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