So you want to see all of the world’s greatest sights … in 29 days?
Good news: For the first time ever, it’s a realistic proposition.
But there’s a catch: You’ll have to do it on a private jet. And it’ll run you US$159,000 per person.
At least that’s what Edie Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Crystal Cruises, is proposing with the company’s soon-to-launch AirCruises, whose first “Around the World: Iconic Sights” tour will pit stop in Easter Island, Uluru, Lhasa, Jaipur, Victoria Falls, and Prague (among others) — all between Oct. 21 and Nov. 18.
Crystal isn’t alone. Luxury hotel companies from Peninsula hotels to Aman resorts and Four Seasons Hotels are getting in on private jet tours; the latter has partnered with global star chef Rene Redzepi for a US$135,000 culinary dream trip that spans much of Europe and Asia. So are safari outfitters such as Great Plains Conservation and AndBeyond, which is using private jets to link otherwise difficult-to-connect destinations, such as Kenya and Botswana. (The safaris range from US$75,000 to US$116,500 per person.) Top-notch operators Abercrombie & Kent and National Geographic are offering global vacations built around exclusive charters. And the list keeps growing.
A Whole New World of Opportunity
“Private jet travel inquiries have grown by at least four of five times in the last few years,” explained Michael Holtz, a travel specialist at SmartFlyer who is an expert on complicated aviation inquiries. “But up until about three years ago, only one or two companies were offering private jet trips at all, and none of them were really marketing in a big way.”
And why should they? There’s no sense in turning your company into a household name if almost all households can’t afford your product.
That has started to change, though. Fractional ownership companies have put the Uber twist on the private jet industry, putting private aviation within reach for a far wider demographic.
And luxury hotel companies — all vying for a brand image that ties them ever closer to ultra-high-net-worth spending — swooped in to capitalise on a new market and a new world of opportunity.
First to market was Four Seasons. “We began offering Private Jet trips aboard a third party vendor in 2012,” President and CEO J. Allen Smith told Bloomberg. “The response was overwhelmingly positive, but the missing piece for our guests was an end-to-end seamless Four Seasons experience.” So he led the company to create a fully branded private jet — a 52-seat Boeing 757 — in 2015, along with a custom 24-day, nine-stop, US$119,000 debut itinerary. “It was a first for the hospitality industry and met with tremendous enthusiasm,” said Smith. “Every trip sold out that year.”
Party Buses in the Sky
When Crystal launches its AirCruises this fall, it will catapult the private jet tourism business into a stratospheric new level of luxury. Whereas Four Seasons and other hotel companies largely lease out their (very nice) aircraft from outside vendors, Crystal’s parent company, Genting Hong Kong, is buying outright two Boeing planes — a custom-built 777 and a 787 Dreamliner that will follow down the line. The combined sticker price? US$545 million. (Rodriguez declined to provide a figure but said the investment was “very sizable” and “very bullish.”)
Boeing 777s usually seat 350; this one will have just 84 lie-flat beds, a separate dining area with an on-board chef, a full wine cellar, and the highest staff-to-guest ratio anywhere in the skies. Its first trip, created in partnership with Peninsula hotels, departs Aug. 31 and hits all 10 cities where the Asian hotelier has properties, from Los Angeles, to Beijing, to Paris.
“We’re extending the Peninsula experience into the actual jet,” said Robert Cheng, Peninsula’s group vice president of marketing, who described how general managers will join travelers on flights to their hotel’s destination, offering up their local expertise well ahead of check-in. Also part of the deal are special galas and events that put travelers in contact with local movers and shakers: gallery owners, designers, chefs, and other people who “make a city tick on a global scale.”
Cheng put it best: “It’s not these people’s first times in these global gateways, so our goal is to make the trip interesting, not just by the things they do but by the people they meet.”
Naturally, that applies on the jet as well. “People want to mix and mingle with like-minded travellers,” said Holtz, who added that he “would not be surprised if some major business deals were formulated” aboard a party bus in the sky.
