ULTRA TREK

As far-flung travel grows more and more mainstream, so, too, does the quest by luxury travelers for adventures in places where few others have been.

Luxury adventure travel companies specialize in high-end trips to out-of-the-way destinations, such as Patagonia. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Luxury adventure travel companies specialize in high-end trips to out-of-the-way destinations, such as Patagonia. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Luxury adventure travel companies specialize in high-end trips to out-of-the-way destinations, such as Patagonia. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

How about a decadent honeymoon on a desert island? Or exploring the farthest depths of the Indian Ocean with scientists on a history-making expedition in small submarines?

Not a problem — as long as money isn’t either. 

As far-flung travel grows more and more mainstream, so, too, does the quest by luxury travelers for adventures in places where few others have been.

The demand for over-the-top, off-the-grid adventures has created a merger of sorts between two of the fastest-growing travel sectors: luxury and adventure. And it’s a trend that many predict will only continue to grow.

“For the 1 percent, money is not the object,” said Dan Austin, founder and director of Austin Adventures. The custom end of his business, he said, has seen a definite uptick in demand for ultraluxe adventures over the past few years.

“We tell them, ‘If you dream it, we can build it,’” Austin said.

Officials with Kensington Tours and Abercrombie & Kent’s Tailor Made journeys said they, too, are seeing a definite increase in demand by high net worth travelers for personal experiences that spare no expense.

Alison Hickey, president of Kensington Tours, said of custom, private adventures, “Once you do it, you can never go back.”

And other operators say the bar for meeting those demands seems to just keep getting higher. 

‘They’ve got limited time, and they want the best experience.’
— Dan Austin, Austin Adventures

“It’s time and experience that’s the challenge,” said Austin. “They’ve got limited time, and they want the best experience.”

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A lioness and cub seen on an Iconic Botswana trip by Austin Adventures. (Photo courtesy of Austin Adventures)

A lioness and cub seen on an Iconic Botswana trip by Austin Adventures. (Photo courtesy of Austin Adventures)

A lioness and cub seen on an Iconic Botswana trip by Austin Adventures. (Photo courtesy of Austin Adventures)

A lioness and cub seen on an Iconic Botswana trip by Austin Adventures. (Photo courtesy of Austin Adventures)

Factors driving ultraluxe products

Milena Nikolova, director of knowledge and education for the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), said the trend taking adventure beyond backpacking and into the highest realms of luxury is being fueled by several factors, ranging from the growing demand for unique, personal and multigenerational travel to the prioritizing by luxury spenders of experiences over material things.

Also driving it is the change in the “generational aspect”: Older travelers are in much better shape physically than their parents and grandparents were at the same age, Nikolova said.

“We are seeing people in their 60s behave and demand experiences that we might think are more relevant for younger audiences,” she said.

Nikolova pointed to a recent report in the Economist about the growing demand for adventure trips among this demographic that went so far as to propose the group should have its own acronym, such as “Nyppies” (Not Yet Past It) or “Owls” (Older, Working Less, Still earning).

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Biking trip in Norway with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of FjordNorway)

Biking trip in Norway with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of FjordNorway)

Biking trip in Norway with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of FjordNorway)

Biking trip in Norway with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of FjordNorway)

A rapidly growing market

While there is no real data measuring the size or growth of the ultraluxury adventure travel sector, one need only look to the nearly 7,000 people who Virgin Galactic said have put down deposits for the $250,000 spaceflights it hopes to launch this year to know that the demand and money are there.

Austin said his ultraluxe, custom business has been growing about 10% year over year for the past six years.

Similarly, Stephanie Papaioannou, vice president of Abercrombie & Kent’s Tailor Made and Private Travel divisions, said the custom business is growing by a third every year.

Indeed, since the end of the Great Recession, luxury travel has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the industry. Adventure travel, too, has been on the rise.

According to a report last year from Allied Market Research, the global adventure tourism market was valued at $444.9 million in 2016 and is projected to reach $1.3 billion by 2023, a compounded annual growth rate of 17.4%.

Soft adventure, the group said, generated the highest revenue to the global market in 2016, and it is expected to continue at a compounded annual growth rate of 17.8%.

Austin said that’s the area in which he is seeing the biggest growth for the really high-end trips.

“The biggest sector is the soon-to-be or already-retired generation,” he said. “It is soft adventure. They want to be active. They want to hike, bike, kayak. They want to experience new things. What they really want is new experiences and activities by day, and at night they want an amazing meal and great accommodations.”

The industry is responding. ATTA’s Nikolova said the sector is seeing more and more alternative accommodations, whether it be luxury recreational vehicles or luxury tents, that “enable a much wider audience to access nature and have more contact with nature and remote places in a way that was just not possible before.”

For example, Abercrombie & Kent last year had a family group that wanted to see a solar eclipse as far away from civilization as possible in Argentina.

“It was so remote, and there were absolutely no luxury properties anywhere within 300 miles,” Papaioannou said. “We chartered a plane and created a private landing strip. And we chose, with an astronomer, the most ideal spot to watch the eclipse. Then we brought in one of our mobile tented camps that we use in Africa, with full bathroom facilities.”

‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They felt that it was worth it.’
— Stephanie Papaioannou, Abercrombie & Kent

The price tag? $250,000. 

“But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “They felt that it was worth it.”

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Penguins spotted on a heli-skiing trip in Antarctica with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Penguins spotted on a heli-skiing trip in Antarctica with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Penguins spotted on a heli-skiing trip in Antarctica with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Penguins spotted on a heli-skiing trip in Antarctica with Pelorus. (Photo courtesy of Pelorus)

Very special, very expensive 

Indeed, both new and established tour operators are increasingly making possible what not long ago might have been considered impossible.

