On a mission at the Condé Nast Luxury Travel Fair in London, quite a pompous name, I am here to study the future of tourism, trends in travel and new faces. Who knows what's next?
The ‘fair’ is tiny. With a sort of harsh lighting that reminds one of the Christmas markets in the gymnasium of a local parish: within ten minutes I have seen it all. My path is interrupted by two ladies dragging a cart piled with books. The tables that occupy the stands are covered in marketing materials: brochures, CD’s, folders, business cards and bottles of limoncello. Some hosts offer small pieces of parmesan cheese and red wine served in plastic coffee cups.
The aforementioned ladies with the cart are inebriated way before lunch time - it is no secret that the travel consultants, once simply ‘agents’, love celebrating the good life. A job far removed from the confines of a desk. Under the auspices of ‘quality control’, it seems that an attractive fringe benefit of our career is a never-ending, complementary holiday. After a minute, it is clear that nothing here will feed the future-hungry kids, the travel nerds, those who worship the new cult of the ‘cloud sharing’. The fair lacks a true esprit, while technology misses out even in the exposition of multimedia contents: these small movies with square jaw-ed blond men who, fresh off of their private jets. These vingettes seem stuck in a 1980‘s, solid gold taps at Trump Tower kind of retro rather than a futuristic projection of success - it is not even worth mentioning how not interactive these presentations are.
The truth is luxury operators know well that those who cannot travel commercial and who buy private jets are usually the bald and corpulent. They are more likely to drink a liter of water than a glass of champagne. Having lost their jaw definition years ago, when pushing hard on deals and wolfing down double creamed fettuccine Alfredo. It is not the fair itself that sings an old forgotten song, albeit a bit undersized, the dissappointment lies in what our job has become: this business even at this highest level resembles a coven of confused dinosaurs trying to find their way out of pre-history with a cart of printed books. “Nobody will ever book a £20,000 pound holiday online” this is a mistake. “Nobody will ever choose a luxury villa on the internet” another terrible mistake. “We won’t be threatened by online booking platforms” fatal mistake.
Ours is a planet split between those who cannot afford to move from one village to another and those who implement a LCD screen in their car, so that kids can get entertained (and shut up) while traveling. A planet where water is luxury for too many and black truffled rice with edible golden leaf is a Monday night supper for others. We in luxury cater for the wealthy, invent new needs and package them as well as we can afford to. If seen under this light we do not look that great, this is however one of the multi-faceted aspects of our job that involves a great dedication and a huge knowledge.
Upscale travel is not about bringing someone from point A to point B. It is rather to transform each and every service into a metaphor representing what these guys have become, from their point of view, in the eyes of the world. It is not a grandiose villa, or a hotel suite ninety floors up that provides a luxury experience. The walls, as incredibly magnificent as they can be, won’t do the trick if not paired to an immensely discreet but present service: a wordly understanding of what shall happen, every minute, is an essential one. Those of us in the industry aspire to understand and translate desires and demands before they get actually get verbally expressed.
Economy means people want more value from their money. We must win the trust of the market, and in particular of the ‘rich’. This is not mission facìle: just one word too many or an accent out of place and one can be disqualified for life. The process sounds cruel and elitist but it is no different today from that of a small cheap hotel on Trip Advisor at the mercy of a visitor who wants a free upgrade (and has followed Gordon Ramsay’s hotel inspection saga). The difference between those who play in the exclusive game and those who don’t is merely in the variables of what can go wrong. Then there is the internet and the otas (online travel agencies such as Expedia or Booking) offering travel advice for ‘free’. This platform can work for some travellers, but certainly not for those with a descerning palette, of course, although they will have their personal assistant go and compare, come back to us and want a butler included, a fifty percent discount and a free dinner. We will give none of that of course because impeccable service costs. If you like your Tiffany wrapped up in a blue box, you better purchase it in a shop, not on a market stall.
I have a plethora of compelling and unique ‘on-the-job’ stories which I enjoy sharing with colleagues and friends in front of a fireplace - of course without violating the privacy of my beloved customers that shall feed me: red carpets to protect guests offended by deadly pine needles, gondolas drivers who refuse to sing O’sole mio upsetting some very important babies, helicopters (ten) leaving at three in the morning and guests to be protected from the paparazzi when the they are not looking their best. These true tales are now part of my daily life. Admittedly, this work has gotten under my skin: what would I do without my adrenaline rush, without my impossible missions?
Service is king, of course. And it is a subtle pleasure because it involves two brains instead of one. Service is how I call travel and ground service how I define luxury. Anyway.
In the spirit of discovering a spark, a new impetus, I have come to this fair in London. I stop at every booth and listen to these stories of a few minutes. I'm enthusiast about this Filippo di Lenardo guy. Starting from local ingredients of the highest quality he has created a almost non-geographical way of traveling: think gastronomy, think bespoke, think Italy - of course. I like his enthusiasm and his clean, honest face. Filippo is the very young and passionate owner of Elite Retreat Italia, a company dedicated to traveler gourmands, those who’d fly for a rare grappa tasting and believe in local excellence.
I also like Mr. Oliver’s Travel’s (Oliver in person) – he is a nice fellow who, when asked, jumps up and runs to explain his project. I love the fact he owns the "quirky" adjective, because I love a great personality in houses as well as in people. Great prices too.
I do have a fondness, a soft spot for the villas, must say, especially if they have something to say: those white ‘Ibizian’ style walls with nothing but wide plasma screens and the Kartell full catalogue don’t do it for me, they barely do it for the soviets that the upscale, cultured russians do not want to meet. I do love glorious chimneys, bright colors and a history that penetrates you while reading a book. Give me a glorious garden and a patio worth a philosophical discussion and you can keep the hot-tub together with the big plasma screen.
I didn’t get a lot of sparkle, if not from Filippo’s contagious enthusiasm. Thing is, sometimes a small dream is not enough to make it in the luxury world: big ideas with small budgets can fail, people of great quality can be humiliated by well-trained sharks and hedge-fund puppet masters, but when they make it, they just crash the system and show what’s new, they indicate the future through their little dream, with a shining light none would bet a penny on.
We all aim to leave our handprints there in the tourism ‘Walk of Fame’ of course, even when we cannot afford a Google campaign. The good news is that no unscrupulous banker has never left his prints on that walk, ever.
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