At the Mansion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas ($5,000 a night), "it" means staying in a hotel that is normally open by invitation only, where grandeur is on offer alongside what the hotel's president, Gamal Aziz, calls "anticipatory service." This begins when the hotel's Maybach or Rolls-Royce picks you up at the airport and shuttles you to the private courtyard, and continues in your villa, where you'll be served by your own butler. At the Point, "it's being part of a club," says Philip Wood, president of the Garrett Hotel Group, which owns the resort. "It's preselection. You wouldn't be there if you weren't accomplished. You're worldly. You have confidence and a sense of adventure. That's what our customers have in common."
But bragging rights are taken only so far. One night at the Point, the guests included four fortysomething bond traders who'd flown in with their wives on a Learjet borrowed from a business associate. Over cocktails, they boasted of this good fortune to another guest. "Two hours door-to-door," said one. "Thirty-five minutes in the air!"
"Do your clients know where you are?" another guest asked.
"No way," one of the men replied. "I just tell them Lake Placid."
Bragging about your travels is falling out of fashion, Chung says: "It's a scary world. Do you want everyone to know what you're up to?American sentiment is no longer 'Ride 'em large.' It's 'Keep it quiet.' Which is why the private residential clubs are doing so well. That's an understated way to brag—signaling not to the world, but only to the people who matter to you."
So it is that a friend who works as an investment adviser, usually a jolly soul, turned serious when I asked if I could quote his rhapsodic review of the South African game camp Singita ("giraffes, leopards, lions, and zebras in verdant foliage...the most gorgeous rooms...the service is beyond...every amenity you can imagine...the food is incomparable...so many single malts...the cigars were free...I've already reserved for my 65th birthday..."). "I'm not rich," he answered. "I just live like I am. Life is precious. I work hard and I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. But I don't want my name used. I don't want to come across as...jaded."
"People want whatever they can get to approximate what the rich have," says Barbara Caplan, a partner at the consumer research firm Yankelovich. "For everyone, there's a reach." Yet ultraluxe oversaturation is just around the bend. Some experts feel that only the best of the new $1,000-a-night hotels, lodges, and private-island resorts will survive. "Occupancy is not as high as you'd think," Elliot of Quintessentially notes. "It's an open question whether they'll be successful or not."
Others think the bar must now be set higher. "It never ends," Hochstein says. "The faux affluent show up and the real affluent flee [because] it doesn't differentiate them anymore. They will still travel, but they will have to go to the moon." Presumably leaving Necker Island and Musha Cay for the rest of us.
For those who have long gone to expensive extremes and feel proprietary about them, the arrival of newbies, however monied, has proved a bit unsettling. Some of the old guard disparage the recent arrivals as checklist travelers who work their way through best-hotel lists just so they can say they've been there and spend as much time studying the thread count of sheets as they do admiring the scenery—"sharing their thoughts about the wild while riding in a Land Rover," as one wag puts it.
So now the truly elite seek to escape too-popular escapes. One self-described travel connoisseur, a really, really rich person who has been going to places like Africa and New Zealand since she was nine, recently went to the Coral Sea and found the diving areas so crowded, she rented a helicopter (at a cost of $1,500) to fly to a deserted reef. "I was willing to make that compromise to enjoy it privately," she says. Willing, but not happy about it. What she really fears is that the new travel tribe doesn't want authenticity. "They want the best that money can buy, but also the familiar," she says. "They want the same things in Nepal that they want in Paris and London. I want Nepal."
Does the constant raising of the stakes mean that henceforth, top-end travelers are condemned to a high-end Holiday Inn experience with Frette, Floris, and Fortnum & Mason wherever they go?Clearly, that's what some want. Abercrombie & Kent's McGrath says that "standardizing the private home" to make it a repeatable and trustworthy vacation experience is his business goal.
That thought makes our connoisseur yelp. "I don't want the same experience set against different backgrounds!" she says. "I want a different experience." So, just as fashion caroms from haute couture to street chic, she's now looking anywhere but up, at places with nothing but two-star hotels—places where the ultraluxe crowd won't go.
Now that exclusive and expensive have become common, "affordable" is desirable again.
MICHAEL GROSS is a T+L contributing editor.