Published: June 2009
By Michael Gross
What do you do when exclusivity becomes commonplace?Only the lonely know
There's a woman in tears in Jim Lafferty's office at the San Jose Jet Center, which caters to private Silicon Valley planes. A desk agent, she has cracked under the pressure. "I have eighty-five airplanes here," says Lafferty, a part owner of the center, "and sixty-seven people on a waiting list. They're buying planes faster than we can figure out where to put them."
A new obsession has gripped the upper echelon of travelers. The desire for privacy, once fulfillable for only the elite few, has become the craving of the crowd. From velvet-rope clothing stores like London's Voyage (where you need a VIP card to gain entry) to nightclubs with unlisted phone numbers, there has never been a better moment to, as Greta Garbo supposedly said, "vant to be alone."
We're not talking JFK sneaking out of the Carlyle Hotel through the kitchen, either. The new options are as luxurious as they are limitless. Rent a top-of-the-line Gulfstream V for $7,500 an hour (or settle for a G-III for a mere $3,900). Fly to Europe, pick up your own private Orient-Express train ($250,000), and wend your way to a hotel like the Splendido in Portofino, Italy, which you can take over entirely, turning it into a personal playground, for $51,780 a night. Unless you'd prefer a private five-bedroom, 8,000-square-foot, $3,050-a-night villa at Bali's Begawan Giri Estate, which comes with full hotel services. Or the late Aristotle Onassis's yacht Christina O, available for private charter at $70,000 a day. Or a Scottish castle. Or an island of your own.
In New York City, the lounge Bungalow 8 is so secret that it has an unlisted phone number. Sister to Manhattan's cool club Lot 61, its name comes from one of the famous hideaways at the Beverly Hills Hotel, rare antecedents of today's craze for privacy. How does one get in?"Try charming the doorman," suggests proprietor Amy Sacco. In other words, don't get your hopes up.
Venture capitalist Heidi Roizen doesn't think she's self-indulgent, even though she and her surgeon husband will, infrequently, take over Necker Island, Richard Branson's private retreat in the British Virgin Islands, for about $29,000 a night. "You try to have perspective," she says. "So you live an ordinary life and then one day you decide to take twenty-four friends to the Caribbean."
THE PHENOMENON ISN'T LIMITED TO VENTURE CAPITALISTS. "High-profile types are inundated with people who want to be their friends," says John J. Melk, owner of Musha Cay in Exuma—where Faith Hill hides out. "Now it has multiplied a thousandfold because of the media. A decade ago, celebrities could hide in foreign countries. They can't do that anymore—they end up in Star magazine." Where hoi polloi read all about it. And want what Faith has. Like Musha Cay, which sleeps 20 and is yours, complete with staff, food, and wine, for a cool $325,000 a week.
The false conviviality of five years ago, when communal tables were being installed at chic hotels and restaurants, has given way to pseudo-exclusivity (pseudo, of course, because everybody's doing it). The Chateau Marmont and the Standard in West Hollywood, and the Mercer in New York's SoHo, are three hotels known for having bottled the lightning of travel trendiness. But their owner, André Balazs, worries that the buzz machine that sustained them may be busted beyond repair. "Things used to be hot because only a few knew," he says. "The ones who used to define cool are running from it." Running where?Some, at least, are going to Balazs's latest creation, Sub Mercer, a club in the basement below the Mercer Hotel that's off-limits without an invitation—because the hotel's restaurant, Mercer Kitchen, is too public. "Everything has become accessible, so the quest for inaccessibility is heightened," Balazs says with a sigh. "The truly exclusive have moved to exclusion."
Expect things to get worse. "It's an outcome of big-city life, high stress, and incredible discretionary income," says Alastair Morrison, who runs Purdue University's Tourism & Hospitality Research Center. "We have more means of communication, and that's increased our desire to escape, to seek seclusion."
It's a self-centered baby boomer thing too, Morrison says. Aging boomers at the peak of their earning years "want their own vacations." Raised to believe they're special, accustomed to instant gratification from infancy to Internet, the children of Dr. Spock aren't satisfied by just any vacation. "They're looking for the perfect trip," says Madison Toms, North American marketing director for Orient-Express Hotels.
This is business as usual for Edward Marquis, whose International Chapters agency rents villas in Europe, the Caribbean, Morocco, and Mauritius. Weekly rates range from $2,500 to $60,000 for "the sort of place a pop star goes to," Marquis says. Villas have siphoned off some of the crowd that once patronized luxury hotels. Clever hoteliers are responding by building villas of their own—like the opulent new $1,300-per-night two-bedroom hideaways occupied by the most discerning guests at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan. This is giving way to a new breed of over-the-top private-island resorts like Belize's Cayo Espanto, a $1,700-a-night jewel box with five villas. "There's such an intrigue to getting out of your life and going somewhere private," says owner Jeff Gram.
Orient-Express has turned the madness into a product—complete with a glossy brochure. Its Ultimate Takeover program was launched last year after the company noted an increased demand for "absolutely quintessential, truly exclusive experiences," Toms says. The Takeover—in which a single customer buys out an entire property—appeals to the rich, the celebrated, and the power elite. This spring, for instance, a tycoon took over La Samanna on St. Martin for a party. Seventy guests had full run of the 81-room resort for five nights. The cost?About $615,000— not including the extras the host laid on, like his own silver and daily planeloads of fresh flowers.
Heightened privacy is the special formula behind Italy's Monastero, a restored village on Pantelleria, an island off Sicily. Its owner, photographer and fashion entrepreneur Fabrizio Ferri, calls it "the place where people with nothing to hide can hide." And he rents its 12 traditional stone cottages, which sit in three little clusters on the large property, only to friends, or to friends of friends like Madonna, Sting, Gérard Depardieu, and Carole Bouquet. "But you can rent one"—for prices ranging from $3,700 to $25,000 per week, Ferri says—"if you heard about it from the right people, if we like you." Ferri will also ask, "Why do you want to come?" Better practice that Garbo imitation.
Hotel Splendido & Splendido Mare 16 Viale Baratta, Portofino, Italy; 800/223-6800 or 39-01-8526-7801; doubles from $684.
Begawan Giri Estate Ubud, Bali; 800/225-4255 or 62-3/6197-8888; doubles from $475.
Christina O 301-4/280-889; $70,000 per day.
Bungalow 8 515 W. 27th St., New York.
Beverly Hills Hotel 9641 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 800/283-8885 or 310/276-2251; doubles from $365.
Necker Island British Virgin Islands; 800/557-4255 or 203/602-2265; from $15,000 per night.
Musha Cay Exuma, Bahamas; 877/889-1100 or 312/840-8105; from $325,000 per week.
Chateau Marmont 8221 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 800/937-8939 or 323/656-1010; doubles from $275.
The Standard 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/650-9090; doubles from $99.
Mercer Hotel 147 Mercer St., New York; 888/918-6060 or 212/966-6060; doubles from $420.
International Chapters 44-207/722-0722; villas from $2,500 per week.
Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan Ubud, Gianyar; 800/332-3442 or 62-3/6197-7577; doubles from $425.
Hôtel Meurice 228 Rue de Rivoli, Paris; 800/223-6800 or 33-1/44-58-10-09; doubles from $520.
Cayo Espanto Belize; 888/666-4282 or 910/323-8355; doubles from $695.
Orient-Express Ultimate Takeover 866-674-3689.
La Samanna St. Martin; 800/223-6800 or 590/876-400; doubles from $380.
Monastero Pantelleria, Italy; 39-02/581-861; from $3,700 per week.