For many travelers, nothing beats one-of-a-kind trips that cater to their particular interests, however luxurious or off-the-wall
Joe Feeney and his wife, Tina, had wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for years, but like many other working Americans, they couldn't fit it into their hectic schedules. And incorporating a safari into the trip was nigh on impossible unless they had more time to travel. "We had never been to Africa, and you don't want to go halfway around the world and then not go on safari," says Feeney, the head of equity trading for the investment arm of a large insurance company. "Imagine coming back and telling everyone you had gone to Tanzania and didn't see a lion, an elephant or a rhino." What were they to do? Enter family-owned Micato Safaris. The bespoke travel company wins "world's best" awards annually, and one of the reasons is its emphasis on planning the perfect trip for its patrons. The Feeneys were assigned a program director to oversee the details of their trip and answer their questions. "We would wonder about something like medicine or clothing or food or gear for the climb or visas, and call her, and she always knew the answer straightaway," says Joe. Eventually the Feeneys agreed on an action-packed two-week trip, including the weeklong climb up Kilimanjaro and four days of wildlife safaris, with short plane flights in between to maximize time. The custom itinerary they developed was so much more efficient than any off-the-shelf trips they had seen that they convinced three friends, who were equally pressed for time, to join them. "A lot of people go on safari alone for 10 days, but honestly, the quality of the guides and accommodations were so good, I don't feel like we missed a thing. We could not have been in better hands."
The Feeneys are not alone. High-end tour operators and specialty travel agencies of every ilk are describing similar anecdotal evidence of the boom in bespoke travel—and virtually every one of these is rolling out a custom, private division. "It has increased tremendously, and is now 40 percent of our business," says Micato Safaris President Dennis Pinto, who put the bespoke percentage at virtually nil just five to 10 years ago.
Stacy Small, president of Elite Travel International, has witnessed the bespoke boom firsthand. "I've had my business for three years and we have yet to sell a single package trip, even at the highest end. Every trip is a custom tour for my clients," she says. "They don't just go to Italy; they want a personal shopper in Milan and a private boat tour in Venice. We work with some of the best companies that do those tours, using them as a starting point, but it is always customized from there." Marc Telio, founder of Entrée Destinations, which specializes in luxury travel and yacht charters in Canada and Alaska, half-jokingly says, "We have about 150 detailed itineraries on our Web site, and we change and update them every year, but I seriously doubt anyone has ever booked one. They get an idea, but we change this hotel or that yacht." Jamen Yeaton-Masi, operations director for Country Walkers, has also seen the explosion in custom travel. "I would say that in the last two years, our private custom trips have doubled. We always had some, but suddenly it is a core part of the business."
Industry experts cite several reasons for the boom. Pinto thinks it is part of the larger growth in multigenerational family travel, and a similar trend toward groups of friends traveling together. In either case, they want to spend time with just their chosen traveling companions. "I think it came after 9/11, when people did not want to leave family members behind. To have the family together for a couple of weeks is a tremendous bonding experience." Small thinks the boom is due to the increasing number of people who, because of wealth or fame, crave privacy. "Private is the key word in these trips. These people are very, very busy, and when they take the time to take a vacation, they want everything to be perfect, including who they are traveling with."
Dominic Hampshire, founder of Latitude International, an agency specializing in travel to the British Isles, credits the boom to private aviation—and one-upmanship. "We've seen how private air has proliferated quickly, and so has private travel. But on top of that, people want to do something all of their friends are not doing, something where they come away with a great, special memory." Butterfield & Robinson's Cari Gray sees it as part of a larger global custom movement: "There's such a trend towards customization. It is all about options and choices, which are increasingly revered in our society."
Whatever the reason, the bespoke trend is good news for travelers, at least those craving more than a day at the beach. Bespoke travel is for those with special interests—from art to mountain climbing to food and wine—and almost always features guides, drivers and experts, with personalized, detailed daily itineraries similar to those found in luxury package trips. New York's Absolute Travel is a leader in exotic luxury vacations in Asia, Africa, Australia and the South Pacific, but it still sometimes turns away deep-pocketed clients. "If someone wants to go to Bali and spend a week relaxing at the Four Seasons and lie on the beach, we tell them to just call the hotel," says company marketing manager Christina Stubbs. "Our clients go to Bali and want to meet the silversmiths, learn about cooking, go to the outlying islands, see the culture up close. It's the same idea as a group tour, where everything is planned, including airport pickup, cars and drivers, and excursions, but on a totally private and custom basis. We don't have 18-day trips or 21-day trips; we have whatever you want."
