CANNES, France -- There are luxury travel shows, and there are luxury travel shows. Earlier this month, 585 invited travel agents were flown business-class to Nice, France, where they were transferred to helicopters for a short hop to Cannes.

From the Cannes heliport, limos brought them to their rooms at one of the famed "palace" hotels on La Croisette, the gently curving bay of this French Riviera city.

Each day, before heading out to the trade show floor, they were offered small bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne should they be in need of refreshment while making the rounds. Several supplier booths also served champagne, and not a few had caviar available.

The travel agents -- or "hosted buyers" in the lexicon of the show -- were attending the second annual International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM). The structure differs significantly from most U.S.-based trade events: Potential attendees are carefully targeted and wooed, then the show's organizers play matchmaker between the invited and the upscale industry suppliers they've lined up. Attendees are given a rigid schedule of appointments with suppliers they've indicated they want to see -- and with suppliers who want to see them.

While agents may have been lured to Cannes by tony hotels, a refined atmosphere and lavish parties, the show itself is strictly business.

Suppliers have paid dearly for their space and time with agents: Depending upon where the exchange rate was when the contract was signed up, suppliers who purchased the minimum amount of booth space shelled out between $190 to $205 for each of the 42 travel agents with whom they had 20-minute appointments.

To be sure, many suppliers took much more than the minimum space, and on top of the raw real estate, they built booths that looked more like Rive Droit boutiques than trade show stalls. To a large extent, this was by design -- among the regulations the show organizers established were rules stating that all posters must be framed.

Was the expense worth it?

"Worth it," confirmed Sandra Teakle, Tauck World Discovery's manager for international sales, who had high praise for the show's organizers. "These are very high-quality agents."

Teakle said she'd had one no-show, on the first day of appointments. ILTM's marketing manager, Sarah Ball, said that any agent who misses an appointment is reprimanded. Suppliers report attendance, and when agents blow off appointments, offenders receive letters under their doors listing their transgressions and warning them that they must attend all (and that word "all" is in boldface and italic, in a larger type size) of their appointments, or they're jeopardizing their chances of being invited back. Agents are further encouraged to reschedule any appointment they missed.

I spent a few days walking the show with travel agents. The first day, I was accompanied by the one and only exception to the appointment rule: New York travel agent Bill Fischer. Fischer walks the floor at will, without a schedule, but hardly anonymously. Most exhibitors recognize him and, if not in the midst of a presentation, make a beeline in his direction. With a slight genuflection, they introduce themselves.

Fischer is Mr. Luxury Travel. A masterful marketer and promoter, he realized that the wealthiest people "desire most what they can't have," so he unlisted his phone number and began charging a $10,000 initiation fee and $5,000 annual retainer for his services. (When Oprah Winfrey called him after seeing an article about Fischer in The New York Times, he put on an annoyed voice and asked, "How did you get this number?" But of course he was delighted to add her as a client.)

If people desire most what they can't have, by not making appointments Fischer has made himself the most desired hosted buyer walking the show. But suppliers soon found that they should approach him with caution. A representative of a Cypriot resort began walking beside him as he strode along and said, "I understand you recently stayed at our property. Did you enjoy your time there?"

Fischer, not slowing his stride, turned and said, "No."

The supplier flinched. "I'm so sorry to hear that. If you tell me what problems you encountered, I can tell the general manager."

"He knows. I told him."

The supplier slowed and let Fischer walk on.

Fischer likes the ILTM, calling it "the only real luxury show." He said he came because he was hoping to find something new and exciting -- "it could be a hotel, could be a villa, could be a yacht, a plane. The inventory we work with is so tiny, but we need to keep on top of things." Far from the cold shoulder he gave the Cypriot hotelier, he greeted other property managers warmly, inquiring about new developments.

At the lunch break, he grabbed a taxi for Nice to inspect the Palais de la Mediterranee, owned by the Taittinger family (of champagne fame), scheduled to open later this month. Though disappointed there was no full-service spa -- "they're going to have to add one" -- he did feel it was the type of place he could send his clients.

I spent the next day with Rudi Steele of Rudi Steele Travel in Dallas, and it could not have been more different. If people approached Fischer with a genuflection, they came to Steele with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. He may not have Fischer's international media reputation, but is nonetheless held in high esteem by luxury suppliers, and for very good reasons: He has a quality clientele and he's professional to the core. It doesn't hurt that he's charming and unfailingly polite.

