Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.
-- Coco Chanel
Just as there is mass industry confusion concerning the subject of what travel sellers ought to call themselves, there is also confusion about what exactly luxury means in the context of travel planning.
Are we selling luxury when we sell any room in a five-star hotel? What distinguishes a luxury tour from a very good, well-organized bus trip?
Is Sandals a luxury destination? If it is, then what is Musha Cay, magician David Copperfield's 500-acre isle in the Bahamas that can accommodate a maximum of 24 guests?
Is having your own dedicated aircraft and crew on a journey around the world luxury, or is luxury a seat in business class on any Singapore Airlines flight?
Over the years, the travel industry has proven that we are masters of destroying the meaning of language. Private, it turns out, only means not crowded, a spa can be a hot tub in a Holiday Inn, and luxury is a concept every travel seller professes to understand and sell despite the lack of any definition of the term that could be considered accurate.
Perhaps luxury is more about what a traveler is not: mass market, part of the herd, concerned about cost.
There is, not surprisingly, a new kind of luxury for sale to the very rich and those who want to do one cover-as-much-as-possible bucket-list trip.
A British-based company launched a website called VeryFirstTo.com last March. They wanted to call attention to their new site, so they came up with a trip that, according to company founder Marcel Knobil, was "ludicrous." Of course no one would buy it, but it might generate sufficient media coverage to help sell some of the company's more modest offerings.
The trip was to take two years, visiting 962 Unesco World Heritage sites. Now, there are lots of reasons this is a "ludicrous" itinerary, not the last of which is that -- do the math -- a traveler would have to visit more than one site every single day of the trip.
Well, to everyone's surprise at VeryFirstTo, there were 15 serious inquiries, and the website now has more than 18,000 members. In an article by Vicky Baker in the Manchester Guardian, the firm's failures were pointed out. No one has bought the 267-carat black diamond nail polish offered for $200,000.
But a gentleman from China has purchased the trip to the Unesco sites. He is a doctoral candidate and he is getting ready to visit 150 countries in 24 months of first-class travel and hotels. Several other prospects are ready to join him.
Luxury cruising took on a new time dimension when Oceania announced last July that its 684-guest Insignia would embark on an 180-day, around-the-world voyage beginning Jan. 10. The ship will visit 89 ports and include 11 overnight stays. This longest-ever circumnavigation is newsworthy for another reason: Despite the cost, shocked executives saw the voyage sell out in eight days.
Now Oceania has announced a second 180-day World Cruise departing in July from Miami. It is selling extremely well. Luxury now means seeing the world, almost all of it, on a six-month journey. The truly luxe traveler, one could argue, is the one who has the time to do it right. Time has become the currency of true luxury.
The "most luxurious trip ever" trend seems to have started in England, a small country where people wallpaper their ceilings and spend hours searching for the right tea cozy to cover their favorite teapot. It is also a country where, apparently, the demand for luxurious travel products knows no bounds.
Six Star Cruises, a major cruise outlet in England, announced the 1 million-pound Luxury Cruise, a 124-day odyssey aboard Silversea's Silver Whisper Royal Suite. To really take luxury over the top (and to garner the necessary free media coverage) there are a few luxe amenities thrown in, including a trip from home via Sikorsky helicopter, a private feast at the airport in London, including Beluga caviar and Hong Pao tea, which is currently priced at more than $2,500 per kilo. The charter jet to Miami to join the Whisper includes a 10-course meal, in both directions, prepared by a starred Michelin chef. This is followed by three nights in the top suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
But, concerned that this might not be suitably luxurious, the package also includes a de-stress (from what? I wonder) four-night post-cruise stay on Sunset Island, one of Florida's premier private gated communities.
So here is where we are. The new true luxury is expensive without apology and includes previously unobtainable travel experiences. A high price and private access are the new status symbols of true luxury travelers.
Last year, Extraordinary Journeys announced a five-week luxury safari package for a nice round figure of $1 million. The trip includes a private guide, gorilla trekking in Rwanda, as well as beach stops in Mozambique, along with the best game-viewing in east and southern Africa.
I hope the guests booked on this program get to see a few gorillas. For $1 million I would expect the gorillas to do a Miley Cyrus impression.
Operators of ultraluxury private jet trips are also doing rather extraordinary business, paying handsome commissions to agents tuned in to this truly hot segment of the market.
I think that what makes around-the-world-by-private-jet trips enticing is the ability of the seller to reasonably argue value. Yes, Seattle-based Intrav has announced eight new, all-inclusive private jet programs on a custom-designed aircraft. But prices start at $65,950. For that kind of price, it would be impossible to duplicate many of these voyages, complete with private plane, some of the best guides available and access to an onboard chef.
No one knows true luxury better than Abercrombie & Kent. Last year, A&K announced a 19-day private jet trip, limited to 40 guests, across the African continent. The trip sold out in three weeks, generating a 2015 version of the trip that includes one small detail that, I think, can serve to illustrate the definition of the new true luxury in terms of singular experiences and private access.
The group will dine under the stars in the middle of massive 200-foot sand dunes in the Namibian desert. Dinner will, as is A&K style, be preceded by "sundowners." But even before that, a touch of sparkling wine carried gently down from heaven to earth by a trio of skydivers jumping from a plane circling above.
There are a growing number of tour firms and travel professionals who seem to be saying, "If you can dream it, I can sell it."
Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at [email protected].