adventurers fuel tailor-made tour boom
So you've skied in St. Moritz, danced
until daybreak at Carnival in Rio and
shopped till you dropped in Tokyo's Ginza.
Now you seek a real adventure.
Bespoke travel may be in your future.
Bespoke -- a fancy way of saying custom
or tailor-made or independent -- is one
of the fastest-growing segments of the
travel industry, fueled by affluent,
been-there-done-that travelers who wouldn't
be caught dead on one of those board-the-buses
They want to float down the Ganges during
a tribute to an Indian river goddess,
take an early-morning alms walk with
Laotian monks or come face to face with
cannibals on the island of New Guinea.
For a price -- as little as $300 per
person per day (excluding airfare, but
some of these travelers have private
jets) or as much as $300,000 for a two-week
dream journey for a family -- anything
"This has been an incredible growth
area," says John Clifford, president
of International Travel Management in
San Diego (www.internationaltravelmanagement.
probably 95 percent of my business. These
are mature, well-traveled clients who've
done London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney. There's
this craving for something that is not
as sterilized. They want to connect with
people and culture and cuisine."
His typical clients include "affluent
couples in the Baby Boomer generation,
Gen X singles, affluent gay clients."
Typically, bespoke travel begins with
extensive interviews to determine clients'
interests and such details as whether
they're early or late risers.
Catherine Heald, who lived seven years
in Hong Kong, is chairman and chief executive
of Remote Lands travel in Manhattan (www.remotelands.com),
specializing in bespoke travel to Asia
-- journeys that are "completely
tailor-made and very high-end."
"You're not just lumped in with
a bunch of people who just get shoved
onto buses and herded around," she
said. "Our clients have done Europe
to death. They've done South America,
and now they want to get more exotic.
They want the next frontier, which is
Asia. Or they've been to Asia and done
the basic places and now want the deeper
experience," perhaps being guests
at a wedding or spending time in locals'
One client will be staying in a maharajah's
palace in Darjeeling, India. Another
hopes to go to Indonesia's Irian Jaya
to meet the last known cannibals. "You
have to trek for four days through deep,
thick jungle to get to them," Heald
says. "It's not like they're on
e-mail. Our contacts in Indonesia are
searching for them."
Clifford's clients seek intimate boutique
hotels and "something new that a
travel magazine hasn't written about.
The 'Survivor' show has led people to
become interested in faraway places like
Truk [or] Palau." Another destination
of interest is Upper Mongolia, where
there's a luxury tent village.
Hylton Lea of Santa Monica, a vice president
of ReVive skin care, and his partner,
Danny Robinson, shun programmed trips. "That's
not what we do," Lea says. "We
walk." But they rely on Clifford
to find boutique hotels and good restaurants,
whether in Istanbul, Paris or Buenos
"The places he puts you in, they're
not flashy," Lea says. "They're
these really cool little gems," such
as the Gaia in Costa Rica, where a hotel
car picked them up at the airport and "the
general manager was at the gate [of the
hotel] to meet us."
India is a specialty of Indian-born Pallavi
Shah, owner of Manhattan's Our Personal
Guest (www.ourpersonalguest.com). One
goal, she says, is for travelers to "really
get under the skin of a country."
The agency has arranged for clients to
take part in an evening religious ritual
on the Ganges in which they float down
the river in a small flower-laden boat
and light candles to the river goddess.
Others mingled with monks in Laos.
"When people make money, they feel
entitled to have something very specific
to themselves," she says. "What
they're looking for is an international
experience, on their own terms, when
they want it, and loads and loads and
loads of service."
If you're just going to London to do
theater, she says, "you don't need
me. You can just call the concierge.
If it's difficult and you can't do it
yourself, come to us."
Pamela Lassers, director of media relations
for upscale Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com),
an Oak Brook-based agency with 50 offices
worldwide, says: "This year we're
seeing really dramatic growth in independent
travel. It represents about 50 percent
of our overall business."
She attributes the surge to a desire
for "more meaningful travel experiences" and
to the Internet, where travelers are
discovering new places and adventures.
Africa is No. 1 in popularity, she says,
especially safaris with intimate 12-
to 15-room private tent camps.
Celebration travel -- birthdays, weddings,
anniversaries -- is a staple. "We
had a lovely young couple who were going
to be in Kenya and decided they'd like
to get married. We were able to arrange
a Masai wedding." One family chartered
the Sea Cloud for a 50th birthday celebration
for 50 people.
Custom journeys are "growing so
fast I can't hire enough staff," says
Katherine Graves, director of inside
sales and guest relations for international
tour operator Travcoa (www.travcoa.com). "People
are looking for the new type of travel,
which is the experience. Anyone can go
sit on a beach in Hawaii," but custom
clients want to "meet the local
people, have the local food.