Though approachable, Steele's a self-described "terrible snob" and proud elitist. After 9/11 and the subsequent removal of metal cutlery from first-class airplane cabins, he worried that his carriage-trade clients might have to eat their caviar from, God forbid, a plastic spoon, so he presented them with mother-of-pearl caviar spoons from Neiman Marcus.

Steele did have appointments, and was punctual and prepared at each one. His questions anticipated his clients' possible concerns. To a representative of an English country manor house: "Who's the chef?" (Answer: "He was a sous chef at a two-star Michelin restaurant.") "Do you have refrigeration air conditioning?" ("Not refrigeration, no.")

Steele later explained that many properties that claim air conditioning actually use a process called air cooling, which isn't as effective. "I have a Texas client base," he said. "They're escaping the heat. If they're told a place is air conditioned, they expect it to be as cold as they want it to be."

Would he send a client there? "I'll have to spend a night there myself. It looks lovely, but I don't know what the staff can do. Service is very important."

Of all the questions I heard Steele ask, there was one subject he never brought up: Price. "You know the expression," he said. " 'If you have to ask ... .' "

The conversations between agents and suppliers during the three days of appointments provided examples of the talking points made in the speeches and during panels presented on the opening day of the conference. A particular concern of those on the dais was the "democratization" or "commoditization" of luxury.

"The term 'luxury' has been overused by lazy journalists," said Tyler Brule, the founder of the cutting-edge magazine Wallpaper, whose current marketing firm recently helped reposition Swissair as Swiss. "There's a significant difference between someone who can buy luxury cat food and someone who can truly afford luxury travel."

Similarly, there was discussion of the difference between "pampering" -- which, to some extent, is within reach of anyone who can afford a pedicure at a neighborhood nail salon -- and the level of service that defines true luxury.

"We can all offer the best champagne and caviar," said Silversea Cruises CEO Albert Peter. "That's not hard. But good service is.

"For example, why make your passengers have all their luggage outside their door by 5 a.m. on departure day? That's for your convenience, not theirs. So we let them check out in the morning at their convenience."

Similarly, Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the upscale consortium Virtuoso, noted that if you remove identifiers like the names of restaurants and addresses, the descriptions of all the luxury hotels in London sound almost identical. Yet paradoxically, luxury is the antithesis of homogeny.

"The differentiation really comes in the service. You sometimes have to wonder why a property spends millions on renovations when they could have made more impact by adding a concierge or two and encouraging them to be proactive, calling guests before they arrive to see what [the concierges] can do for them."

Vikram Oberoi, director of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, said that every single process must be examined to make it special for the guest. "Even the way someone is checked in should be unique to your property. This is what separates a three-star from a five-star [hotel]."

ILTM CEO Serge Dive -- Upchurch dubbed him "power Serge" -- looked a bit tired at the end of the fourth and final day of the conference. His small group had coordinated 24,000 appointments among the 1,700 attendees (including suppliers), juggling the travel schedules and demands of hundreds of individuals with very large egos.

"What I'm striving for is happiness in business. I want everyone to be a stakeholder in the success of the show. So I'm always asking, 'What do you want? Do you want a meeting room? OK. A helicopter? OK.

"But you must also respect what we're doing. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to blacklist about 50 of the hosted buyers who missed appointments. This is an exclusive club, a fun club, but it's a club with rules, and you've got to play by the rules."

Even without an invitation, the "club" is open to all travel agents -- in addition to the hosted buyers, anyone willing to pay 299 euros (about $371) can attend; 65 agents did so this year. The 2004 show is scheduled Dec. 6 to 9, again in Cannes.

For more information, visit www.iltm.net.

To contact editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].

Carlton Cannes: A fitting venue for a swanky show

CANNES, France -- It seems appropriate that the Carlton Cannes, an InterContinental hotel, is the headquarters for the International Luxury Travel Market here.

Its distinctive facade, with domed turrets on each corner, distinguishes it from the other "palace" hotels facing the Mediterranean. It was financed in 1912 by a Russian grand duke to provide a place for Russian aristocrats and British nobility, and though the October Revolution pretty much turned off the tap as far as Russian aristocrats were concerned, the hotel survived.

It again gained prominence when it was chosen as headquarters for the Cannes Film Festival. As such, it provided the setting for the first public appearance of several newly wed celebrity couples, including Rita Hayworth and Ali Khan, Liz Taylor and Nicky Hilton and Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier.

Though its standard rooms are available for a mere $730 per night (at current exchange rates) in season, that's the least of its 10 classes of accommodations. Its two-bedroom corner suites run a bit more -- in high season, they go for $5,600 per night. As for the Imperial Suite, rates are available "on request," but, of course, if you have to ask ... -- A.W.

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