A private jet delivers you to an airstrip. A helicopter is waiting to whisk you to an oceanfront property where a late-model Ferrari is parked in the driveway. Inside, a team of uniformed staff — maids, masseuses, butlers, bartenders; chefs and even a personal concierge — are on hand to tend to your every need. You want the beach to yourself and your friends for the day? Done. A picnic lunch of lobster and champagne delivered to a table set on the sand? Arranged. It sounds like the most lavish hotel experience on earth, but it’s not a hotel at all. It’s a private villa where the staff stay not on the property but in a central headquarters nearby, allowing you both first-class service and maximum privacy. And it’s all yours for a mere $28,000 a day.
Used to be that the most expensive resorts in the world were famous hotels in celebrated destinations: the Hotel Du Cap Eden-Roc in Antibes, for example; or the George V in Paris. These days however, private villas, exclusive-use islands, and luxury African safari lodges make up some of the most expensive resorts in the world — and there’s barely a recognized hotel among them.
“Privacy has become the number one requirement for really wealthy travelers and you don’t get privacy in a hotel,” explains Thierry Morali, VP of sales and development at Villazzo, a new luxury “Villa Hotel” company. “It follows on from acquiring the personal yacht and the private jet that you would see a demand for the private hotel, and that’s what we do.”
Established with a handful of villas in 2002 by German software tycoon Christian Jagodzinski, Villazzo now has 27 luxury mansions in Miami, Aspen, Paris, Courchevel, St-Tropez and Marbella on their books, and specializes in turning them into temporary private hotels for big-spending clients paying up to $30,000 a day for the privilege. Villazzo staff are trained to leading hotel standards but operate like the Special Forces of the leisure industry, arriving on command at the Villa in question while remaining as unobtrusive as possible. “We combine the intimacy of a private home with the luxury of a top hotel,” says Morali. “In short, we parachute the hotel to you.”
Beyond the privacy factor, one reason for the boom in exclusive hire resorts is the “anything-is-possible” attitude of the multi-millionaires who own them. Villazzo, for example, not only provides a top-model sports car for use during your stay, but also has a helicopter on stand-by to fly you to beaches, ski slopes or even restaurants.
“These days the most expensive resorts are often just as much about the owner of the property as they are about the guests staying in them,” says John Steinle, president of Sanctuare, a Connecticut-based marketing and reservations company that represents 18 privately owned resorts, haciendas and lodges around the world. “A regular hotel has a set of requirements to meet in order to turn a profit but for many of our properties money is not the thing. Instead, in an age of the super rich, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had from simply playing the ultimate host.”
One suspects he is referring to Sanctuare’s priciest property, Musha Cay in the Bahamas, which was bought in 2006 by the illusionist David Copperfield. An exclusive-hire island that can cost up to $50,000 a day for 24 guests, no expense has been spared, from the use of a private fleet of yachts, boats and jet skis, to day-visits to the string of neighboring islands in the Exumas that Copperfield purchased at the same time and renamed Copperfield Bay. Guest can even request a personal meeting with the magician if he’s on the property.
Incredibly, Musha Cay does not claim our top spot on our list of the world’ most expensive resorts. That honor goes to Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, owned by the man widely regarded as pioneering the exclusive-use resort concept back in the 1980s: Virgin billionaire Richard Branson. Necker costs $47,000 a night (2008 rates) whether you’re visiting with the maximum party of 28 or just coming on your own. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for a single person to hire it out for a week of R&R.
Where once it might have been assumed that such expensive resorts attracted only guests of a certain age and status, industry experts note the current trend towards younger groups and families. Katrina Gomez, regional director for Virgin Limited, points to an increasing number of multi-generational family visitors to Necker for weddings and anniversaries, particularly post 9/11; while John Steinle notes that the 40th birthday party is now the most popular excuse for a young executive to hire out a private island for himself and two dozen close friends. “In this high-tech global economy a lot of younger people have a lot more money and the 40 year-old is now the starting age of people who can afford these places. In a few years it could become the 30th birthday.”
Perhaps because of this younger demographic travelers are becoming more adventurous, and ultra-expensive resorts are opening increasingly further afield. Rania Experience is a remote private island in the Maldives, only accessible by sea plane, that will set a group of 12 back $20,500 per day; lodges in remote parts of both East and South Africa seem to be the new frontier.
And what of the future? According to Villazzo’s Thierry Morali the sky is, quiet literally, the limit. “People who can afford to stay in these places are the people who always want the next best thing, and that means the more adventurous and our there places. Camping in the Sahara desert, trips to Antarctica, flights into space. That’s the future. Have you heard of Virgin Galactic?”
That would be Richard Branson’s plan to send people on space flights into sub-orbit at $200,000 a pop. Watch this space.