Papaioannou cited a recent nearly half-million-dollar trip that A&K crafted for a “very high net worth” man who wanted to propose to his girlfriend while on safari in Africa. 

“It was just the two of them,” she said. “A helicopter transported them to a beautiful spot in Botswana. The pilot snapped photos right when she said yes. When they returned to camp — the pilot had radioed back to the camp to let the hosts know she said yes — the staff was waiting, singing traditional love songs. Their room had been laid out with candles and a private dinner on the deck. The photo the pilot took was framed and waiting for them.”

Afterward, she said, “They flew on to a villa on the west coast of Africa where they had the chance to dive for diamonds. You wouldn’t believe the number of permits we had to get. They didn’t find any ocean diamonds, but we had arranged a private visit with a top jeweler. Two days later, he delivered a custom engagement ring. It just gives me shivers, it was so fun.”

While prices of an A&K custom trip “run the gamut,” she said, it has a special team that works with celebrities and very wealthy individuals.

Last year, she said, the team arranged, in addition to its private-jet-around-the-world group journeys, seven private trips, including a $2.2 million itinerary they created for a couple to take their son on a four-month post-graduation trip.

While there has been a great deal of publicity in recent months about the imminent launch of space tourism, the high-end private tour operator Kensington Tours recently launched an equally history-making adventure to the bottom of the ocean.

The company partnered with a group of British scientists to let travelers participate in the Kensington Deep exploration of the Indian Ocean off the Seychelles.

The mission, which used submersible vehicles, made history when the scientists from the Nekton Ocean Research Institute, joined at different points by five Kensington Tours guests and Seychelles president Danny Faure, dove more 650 feet into an area never before explored.

Submersibles from the Nekton Ocean Research Institute, which achieved several firsts in its oceanic exploration off the Seychelles. Travelers with Kensington Tours were along for parts of the expedition.

Submersibles from the Nekton Ocean Research Institute, which achieved several firsts in its oceanic exploration off the Seychelles. Travelers with Kensington Tours were along for parts of the expedition.

Submersibles from the Nekton Ocean Research Institute, which achieved several firsts in its oceanic exploration off the Seychelles. Travelers with Kensington Tours were along for parts of the expedition.

It was also the first time that a multicamera live signal was successfully broadcast from manned submersibles using optical video transmission techniques, according to Kensington Tours. And in one more first, Faure broadcast a plea to protect the world’s oceans from nearly 400 feet down.

During the mission, Kensington Tours said, the scientists took 300 trips into the deep, where they collected some 1,400 samples and 16 terabytes of data and surveyed about 25,0000 square meters of seabed.

Travelers were based at a nearby Four Seasons resort on a private island.

The next mission is set for 2020 in Mozambique, and Kensington, a mission partner and Nekton Institute founder, said it will be offering more travelers the chance to take part in it, as well.

With price points starting at about $350,000 for eight people, Kensington Tours said it is developing itineraries for the next round that, like the original, will offer guests the chance to participate while staying in luxury resorts and aboard private yachts.

“We are also looking at whether there are ways that we can take submersible travel to different parts of the world where clients already travel,” Hickey said. “There are other things we are looking at. But we’re still in the early days.”

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British army veterans take travelers off the beaten path

While traditional adventure and luxury tour operators are increasingly expanding their reach into the ultrahigh-end custom market, the growing demand for over-the-top luxury adventure travel is also attracting new players

One of the more recent entrants is Pelorus, a travel and expedition yacht company launched at the end of 2017 by ex-British Army officers Geordie Mackay-Lewis and Jimmy Carroll.

The two say their lack of a travel background coupled with their depth of security experience makes them unique and enables them to create adventures beyond those that, for safety and liability reasons, traditional companies might feel comfortable putting together.

“We try not to use travel industry [suppliers] where possible, so we are creating something original,” Mackay- Lewis said. “In a nutshell, our approach is different because we approach it using our background in military planning and attention to detail. We use a series of military planning tools to make sure all the proper risk assessments are done.”

With those skills and their contacts, they said, they have been able to airlift travelers by helicopter into remote villages in New Guinea and drop them at glacial lakes to kayak in Patagonia.

Mackay-Lewis said they find local experts with whom other travel companies aren’t connected, enabling some recent travelers, for example, to see a fresh kill by a polar bear within 24 hours of their arrival in the Arctic.

They’ve also arranged several unique honeymoons, including marooning a couple on a desert island.

“Our core piece of experience is taking people to remote places around the world,” Mackay-Lewis said.

‘Our core piece of experience is taking people to remote places around the world.’
— Geordie Mackay-Lewis, Pelorus

They also offer travelers surprise vacations, where they spend a lot of time getting to know them, then crafting an “Amazing Race”-style adventure, where the clients are given a brown envelope containing clues that direct them on to their first stop, where they are given another envelope and so on.

“That’s been very popular,” Mackay-Lewis said. “A recent one was for a group of guys in Israel and Jordan. They didn’t know where they were going. We flew them into Tel Aviv. … They did training with special forces. They had to navigate their way across the border into Jordan. They rode camels, had a hot-air balloon ride. Then they went up to Petra. All the while, people were feeding them envelopes with clues to bizarre locations.”

Pelorus also partners with 250-foot, 26-person luxury expedition yacht Legend to offer charters for $550,000 a week. The company recently announced that it was offering a limited number of single-cabin bookings for Arctic expeditions, with prices starting at $55,000 per cabin. Onboard amenities include a 16-person Jacuzzi, a screening room, a Balinese spa and gym, a piano bar and a whiskey bar.                        

 —J.C.


CORRECTION: This report was updated Aug. 14. Luxury-adventure tour company Pelorus offers superyacht charters via a partnership with the yacht’s owners. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Pelorus owns the vessel.

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