Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Would you accept the pitch of a billionaire who promises that things will be great if you buy what he's selling, based on the strength of ... well, he said he's a billionaire, and don't you want to associate with his success?

No, I'm not alluding to the U.S. presidential race. I'm talking about selling travel.

To New Zealand.


Or would you accept that in the early 1900s, two British university students, a young man from India and a recently arrived Jewish emigre, fell in love, but both were forbidden by their parents to see each other? Unable to bear the thought of parting, they fled to the U.S. and settled in what would later become extremely valuable property in California.

No, I'm not just recalling an inspiring, made-in-America love story. I'm talking about selling travel.

To Napa Valley.


Storytelling is important in travel. To sell an intangible product that takes place at a future date in an unpredictable world requires not only sharing what concrete details are available but overlaying a strong narrative into which clients can project themselves.

I am going to recount two stories told to me by hoteliers, one last week in Marrakech at the experiential travel conference Pure, and one last month at Virtuoso Travel Week. One is fictional, and one is factual. See if you can tell which is which.

Let's start with the New Zealand property. I was told that it is owned by "a gentlemen who owns several large yachts, each crewed by a staff of 51." But upon seeing a particularly beautiful spot of New Zealand coastline, "he fell in love with the property. It was six years in the making and today is New Zealand's most expensive hotel ever built."

It was never his desire to make the property available to the public, I was told, but he needed a staff of 40 people just to maintain his residence, five guest quarters and spa while he was on one of his yachts, "so it just made sense to make it a commercial operation."

Once, while on a trip along the Amalfi Coast in Italy, he struck up a relationship with a chef who ran not one, not two, but three three-star Michelin restaurants. The hotel's owner convinced the chef to design a menu for his place and to personally train a chef-in-residence. A specialty of the house: "steak-to-plate" wagyu beef, freshly butchered from cattle raised on the property.

The billionaire's art, collected from his travels throughout the world, is tastefully displayed throughout the property.

Asked for the owner's name, his representative declined to give it.

Let's now go back to the turn of the century, and Rajiv and Rachel, who abandoned Oxford for the town of St. Helena, Calif., in Napa Valley. They worked hard and found America truly was the land of opportunity. They came to own a Victorian-style mansion, which they called Acacia House. Although Acacia House was eventually surrounded by vineyards, they never could bring themselves to sell it or knock it down and plant vines because their grandchildren enjoyed spending summers there.

Rajiv and Rachel are no longer with us. But their grandchildren, who inherited Acacia House, added on (substantially) and have turned it into a 68-key property.

Both of these properties do exist, but only one of the back stories is true. Some facts to consider as you ponder which is a complete fiction:

The property associated with the billionaire is called Helena Bay and is on North Island, not far south of Kauri Cliffs, in an area that (along with the resort Eagles Nest) is fast becoming a Gold Coast of luxury resorts. It will open next month.

The California property is called Las Alcobas, and portions of its original structure were built in 1905. It is surrounded by Beringer Vineyards and will open next month.

And ...

The true story, as far as I know, is that of the billionaire. It was told to me by Philip Jenkins, who represented the property at Pure. Suggesting, but never directly saying, that guests had the opportunity to live like a billionaire, Jenkins substituted hyperbole with understatement. "It's gracious living," is as strong an assertion as he would make.

The storyline of Las Alcobas was invented by its developers -- Indian investors and a Jewish operator -- to serve as an inspiration for the design team. The operator, managing partner Samuel Leizorek, opened his first Las Alcobas in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City in 2010. Today, that 35-room boutique hotel consistently commands the highest average daily rate in the city.

Both of these narratives demonstrate the power of story in the travel industry. Jenkins didn't waste his breath reciting thread counts or the brand name on the bathroom amenities. He might have felt compelled to add those details if all he had to offer was over-the-top luxury. But especially at a show like Pure, where luxury is the norm, selling the idea that a traveler can live like (a mysterious) billionaire is much more memorable.

And as for Rachel and Rajiv, if the designers truly were inspired by their story, the property will reflect that, and the warmth that the Las Alcobas projects might inspire yet another marketable storyline.


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