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Tailored Treks

For many travelers, nothing beats one-of-a-kind trips that cater to their particular interests, however luxurious or off-the-wall
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, July/August 2008

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."


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