Antarctica or the Amazon? Tailor-made travel eclipsing luxury package tours
Hong Kong specialists such as Blueflower, Charlotte, Jacada, Lightfoot, So Me, A2A Safaris, Urbane Nomads and Soma Journeys offer once-in-a-lifetime trips catering for travellers who don’t want to rub shoulders with tourists
A refined and bespoke approach has replaced opulent and brash five-star hotels on the well-trodden tourist path, which inevitably would have included an expensive trophy from a high-end shopping mall.
Today, a trip to Antarctica or a night in a private castle in Germany is associated with the kind of privilege once attached to products such as a Birkin bag or a Rolex watch. These experiences are quickly surpassing fashion items and the status they once represented, and travellers are increasingly favouring intimate and enriching experiences.
“Luxury travel has often been seen (especially in the past) to be about lavish service, huge rooms and massive facilities,” says Alex Malcolm, founder of Jacada Travel. “What we’re seeing now is that people find the greatest reward in authentic experiences that reconnect them with the world. Travel is about so much more than just smooth arrangements and fancy hotels. You’re crafting the most important experiences in people’s lives, the time they spend their life working for.”
Malcolm started Jacada Travel when he was living in Rio de Janeiro. He wanted to give travellers more of an insider’s take on a destination, just as he did when friends and family visited him in Rio. His company has offices in Hong Kong, London and Cape Town.
“The newest buzzword in the industry is this ‘transformative’ travel concept, where a trip you take has a profound and life-changing effect. This has been our ethos or vision from day one,” says Jose Cortes, co-founder of A2A Safaris, which started out offering expeditions in Africa, and now includes Latin America and Antarctica on its itinerary. Cortes says business is generated by word of mouth and the experiences keep customers returning.
“I arranged a trip down to Antarctica for someone who wanted to spend his 50th birthday there and this client was a real naturalist, photographer and explorer,” says Cortes. “So we arranged a private party for him and his friends on one of these ice class ships where they traced the path of Ernest Shackleton. He was able to ring in his birthday three times as the ship covered three time zones on his birthday. We also had one of Nat Geo’s top photographers to show up at his party and be the official photographer. So you can imagine how special the experience was for him.”
Lucy Jackson, co-founder and director of Lightfoot Travel, which offers designer holidays covering six continents, agrees.“We took a couple by private jet to Bhutan and set up pop-up private camps as they trekked through the more remote regions of the country,” says Jackson of one of her experiences for a client. “We are finding these impromptu camp set-ups are becoming increasingly popular in places like Oman, Bhutan and Mongolia. Whilst we do our utmost to ensure the camps have the proper amenities, the luxury of this experience is knowing that you are sleeping where no one else has before.”
Sophie Mensdorff-Pouilly, founder of So Me Travel, who takes smaller groups of friends or family to private castles and palaces, as well as classical music and art events in Europe, goes by the motto “by invitation only”.
“Once I was sitting with a group in the dining room of this amazing private castle in Germany – the owner had just told us her family’s story,” Mensdorff-Pouilly says, “and one of my clients said, ‘I feel like a guest, like I was invited here … not at all like a tourist.’ Our clients get invitations into people’s homes. These homes are beautiful architectural jewels that no one knows because you won’t find them in any guide book. We combine this with highlights of classical music in Austria, Germany and Italy.”
So Me Travel’s clients are from Hong Kong and China, and Mensdorff-Pouilly leads most of the tailor-made tours, which are conducted in Mandarin or English.
Hajar Ali, founder of Urbane Nomads, a travel company specialising in remotelocations, says most of her clients want adventure.
“There are a lot of driven people who strive to combine the usual highlights with destinations usually reserved for those on their second or third trips to the destination,” Ali says.
“There’s a revival in interest in places like Iran nowadays,” she says, “and Indochina’s always been hot.” She names The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Madagascar among her personal must-visit destinations for the near future.
For Cristy Elmendorp, founder of Soma Journeys, Papua New Guinea is her top destination. Elmendorp created Soma Journeys for travel to cultures and environments that provide a space for reflection and new ways of thinking.
“The vision behind Soma Journeys is to create an experience that isn’t just about the outer journey but also about an inner one,” says Elmendorp, “where one not only gets to see inspiring locations but also has the time to absorb and integrate the experiences that arise during their journey.”
Blueflower founder Andrea Oschetti agrees. “Blueflower aims to help people achieve experiential travelling that impacts and enriches their lives,” Oschetti says. “Luxury travel has moved away from the simple need to take a break or the desire to complete a bucket list. Sophisticated travellers now yearn for holidays which provide an opportunity for personal development.”
Known to most Hongkongers as a chef, award-winning travel writer and photographer, Oschetti
says he realised many people wanted the same life-enriching experiences he did, but could not spend the time organising a holiday, and lacked the connections of a professional journalist. “I founded Blueflower for people like me, who never use a travel agency.”
He says “bespoke” has lost its credibility, abused by travel agents with ready-made catalogues, designed with the ethos: the more luxurious it is, the better. “However, we believe that the more personal the story, the better the holiday. With our journalistic approach, we aim to act as travel mentors.”
Connections on the ground are important for a holiday but Jackie Harris, who set up family-run Charlotte Travel, says trust and the client relationship is also crucial, especially as technology replaces human interaction.
“We regard ourselves as consultants to our clients with whom we have close relationships that enable us to organise travel experiences that they value highly,” says her daughter Charlotte Harris, who is business development manager.
Whether a close encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a candle-lit dinner in a ancient German castle or tribal life deep in the Amazon, anything is possible these days.