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Tailor-made trips for top dollar

Not sure how your vacation plans can accommodate your bodyguards, private jet and limited schedule? Bespoke getaway services promise to deliver a tailored experience unique to you, if you can afford it

If your vacation check list includes sommelier service, accommodation for your bodyguards and the freedom to change your mind on a whim, then even most luxury-tour operators can't help you, never mind booking through Expedia.

You need to work with a vacation artist – someone skilled in the art of bespoke travel.

"This uber-class came along and they taught us how they wanted to be treated," said Cari Gray, owner of Gray & Co., the small Canadian bike-touring company that's also this year's best tour operator in the world, according to Travel & Leisure magazine. "They train us in their lifestyle, and we take it on the road."

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Planning these trips means using a client's own jet to hopscotch around a continent or having a private helicopter on standby "just in case"; it means hiring Hollywood directors to pilot drones for cinematic vacation videos or finding an overseas out-of-print book to plan someone's family-history tour. Some days it can also mean tossing out a carefully curated, seven-star itinerary because, you know, the client slept in.

If it all sounds outlandish, you obviously don't travel in the right circles. Exclusive, hand-crafted trips are growing in popularity whether it's to celebrate a milestone or simply because, as Gray reports, "this is their lifestyle, it's simply what [these travellers] do."

A report by Amadeus, a global travel technology provider, and Tourism Economics, a U.S./British research firm, states luxury travel is growing faster than overall travel – with North American and Western Europeans making up 64 per cent of outbound top-end trips.

The growing ultrawealthy class is driving investment in the market – luxury travel, the report states, will outpace overall travel in North America, Western and Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Perhaps that's why a 2015 luxury-goods market study revealed steady growth in superhigh-end hotel stays – 7 per cent over 12 months – according to Bain & Co., a Boston-based management consultant firm.

Internationally, Virtuoso – an agency of 6,000 luxury travel planners – says it sees annual sales of $15.5-billion, and reported earlier this year that it also expects sales to increase. Interestingly, it also noted an 85-per-cent jump in agents signing on to plan these top-shelf trips, which is notable in an era of independent online booking. Something must be up.

"People want things now, and they want things their way," explains Brad Crockett, director of private travel at Butterfield & Robinson, another Canadian company that's often won top honours in Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure magazines' best-of lists in the company's 50-year history. "They're coming to us to tailor-make [trips]."

Gray, whose nine-year-old company has also been highly praised in Forbes, plans cycling getaways from Antarctica to Uruguay and everywhere in between. She worked for B&R for 14 years and left when she saw a new niche of clients coming through – those who didn't fit into trips set by scheduled departures, no matter how chic and suave, no matter how many Burgundy wineries on the itinerary.

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"They have very small windows of time," she said. "They don't want to be with other people and make new friends. They want to travel with friends and family," Gray said.

And, maybe, their bodyguards. "We had a complicated trip [around Australia] in April," Gray recalled. "We didn't realize there were bodyguards. The four bodyguards ended up being another four clients, really, because everything [the couple] was going to see had to be cleared with the bodyguards in advance."

Gray & Co. only plans customized vacations and it expects to be crafting more than its usual 15 to 20 trips a year after the company's T&L accolade. Butterfield & Robinson reports its bespoke service – separate from its ever-popular scheduled trips – makes up 60 per cent of its revenue. Abercrombie & Kent, the U.S. company well known for its luxe group travel, told Travel Weekly, an industry trade magazine, that private custom trips make up half of its business.

So just how much do these trips cost? Virtuoso reports its average client spent $17,000 (U.S.) on travel in the past year, and stayed at hotels that average out to $900 a night.

Gray & Co. clients are told to expect their trips to begin at $2,000 a person per day, but that's really just a starting number. It doesn't include flights to the destination and, notes Gray, "a lot of [the cost] depends on accommodation. The suite a couple used once was $18,000 a night so that's an indicator of where that price can go."

The uber-affluent consider the money well spent. "At the price point that our trips end up being, by virtue of so much attention to detail, there's really no margin of error," Gray said, citing a recent client who was a Level 1 sommelier. "We needed to send an oenophile from our team along to make sure she had the right food and the right wine," she said.

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Overseeing Butterfield's Bespoke business, Crockett uses an apt analogy to explain the price difference between its customized services and B&R's sleek-but-scheduled group getaways. "I can get an Armani suit off the rack and get it hemmed a bit," he said, "but if you want to talk to Armani and get a real suit done, you know it's going to cost you more, but it's not outrageous."

Then he adds an interesting subtext. While his clients spend enough to buy several Armani suits and they live and breathe five-star lifestyles, Crockett believes it is important that his crew of guides and trip planners are not subservient to them. "And they appreciate that," he said, adding a good guide is someone you could have dinner with, someone who can talk about politics, food, wine and who is not afraid to give their opinion.

"I've dealt with billionaires who call up and say, 'I want to do this and that.' I have to tell them, 'No, you don't. You may think so because your friends told you that, but no, this is what you want to do. Trust me.'

"You can't buy this experience on your own," Crockett said.

That exclusivity is what this class of traveller is paying for; it's the holy grail of brag-worthy, first-in-the-neighbourhood-to-go-there getaways.

So where do these ultimate free spirits go to get away from it all? Virtuoso reports this holiday season will be spent in Italy, France, the United Kingdom, South Africa or Spain. Not to mention Kenya and Iceland, which are experiencing close to a 60-per-cent uptick in bookings this year for its clients.

Canada doesn't rank very high on Virtuoso's lists. And while Butterfield & Robinson and Gray & Co. are Canadian companies, their clients don't visit much either, with one exception: "Fogo Island is off the charts, that's really helping to put Canada on the map," Gray said.

Because, for this type of traveller, even Mother Nature can be bought, or at least rented, for a while. Gray has noticed more thirtysomething and fortysomething Silicon Valley types with "bottomless pockets" taking lavish surfing vacations. And they don't want to share the surf. They want to go to a place where "your room comes with a wave."

In Indonesia, Nihiwatu Resort has "a limited number of surf spots. It's a part of the world you can go to where you have a guaranteed wave, warm water and only so many people allowed to surf at a certain time."

Sometimes, the best things in life aren't free – and the people who plan some of the world's most expensive vacations have already figured that out.

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