed planning.
Here, we delve into some of the most luxurious offerings from suppliers in varying categories to help identify that certain je ne sais quoi that elevates a trip from ideal to impeccable. From providing VIP access to top tourist destinations and bringing travelers to off-the-beaten path locales via private jet to facilitating a romantic proposal, there’s no shortage of ways that agents can impress even their most discerning clients.
Tour OperatorsSince founding his company more than 50 years ago, Geoffrey Kent, chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), has witnessed the shifting definition of luxury.
“It has become much more flexible, with an emphasis on experiences and personalized service rather than the mere physical trappings of luxury,” he said. “I believe true luxury is the privilege of discovery, adventure, relaxation and insight, enjoyed in a context that perfectly suits the experience.”
And thanks to A&K’s mindset of constant evolution, it has become a tour operator that agents rely on for high-end clients. One of its current top offerings is its collection of Inspiring Expeditions by Geoffrey Kent. These limited-edition, small-group itineraries take travelers to remote locations — such as the South Pole, the Arctic, Western Mongolia and Papua New Guinea — while accompanied by Kent.
The six-day Northern Lights and Soul of the Arctic, for example, brings just 12 guests to Finnish Lapland, where they’ll take safaris by snowmobile, dogsled and reindeer sleigh; race on a custom-built ice track; stay in a remote wilderness lodge; learn winter survival skills; cross-country ski and snowshoe; meet with local Sami nomads and shamans; and view the northern lights.
For 2018, A&K is taking things up a few more notches with Around the World With Geoffrey Kent: An Inspiring Expedition by Private Jet. During this 25-day itinerary, 50 guests will join Kent on a journey to destinations including Nicaragua; Patagonia, Chile; Easter Island; Kerala, India; the Musandam Peninsula, Oman; Tbilisi, Georgia; and more, all from the comfort of an exclusively chartered jet.
“Seamless service, safety and security are a given,” Kent said. “But it is the thoughtful touches — what we call the ‘wow moments’ — that inspire a sense of wonder and elevate an adventure into a true luxury experience.”
Luxury Gold aims to evoke this sense of wonder in clients, as well. It offers escorted tour itineraries that combine exclusive experiences with top dining and accommodation options.
Phil Cappelli, president of Luxury Gold, particularly recommends the 26-day La Serenissima, a new Italy itinerary that takes guests to Rome, Capri, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Perugia, Florence, Assisi, Pompeii, Venice and Paris via a river cruise, a guided overland journey and a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train. In addition to door-to-door chauffeured car service from home to the airport and back, clients stay in five-star properties and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants. VIP experiences include lunch with an Italian count at his Tuscan wine estate, a private after-hours lighting ceremony at St. Mark’s Basilica, priority entrance to the Vatican Museums, a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and an after-hours tour of Doge’s Palace.
“We focus on what I believe is the most important aspect of travel: guests’ desire to connect with a destination and its people,” Cappelli said. “We do this by taking travelers behind the scenes at landmark attractions; introducing them to people they wouldn’t be able to meet as independent travelers; and offering immersive, hands-on activities that allow them to get beneath the surface of a destination.”
Tauck, too, brings its guests behind the scenes in Italy, with an after-hours tour of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums.
“Rather than being jostled, elbowed and herded along, our guests enjoy a leisurely, expertly guided tour of these marvels — and they gain a deeper and richer understanding of all they’re experiencing along the way,” said Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck Land Journeys.
Palmer also notes exclusive Tauck experiences in France such as a private after-hours visit to the Louvre and an early pre-opening visit to Palace of Versailles, as well as exclusive lectures from people such as Celia Sandys, the biographer and granddaughter of Winston Churchill.
HotelsWhether travelers want a sublime stay in a five-star property or an immersive excursion, hotels are perfectly primed to please.