What Money (Normally) Can’t Buy
The advantages of flying private are obvious. “People want everything tied up with a bow,” said Crystal’s Rodriguez, who counts herself among travellers that like to be pampered. “You can’t get from the Tibetan Himalayas to the Taj Mahal rapidly or easily,” she said, referring to two consecutive stops on the Around the World tour. And while her 777 can’t land on Agra’s tiny airstrip, it’ll take guests to New Delhi, where a smaller (private) aircraft will whisk guests to the iconic monument.
On safari, taking out a small Embraer or Pilates jet allows guests with Great Plains Conservation and AndBeyond to guarantee they’ll sidestep airport chaos, make it to their next destination in time for a game drive, and get their full allotment of luggage space — never a sure thing on safari. (Small safari planes often act like shuttles, picking guests up and dropping guests off on roundabout, unpredictable circuits.)
But why fly private if you’re not doing it privately? The answer is simple: economies of scale. On most of these trips, customs officers can come aboard the aircraft and process passports without anyone ever stepping foot in an immigration line, said SmartFlyer’s Holtz. Staying with a single hotel company means you’ll tell them your preferences once and never remind them again. “You can have your favorite green juice at 7:00 a.m. in the morning sharp, no matter where you stay,” Holtz added as an example.
And then there are the exclusive experiences that simply can’t be arranged for just two people. “They’re able to use the volume and price point to their advantage,” said ultra-luxury travel specialist Jack Ezon of Ovation Travel. “A gala dinner in St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace, for instance — you can’t plan that alone.”
Nor can you get René Redzepi and the Noma team to curate your food-obsessed itinerary … unless you’re on a Four Seasons jet. Or go wine tasting in Mendoza and Cape Town and France with an expert from Wine Spectator … unless you’re flying with Crystal. That’s why Peninsula’s Cheng says that even guests who already own private jets are signing up for these trailblazing new trips.
Dollars and Cents
The most affordable of the private jet trips among these main players clocks in at US$78,600, making any discussion of value a relative one. But Holtz points out that you could easily spend 20 percent to 30 percent more if you tried to plan a similar trip yourself. He’s not wrong: Business-class flights alone could cost roughly US$25,000 per person on such an itinerary, not including the value of time spent on lengthy layovers or waiting in airport terminals.
And given the caliber of hotels on these itineraries — all among the best in the world — another US$15,000 in overnights is not unrealistic. Add the cost of guides, drivers, meals, and booze — all of which is included on a curated trip — and it’s easy to see how the dollars and cents add up.
But there are exceptions. Aman’s smaller trips start at about US$55,000 for a 16-day wellness quest in the South Pacific led by world-renowned specialists Yamuna Zake and James D’Silva. The company also has the most expensive trips we found: Its Southeast Asia voyages, created in conjunction with the highly proficient tour operator Remote Lands, have sold for US$57,750 per day. (The company was unavailable to comment on the services and amenities travelers can expect at that rate.)
The Price Is Right
None of these companies is having a hard time selling out its trips. Four Seasons has a wait list for its late-2017 departures, which Smith says sold out in “record time.” Aman Chief Operating Officer Roland Fasel says he’s been inspired to expand his program because the trips “are always a huge success and sell out very quickly.” And Rodriguez says the Crystal jet has already garnered several buyouts, which both Ezon and Holtz estimated could cost somewhere in the US$3 million range.
And who’s going? Ezon says the crowd is much like the group that shells out big bucks on cruising — older travelers with a bucket list to check off. But Holtz has a more generalist view, citing interest from business owners who just sold their startup, young couples who maybe hit it big on the market, or retirees with time and money. Crystal CEO Rodriguez sides with Holtz, saying half her bookings come from new-to-cruise market customers whom she hopes to convert into Crystal loyalists.
Either way, both agents agree the trend is here to stay. “It’s just in its infancy right now, but this is going to be a tremendous market,” said Holtz. “Our clients come back with great feedback. They say it’s one of the best trips they’ve ever taken.”