Leisure travellers are embracing private jet travel that was once the preserve of industrialists and tycoons, writes Kavita Daswani
Last Thanksgiving, an East Coast businessman decided to treat 45 family members to a two-week Hawaiian holiday. He is Greg Raiff, the CEO of New Hampshire-based Private Jet Services Group, whose staff snapped into action. The entourage was flown by private jet into Los Angeles, put up at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, given access to the green room and front-row seats at the Jay Leno Show, and were "mobbed" by fake paparazzi as part of the Hollywood experience. They got back on the plane bound for the Four Seasons in Maui - the flight attendants dressed in Hawaiian shirts - and were treated to a rare private lunch aboard the USS Arizona Memorial battleship at Pearl Harbour. The entire excursion cost the businessman US$1.8 million but, as Raiff says, it enabled them to have the sorts of experiences that even money can't buy.
"It took two months just to get certified to use a blender on the plane that could make frozen drinks we could serve in hollowed-out coconuts," Raiff says. "It's that level of detail that high-net-worth travellers seek."
Private jet travel - once seen as the domain of industrialists having to make a quick business jaunt - is now being embraced by leisure travellers. To make it more appealing, companies that specialise in this level of travel are aligning with luxury hotels to create customised trips. Tara Imperatore, travel editor at JustLuxe.com says the new alliances being formed between airlines and hotels "are about offering all-encompassing packages". Going through a travel agent "is old school now", she says. "Your favourite hotel brand may now have a way of getting you there, cutting out the middle man. Curated experiences are what the new type of luxury travellers are looking for." TCS & Starquest Expeditions works with the Four Seasons to take 78 passengers via private 757 jet on culturally-rich 22-day excursions. Its "Urban Intrigue and an Island Oasis" jaunt, which kicks-off from Seattle in September, takes in Tokyo, Shanghai, the Maldives, Istanbul, St Petersburg and Marrakesh before wrapping up in New York. On-board experts include Charles Doherty, art historian, lecturer and author, and travel photographer Bob Krist.
Curated attractions on land include learning how to make sushi with a master chef in Tokyo, a gala dinner at the Petrodvorets in St Petersburg, and having tea with a Berber village elder in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The cost would run to about US$140,000 per couple, which covers pretty much everything.
"We came up with the idea of doing trips totally focused on Four Seasons properties," says Shelley Cline, president of TCS & Starquest Expeditions. "Our typical traveller is well-travelled and is able to dedicate three weeks to an experience like this. They also want the ultimate customised experience, and often don't have the time to take care of all the details themselves."
Joshua Hebert, CEO of Magellan Jets, which partners with a number of top hotels, agrees that with this echelon of luxury travel, "money isn't everything when it comes to access". Clients "ask me to get them into Miami Art Basel, they want a suite at the W and to get into the Wall Club", Hebert says. Magellan has formed alliances with the Mondrian in Los Angeles, the Hudson in New York and a number of international Four Seasons properties. Hebert says Magellan pilots and everyone on the flight support team think like concierges: if a flight is headed into Istanbul, the plane is filled with Turkish flowers, its shelves packed with movies, guide books and magazines about the city. But it's the leverage that the company has with premier hotel groups that makes it valuable to travellers with means.
"If we've sent into a particular hotel 15 people of wealth, who got huge suites, and spent a lot of money, then the next time we need a room and they're fully booked, they'll do it for us," he says. Some companies specialise in certain parts of the world where commercial travel necessitates long layovers. Travel Beyond, a luxury travel consultancy in Minnesota, works with private jet providers and luxury resorts in Africa; a trip recently planned for a family of five for 12 days, and included private jet travel between South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya, including deluxe safari excursions and lodges, ran to US$237,000 in total. But the family avoided unnecessary overnight layovers and had all their travel arrangements taken care of by the same company.
"We work with the best safari lodges in the world, and there is high demand for that type of travel in Africa," says Jim Bendt, president of Travel Beyond. He says that private jet travel essentially triples the cost of a trip if it would otherwise have been on First Class.
"But for people who travel like this, their time is more valuable than their money," Bendt says.