Four Seasons retrofitting 757 for 'fully immersive' jet tours

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Luxury hotelier Four Seasons next year will debut what it calls the hotel industry's first fully branded jet aircraft to be used exclusively for luxury tours.

The introduction of Four Seasons' own jet, a leased Boeing 757, is an effort to capitalize on the success of previous air tours it operated in partnership with TCS & Starquest Expeditions, a private-jet tour operator.

Toronto-based Four Seasons is retrofitting the 757, which will enter service in February with a 24-day itinerary that will take clients to nine destinations around the globe, each featuring a Four Seasons hotel. The company has also scheduled 16-day and 24-day itineraries for April and August 2015, respectively.

The 24-day "Around the World" itineraries in February and August are priced at $119,000 per person, while April's "Backstage With the Arts" itinerary costs $69,000.

The plane will be custom-retrofitted with 52 leather flatbed seats (the 757 is customarily fitted with 233 seats). It will use the company's logo as livery, and each flight will include an onboard concierge.

The program, which will pay commissions for bookings through agents, "builds on feedback from travelers on our previous private jet experiences who expressed their desire to pair adventure and discovery with the luxury of a fully immersive Four Seasons experience," said Susan Helstab, executive vice president at Four Seasons.

The company will employ an aircraft crew "who exclusively serve private jet travel" and will be fully compliant with all Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, Helstab added.

The hotelier is jumping further into a product set that depends on a customer base willing to spend large amounts of money for highly customized travel experiences. Industry estimates of that demographic range widely.

A 2009 report by the National Air Transportation Association pegged annual air-tour operations revenue at about $625 million, while the DOT estimates chartered aviation annual revenue at about $8 billion, with some $1.2 billion of that being spent for leisure-only purposes.

"This is just one more example of a hotel chain being creative and expanding their business model," said Jay Johnson, CEO of Garden Grove, Calif.-based Tafari Travel. "It's a creative approach to promoting their properties around the globe."

Indeed, Four Seasons is building on the popularity of air-charter tours that it had previously outsourced. The hotelier started coordinating private-jet tours in 2012 and more recently produced an around-the-world itinerary last September that was operated by TCS & Starquest Expeditions.

Next year's tours will be the first to feature Four Seasons' own branded aircraft, although the hotelier will continue to partner with TCS on some ground elements of its itineraries.

Like Johnson, Brian Harris, owner of Aspen, Colo.-based Destination Site Selection, said the concept made sense and would be a potentially easy sell for agents.

"It's perfect for the affluent traveler," Harris said, adding that the cost of chartering a plane can exceed $1 million for some excursions. "For many luxury travelers, time is their most precious commodity."

Four Seasons, which has more than 90 properties worldwide, was taken private in 2007 for $3.8 billion by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Isadore Sharp, then CEO. Sharp founded the company with a single Toronto motel in 1961.

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