No matter how wealthy a traveler is, time remains the most valuable commodity, as was the case with the Feeneys. As the world becomes a smaller place, people increasingly want exclusive, unique travel experiences but without sacrificing quality and all without hassles or complications. They also want the security of knowing that if something does go wrong, from a cancelled flight to an impending monsoon, they have someone to call who can actually fix things. Even experienced travelers often feel uncomfortable making their own arrangements. In addition, the explosion of luxury accommodations worldwide means that many of the best choices in emerging regions are new and largely unknown, except to specialized insiders.
But there is also another force at work that is helping to drive this trend: a demand for authenticity. Since the demographic for bespoke travel consists almost entirely of experienced travelers looking to have the best experiences, these people demand a very deep level of expertise and local knowledge, which is why so many bespoke travel providers focus on specific regions or activities. Long past taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace, these travelers crave local flavor and are willing to pay those who know how to provide it like a local. "We have developed close relationships with the people on the ground here, from local artists to national park managers, to offer the most authentic experiences. We cater to couples and families looking for private, custom luxury trips that are also authentic," says Emmanuel Burgio, a former New York investment banker who created Blue Parallel based on the wants and demands of his former employers. The company specializes in South America and boasts customers such as Ravi Singh, a powerful financier who oversees global securities for Goldman Sachs.
"Authenticity has become a buzzword," says Lisa Lindblad, owner of Lisa Lindblad Travel Design. "It means really wanting to get under the skin of a place. I was trained as an anthropologist, and my guests just expect culture one way or another on their trips, whether it is artisans or architecture. We always remember that what is good for one client might not be good for another, and while a good guide can make a trip, a bad one can ruin it, and even a mundane one can spoil it.
"I offer travel that is like theater, with drama, and there is a rhyme and reason for the way a two-week trip and the daily itinerary is laid out, why one day follows another and one hotel follows another and this dinner follows that one. To us, the hotels are the fixed resources, platforms from which to explore the world, and the real luxury is the people who help you see the world around you and experience it firsthand. It truly is an art."
This art is the reason why almost all the top bespoke travel providers have particular areas of expertise. No travel expert can claim to know the entire world intimately. "I lived and worked in Hong Kong for seven years, and my business partner lived in Asia for many years as well," says Catherine Heald, cofounder of Remote Lands. "We know Asia very, very well. We don't know Europe, we don't know South America. I think with this whole customization trend in travel, it is better to specialize, and this is especially true in Asia, where you are going to need more help than if you go to London."
Bespoke travel spans every conceivable location and activity, and while it has more obvious appeal in places such as Cambodia or Madagascar, custom trips to mainstream European destinations and even to U.S. and Canadian locales remain popular. Bespoke trips are similar to the kind of high-end tours that have long been offered by companies such as Abercrombie & Kent, Mountain Travel Sobek and Butterfield & Robinson, with detailed daily itineraries, guides, drivers, and planned meals and activities. Some itineraries can run 30 pages long, and past itineraries from Absolute Travel read as much like history books and travelogues as schedules, jam-packed with background information to help travelers better appreciate what each day entails. Other itineraries are less voluminous, as some travelers elect to build in more free time or use guides only for a day here or there. Regardless of a plan's level of detail, all clients maintain the flexibility to make changes on the fly.
Whether travelers entrust experts such as Lindblad or Absolute Travel to do the bulk of the planning for their trips to exotic locales, or prefer to research and develop their own itineraries, both approaches offer the same benefits: spending valuable vacation time doing only things you want to do, with no compromises and no strangers as traveling companions who could potentially cause friction. Even when the planning is left to the experts, these firms begin with an in-depth interview to determine the sights and experiences you will enjoy and your preferences for food and lodging. The exhaustive laundry list that results lets them propose a detailed itinerary that is always subject to your review, editing and approval.
A small but significant percentage of bespoke travelers simply take off-the-shelf itineraries, but they either want to go on different dates, require special handling or just don't like to travel with strangers. "When we started three years ago, most people booked trips identical or very similar to those in our catalog," says Butterfield & Robinson's Cari Gray. "They would do our 'Classic Tuscany,' but only with their friends. Now it has become much more common to do highly customized itineraries, even in places we do not normally offer trips. We recently did a bespoke trip for four people with five guides [the company's norm is two] because everything had to be perfect every minute of the day, with no margin for error."