In Bali, high-end clients know they can expect divine wellness opportunities, but Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay wants to ensure that guests truly experience the pinnacle of pampering. In July, the property introduced the new Imperial Villa, a nearly 14,000-square-foot, two-story oceanfront abode featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors; bedrooms with their own private indoor living areas, sundecks and ensuites; indoor and outdoor dining areas; a fully equipped kitchen; a gym; a rooftop garden; an infinity pool; and more.
Any Imperial Villa booking comes with exclusive benefits, including butler service, daily breakfast prepared by a private chef and a private yoga instructor.
For an additional fee, guests can spoil themselves with extras such as spa treatments in the villa’s private oceanfront garden or a traditional Balinese megibung banquet and dance performance on the villa lawn.
“The completion of the Imperial Villa marks the end of a two-year renovation of all 147 pool villas at the resort, effectively relaunching our entire accommodation with brand-new villa categories and introducing a new venue for weddings and events,” said Uday Rao, general manager of Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay.
Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, too, wants to give clients a taste of the high life. Through its Suite Drive Package, travelers receive daily rental of a luxury car such as an Audi, Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Range Rover, Bentley or Ferrari, depending on the room category booked.
But a luxe hotel experience doesn’t necessarily have to take place on-site. The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, for example, recently helped a client rent a private yacht for a special celebration.
According to Vicente Martinez, concierge for The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort, the property set up the guest onboard Neptune, an 82-foot vessel that belongs to one of the hotel’s suppliers.
Hawaii Island’s Four Seasons Resort Hualalai brings clients even farther off-property. Its Ultimate Pop-Up Volcano Adventure takes up to four guests on a 27-hour excursion via helicopter to see Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. They are joined by a volcanologist and stay in a rainforest hideaway, located on the rim of the volcano, that features Four Seasons amenities and staff.
“We not only strive to create experiences you cannot have anywhere else in the world; we also personalize your experience to ensure you have the most memorable vacation possible,” said Colin Clark, general manager for the resort.
In January, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s 10th annual Cayman Cookout will indulge epicurean clients. The event will feature exclusive, interactive experiences such as cooking demonstrations, tastings, tours and dinners from chefs like Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andres, Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn and more.
“This is one of our most highly anticipated, recurring luxury experiences that guests can take part in,” said Lisa Holladay, vice president and global brand leader for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. “It has grown into a truly unforgettable culinary showcase that brings together the world’s top talents year after year.”
Cruise and River Cruise LinesIf it’s seaworthy luxury experiences that travelers are after, cruise lines are increasingly coming up with ways to cater to the diverse and changing tastes of passengers.
Crystal, for one, took advantage of this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to offer clients a chance to experience the Formula 1 race at the famed Yas Marina Circuit, says Carmen Roig, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the line. In late November, guests partaking in the most exclusive package for the Indian Ocean Discovery sailing onboard Crystal Symphony were transported by luxury coach from the ship to Yas Island and positioned in the heart of the action with Formula One Team Paddock Club access. Participants were also able to walk the pit lane as well as enjoy premier seating, fine dining and an open bar.
Seabourn Cruise Line, meanwhile, offers an array of shoreside experiences that aim to immerse guests in the culture, history and beauty of exotic locales through its Seabourn Journeys land-based excursion program.
“Each Seabourn Journey is expertly curated with customized, guide-led tours of the most memorable sites and scenes around the world,” said Chris Austin, senior vice president of global marketing and sales for Seabourn. “They are perfect for luxury travelers desiring a seamless and robust land-and-sea experience.”
Austin highlights the South Africa: Cape Town & Kruger Park itinerary, available in conjunction with Seabourn’s spring 2019 South Africa cruises. During the trip, guests will go on a multiday safari; head to the top of Table Mountain via cable car; partake in multiple game drives; and savor vino in Cape Town’s oldest wine-producing region, Groot Constantia.
