When almost anyone can book a journey with a quick point-and-click, travel agents are supposedly a vanishing breed. But the well-to-do prefer their travel made-to-measure, just like their suits and their shoes. With requests for customized and personalized vacations rising sharply, both agents and traditional tour operators are changing their businesses to meet that demand. "Because there are so many people who have money, the new currency is how unusual and rare the experience is," says Keith Waldon, a spokesman for Virtuoso, a network of high-end travel agencies whose annual sales top $2.5 billion. "It's the cocktail hour competition among the boomers."
More than just booking air and hotel, agents and outfitters today are arranging customized wine tastings, visits to artisan workshops, and private after-hours tours of the British crown jewels and the Vatican. Even at companies like Butterfield & Robinson and Abercrombie & Kent—both of which have been primarily associated with pre-arranged tours—requests for customized trips, known in industryspeak as FIT's (foreign independent travel), are increasing. "These types of itineraries have almost doubled in the past two years," says Claire Reyes of B&R.
"There are two parallel trends now: people who want personalized service and those who want highly specialized trips," says Kristina Rundquist, spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Agents. "Most Americans have precious little time for vacations anyway, so they like to make sure they get exactly what they want, whether it's a boutique hotel or a special kind of restaurant. They need someone who will listen and cater to their needs."
Those providing tailor-made trips find that their specialized knowledge is increasingly put to the test. One Virtuoso client, for example, wanted not only tickets to a specific box at Wimbledon but also to be seated next to a particular member of the royal family. Other requests successfully met have included audiences with Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor. A Hollywood celebrity asked trip outfitter Absolute Asia to ship a truckload of Diet Pepsi to Laos, and Bill Fischer of Fischer Travel recently organized a takeover of Amanresort's Amanjena outside Marrakesh for a 40th birthday party. A hundred guests were flown in by charter jet, in addition to 120 party planners who arrived via a commercial flight.
Not every demand placed upon the world's best travel consultants requires exotic locations and expert insider knowledge. One regular client of Absolute Asia—a man who has taken private helicopters on day trips to Everest base camp—insists on making his own breakfast each morning. The company calls ahead to each luxury hotel to make sure he has kitchen access. Sometimes the hotels refuse, but, as Absolute Asia sales director Natalie Nevares says, "It's our job to make them say yes."
A selection of 23 top travel agents and tour operators:
Abercrombie & Kent 800/323-7308; www.abercrombieandkent.com. Founded in Africa and still safari experts, A&K has 42 offices worldwide dealing in luxury adventures, from train rides on the Orient Express to Antarctic cruises. Of the 180,000 clients the company handles every year, half opt for a partly or fully customized trip.
Absolute Africa, Absolute Asia, & Absolute South Pacific 888/443-2378, www.absoluteafrica.net; 800/736-8187, www.absoluteasia.com; 888/285-6094, www.absolutesouthpacific.com. This trio of companies, formerly a duo (Absolute Asia and Absolute Australia), now plans specialized trips to Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and all points between Morocco and Indonesia. The well-traveled staff members pride themselves on their firsthand knowledge of all destinations they cover.
Asia Transpacific Journeys 800/642-2742; www.southeastasia.com. Independent travel to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, with a focus on unconventional attractions, such as native villages in Borneo or tribal theater in Papua New Guinea.
Big Five Tours & Expeditions 800/244-3483; www.bigfive.com. Renowned for ecologically sound camping safaris in Kenya and other African countries.
Bliss Tours 800/636-0810; www.blisstours.com. Bliss takes travelers to western Canada, arranging fishing trips and hiking and biking tours—even grizzly watching.
Butterfield & Robinson 800/678-1147, www.butterfieldandrobinson.com. Organizes high-quality journeys—particularly to Europe—for fresh-air fiends, including scheduled group or independent hiking, walking, rafting, and kayaking itineraries.
Churchill & Turen 800/445-7979; www.traveltruth.com. Specialists in cruises and "lifestyle touring," which exposes visitors to daily life, mainly in European destinations.
Egitalloyd 20-2/332-2058. This Cairo-based company has knowledgeable guides and a knack for finding space at the best hotels in Egypt.
Exeter International 800/633-1008; www.exeterinternational.com. Tours of Eastern Europe, Russia, and Asia, including private tours of the Hermitage and palaces of the czars as well as gala dinners in some of St. Petersburg's historic houses.
Fischer Travel In return for a $10,000 membership fee and a $5,000 annual retainer, Bill Fischer provides 24-hour personalized service for travelers who care more about quality than cost. His number is famously unlisted.
Heritage Tours 212/206-8400; www.heritagetoursonline.com. Arranges excursions throughout Morocco, Turkey, Spain, and South Africa; treks in the Atlas Mountains and through the desert are Heritage's forte.
INTRAV 800/456-8100; www.intravalacarte.com. Since 1959, Intrav has led luxury group tours focusing as much on the mode of travel—plane, boat, or train—as on the destination (for instance, the $62,000 per person, 24-day around-the-world Concorde jet trip). Earlier this year the company launched Intrav A la Carte to arrange customized European and Asian travel.
Ker & Downey 800/423-4236; www.kerdowney.com. Best known for traditional African safaris—particularly in Botswana—during which travelers typically sleep in tented camps rather than lodges.
Maupintour 800/255-4266; www.maupintour.com. The company's MaupinFlex department arranges alternatives or add-ons to their vigorous adventure tours, which take place mostly in North and Central America. Also runs a Travel for Women program.
Mountain Travel Sobek 888/687-6235; www.mtsobek.com. This esteemed outfit established itself 32 years ago with a trek to Nepal, and today it's known for expertly planned outdoor adventures, from explorations of the Galápagos Islands to hikes through Italy's Lake District.
Off the Beaten Path 800/445-2995; www.offthebeatenpath.com. Designs explorations of wilderness areas in North America—the Rockies, Alaska, the Southwest—as well as Patagonia.
Our Personal Guest 212/319-1354; home.covad.net/~ourpersonalguest. OPG has expanded to cover various countries but is best known for providing encyclopedic, personal knowledge of India.
Pacific Experience 800/233-4255; www.pacificexperience.com. Plans itineraries throughout the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand, directing you to the best fishing lodges, sheep stations, wineries, and dive sites in this part of the world.
Rare Earth Explorations 212/686-7411; www.rareearthexplorations.com. A six-year-old company specializing in eastern and southern Africa and India, with particular emphasis on wildlife tours.
Select Italy 847/853-1661; www.selectitaly.com. Focuses on customized cultural tours, such as Venice's Jewish heritage or Italian glassware.
TCS Expeditions 800/727-7477; www.tcs-expeditions.com. Known for round-the-world private jet tours, TCS also creates independent itineraries and maximizes sightseeing time by flying from one destination to the next.
Trans Africa Safaris www.transafricasafaris.com. Founded more than 80 years ago, this company can arrange everything from exclusive vineyard visits to safaris on game preserves.
Ventours International 91-22/285-5793. Based in India; can put together a picnic in the desert with acrobats and camels, or private shopping expeditions for antique dhurrie rugs.
And keep in mind... Virtuoso 800/401-4274; www.virtuoso.com. An easy way to find the best consultant for you is to contact this 50-year-old organization. Virtuoso is the agent for 6,000 high-end travel planners, plus a extensive network of foreign representatives.