Elite Travel's Stacy Small agrees. "When people spend this kind of money, they want to know who they are traveling with." Her agency has a large clientele of entertainers and executives in the film industry, while Absolute Travel handles trips for a number of professional athletes, and walking-tour specialist Country Walkers recently put together a bespoke trip for actor Matthew McConaughey. Not every well-heeled traveler hates the group dynamic, however; companies such as B&R, Micato and Country Walkers enjoy a high level of repeat business and find that many customers still alternate between bespoke travel and group trips straight out of the catalog. Others don't mind fellow travelers but just have their own agendas, such as Burton Lustine, the owner of several Washington, D.C.—area car dealerships, who did a few group biking trips with Butterfield & Robinson before switching to bespoke versions.
"I have two important criteria for taking a trip," says Lustine. "First, I need a swimming pool wherever I go, and that is not always possible on the scheduled trips. Secondly, I want a lot of culture, and also, while I want a lot of physical activity, I like to wake up whenever I want. I am a history buff, and would rather design specific elements of my trip, and the bespoke opportunity addresses that. On the Normandy biking trip, I customized it so I could visit specific sites and battlefields with an expert local guide."
Bespoke travel is not bargain travel, but it does not have to break the bank either. Some companies simply quote a price for the entire itinerary, while others add service or consulting fees to the trip cost. Absolute Travel's average itinerary lasts around 12 days and runs about $15,000 for two people, no more than many luxury travelers would spend on their own in an era where four-figure hotel rooms are increasingly common. The company regularly coordinates custom trips for as little as $3,000 to $4,000 per person for eight days in less expensive parts of Asia, but $50,000 trips are quite normal, and Stubbs notes that it used to be that a "$100,000 trip was a rarity, something we did a couple of times each year, and now it's an everyday thing."
Latitude International's approach is to itemize every component of the trips it arranges, from drivers to helicopter charters, without markups, and then add a 25 percent fee (but not to lodging). With Micato, custom trips often cost no more per day than group versions in the company's catalog, especially for parties of four to six that fill a safari vehicle and would require their own driver and guide anyway. Lisa Lindblad charges a $2,500 consultation fee for putting together a bespoke itinerary.
Each provider uses a different pricing structure, but all can create trips to meet a wide array of budgets. Marc Telio of Entrée Destinations thinks bespoke travel will continue to become more widespread, and potentially even less expensive. "This trend is not just for the luxury segment," he says. "They read the travel magazines, Wine Spectator, publications like that, and they see over and over that the sexy way to travel is to go to Italy and have a private tour of the Sistine Chapel."
Besides the local expertise, authentic experiences, privacy and flexibility, one special benefit of bespoke travel is access, the opportunities offered by highly specialized travel providers to otherwise off-limits experiences and sights. "Companies like ours not only take care of every detail, but also provide access customers could not otherwise get," says Blue Parallel's Burgio. "For instance, because of our relationship with high-ranking officials, we are able to pick up our clients at the airport in Buenos Aires as if they were diplomats. We've had clients come to Argentina to kayak and got them a former member of the Argentinean Olympic kayaking team as their guide. Our job is to 'make the impossible happen,' which is what creates lasting memories."
Telio puts it this way: "You can book yourself into the Four Seasons Whistler without any help. We often achieve private access, such as arranging for our clients to play golf with the mayor of Whistler, or have a private performance of Cirque du Soleil." Micato guests routinely meet Masai elders and enjoy other invitation-only experiences such as meeting with paleontologists Philip and Louise Leakey, the grandchildren of Louis and Mary Leakey. Latitude International is built almost entirely on the concept of access and special handling, as its owner, Dominic Hampshire, was an equerry, or personal aide to the British royal family, and takes the concept of treating clients like royalty seriously.
"We literally hold the keys to the castle, and our connections allow for visits to otherwise private castles, golf clubs, after-hours private tours of museums with the curators, those kinds of things," says Hampshire. "A lot of our clients want to meet local people during their travels, not celebrities, but rather to visit a Scottish castle and not just see the castle, but sit down to tea with the 16th earl." Catherine Heald of Remote Lands notes that "it could be palaces with royalty one day and sitting down to a dinner at a remote indigenous village the next. "The point is to have a profound, life-changing experience."
Sometimes this access comes in the form of personal connections money cannot otherwise buy, but more often it is simply a matter of expertise: any traveler could theoretically hire the best guide in Florence, except that he would not be able to find him. Either way, from dining with royals to kayaking with Olympians, bespoke travel offers truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Still, there are limits to what even the best companies can arrange. "People often ask to meet the queen," says Hampshire, "but it's something even we can't do."