Likewise, Silversea Cruises is extending its luxury offerings onto land with its new Couture Collection, exclusive five- to 11-day experiences in remote locations. The line will employ private helicopters, specially equipped cars and private planes to transport clients in comfort to far-flung destinations such as Namibia, Tibet, Antarctica, Rwanda, Iceland, Bolivia, the Australian Outback and India.
On the rivers, operators are also working to keep up with the changing definition of luxury. For AmaWaterways, that means constantly assessing and adapting its offerings, says Kristin Karst, the company’s executive vice president and co-owner.
“Luxury has become more about time, space, physical and mental well-being and personalization of the travel experience rather than the traditional idea of things, elaborate surroundings and butler service,” she said.
Karst notes that in addition to 2019’s AmaMagna vessel — which will be twice the width of current river cruise ships and offer more spacious staterooms, dining options and onboard activities — the line will expand its Wellness Program to more ships, along with presenting some 60 wine cruises next year, each hosted by a wine expert.
Karst also highlights a post-cruise land program in Rwanda available for guests sailing the Discover Africa itinerary onboard Zambezi Queen in 2019.
“This awe-inspiring extension gives our guests the opportunity to experience Kigali and Volcanoes National Park and observe rare silverback mountain gorillas and golden monkeys up close,” she said.
Scenic is also focused on destination immersion. Thanks to a partnership with National Geographic, the company will debut a new line of National Geographic River Cruises next year. Numerous sailings in Europe and Myanmar will feature a National Geographic expert onboard who will give educational presentations and informal discussions throughout the trip. European river cruises will additionally offer a National Geographic photographer who will help passengers hone their skills.
“On National Geographic River Cruises, guests will have a menu of rich, experiential excursions to choose from, ranging from hikes and bike rides to in-depth learning experiences that focus on the natural world, culture and history,” said Joni Rein, vice president of sales and marketing for Scenic and Emerald Waterways in the U.S.
RomanceWhen love is in the air, suppliers often like to demonstrate just how luxe they can go for clients. Whether partners are in the early stages of courtship or planning a proposal, a wedding, a honeymoon, a vow renewal or an anniversary celebration, there’s never a dearth of opportunities for operators to craft personalized romantic moments.
Grace Chan, director of catering and convention services for The Kahala Hotel & Resort, recounts an engagement proposal the property facilitated that felt straight out of a romantic film.
A guest who planned to propose to his girlfriend during their stay at the Honolulu property booked the Kahala Kai Suite — one of the resort’s four Signature Suites — and arranged for a private dinner at The Kahala’s beachfront Seaside Grill restaurant.
“We created the most romantic dinner, with amazing decorations, sheer and airy linens, twinkle lights and gorgeous florals,” Chan said.
While a harpist played music, the couple feasted on a specially catered five-course dinner with wine pairings selected by master sommelier Roberto Viernes. After playing his partner a video montage of their times together, the boyfriend got down on one knee and asked his girlfriend to marry him. The “yes” was followed by a bottle of Dom Perignon, a congratulations video from their friends and family and a 10-minute fireworks show.
But in true over-the-top fashion, Chan wasn’t ready to stop there. As the lovebirds finished their meal, she ensured another surprise was ready: 12 dozen roses set up in their suite, with rose petals sprinkled throughout, along with mood lighting and music, chocolate-dipped strawberries and another bottle of champagne.
Similarly, One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico, has also created customized romantic experiences.
Arianna Ocampo, director of groups and special events for One&Only Palmilla, recalls a guest who decided to surprise his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary. He wished to indulge her in a multicourse dinner paired with jewelry that had been custom-made by a local designer.
“Our Celebrations Specialist suggested to offer these jewelry pieces during dinner, but one per course,” Ocampo said. “When the waiter arrived to serve the first course, their butler followed with a pair of earrings; with the second course, the butler offered a necklace. During the third course, he brought a bracelet and, finally, for dessert, a beautiful ring.”
AdventureThe word is out: Adventure travel can be luxurious, too. While elements of adventure travel trips may include bouts of “roughing it,” many operators have upped the ante to cater to luxury clients, with offerings that range from glamping and hot-air balloon rides to cycling excursions in vineyards followed by food and wine tastings.
Active travel company Backroads knows that high-end clients want a little pampering while they sweat, so although itineraries focus on pursuits such as hiking, biking and camping, they also incorporate luxury elements.
Take, for example, the six-day Piedmont to Portofino Walking & Hiking Tour, during which guests enjoy wine, truffles and Mediterranean seafood at a Michelin-starred restaurant after a day of exploring charming towns and peaceful rolling hills on foot. Or look to the six-day Champagne & Alsace Bike Tour, where clients cycle through World Heritage-designated French landscapes, then savor a private dinner and champagne pairing at Moet & Chandon’s Orangerie venue.
But like many suppliers, Backroads really shines when it comes to personalized itineraries.
“Backroads is a great choice for custom trips because we have extensive experience across the globe; we make the custom design process as easy as possible; and we never subcontract our trips to other companies,” said Jesse Karp, the company’s business development manager and private and custom trips manager.
Karp recalls an eight-day French Pyrenees and Spanish Rioja trip that Backroads put together for a loyal corporate client. The custom itinerary incorporated biking, hiking, rafting, kayaking, surfing, cooking schools, exclusive wine dinners and stays in top accommodations.
“We assigned a dedicated Private Trip Consultant to work with the client, and our team worked closely with all of our regional local Trip Experts and conducted extensive research on the ground to make sure we delivered the trip of a lifetime,” Karp said.
For bucket-list luxury adventure trips, many travelers often turn to safari operators. Wilderness Travel is one such company that can put together a truly memorable Big Five itinerary — in total comfort, of course.
“One of our most luxurious offerings is our Serengeti Wildlife Safari, with exclusive, gorgeous tented camps in the Serengeti, set up exactly in the spot to get you as close as possible to the migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra — and in the heart of prime game viewing,” said Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new trip development for Wilderness Travel.
In addition to game walks and night drives to see nocturnal wildlife, guests can also interact with and learn more about the local Maasai people, some of whom are on staff.
“We offer private camps that cater exclusively to Wilderness Travel guests, with personalized service from camp staff who are also able to accommodate individual preferences,” Banks said.
Three Virtuoso agents who specialize in luxury trip planning offer their advice for creating heavenly experiences for cosmopolitan clients
Susan Boehnstedt: Montecito Village Travel, Queen Creek, Ariz.- Confer with clients before researching or booking anything to fully understand their needs, wants, budget and dreams.
- Make note of special wishes, anniversaries, birthdays, etc., and work with your suppliers to create unexpected surprises for your guests.
- Follow up: Send a handwritten “welcome home” note, as well as an email, and schedule a call to review the trip.
Aimee Leon: Avant-Garde Travel, San Diego- Listen more and talk less. Sometimes we feel the need to prove our knowledge to clients. However, it’s more important to ask open-ended questions and listen so that you can make recommendations based on their needs and desires.
- Brag about your connections: It’s our relationships and direct connections with luxury properties that make personalized service come to life.
- Take advantage of fam trips so you can better sell the luxury products you recommend.
Nathan Cripps: Stellar Travel, Bellevue, Wash.- Ask clients to plan early. It allows us the best chance at finding availability in small and exclusive hotels, hiring the best possible guides and securing access to exclusive and behind-the-scenes experiences.
- Encourage clients to be flexible, and seek exclusivity for them. Many luxury travelers have been to the top tourist destinations around the globe — but have they had breakfast in Rome’s Vatican Gardens? How about hiring an after-hours private shopper on London’s Oxford Street or arranging a rehearsal viewing at Sydney Opera House?
- Every advisor should hold their vendors accountable for their pricing practices. Clients deserve to know exactly what they are paying for.