Thrillionaires

High Life, Mar 2006

A new breed of moneyed traveler is looking for holidays that combine luxury with high-octane adventure.

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Ask Stuart Johnston where he last went on holiday and watch the smile break over his face. “Have a guess, go on,” he says.

Knowing Johnston, there’s no shortage of possible answers. He’s a 30 year old management consultant, earning a comfortable 7 figures, who just so happens to spend his time off seeking out the most intense, improbable adventures he can find. He’s as likely to have gone game-fishing in Mozambique…

“No.”

… As flown to St Moritz in Switzerland for the Cresta Run.

“Nope.”

Maybe an elephant safari in Namibia?

“No, it’s better than that,” he says, grinning. “I’ve been tracking anaconda in Brazil!”

Stuart is a thrillionaire. He fits the profile perfectly – one of a new breed of rich, young men and women who are rapidly redefining the high-end travel market with their hunger for new experiences. Typically, the thrillionaire is a loaded City boy, childless and unmarried, who wants more out of his time off than just a 5 star hotel in a tourist spot with a bowl of fruit in his hotel room. He wants thrills. Stories he can dine out on. And he’s happy to pay top dollar.

“I don’t get much time off,” he says, “so when I do, I want it action-packed. I’m not type to sit still. The thought of a week on the beach is a nightmare.” So when he found himself with a week’s holiday due, he called Black Tomato, an innovative travel operator in London.

“I said, ‘I’ve got six days and I want to do something different, something amazing.’ And they came up with the Patalan in Brazil. It was incredible.” For a week, Johnston and a friend stayed in a luxury private posada, going out every day to explore the lakes and marshland, home to some of Brazil’s most exciting wildlife.  He went fishing for piranha. He saw alligator all around. “And we saw a real anaconda that had recently been caught. When I told my mates, they were like ‘all right Stuart, you win!’”

Typically, Johnston has plenty of thrillionaire mates, who have outlandish stories of their own to tell. But the word ‘anaconda’ pretty much put Stuart at the top of the list.

“That’s what I like to hear,” laughs Tom Marchant, one of the founders of Black Tomato. “We always want our clients to have the bragging rights.”

Few know the culture of the City boy better than Marchant. He was once one himself, as were Black Tomato’s two other founders. They understand Stuart’s urge to fill his time off with extraordinary experiences. They’re not baffled when their trader pals pay 3900 pounds a head to go jousting for a weekend at Amberley Castle, in full chain mail. And they appreciate why their golfing friends would happily pay a small fortune per year to play at the Liberty National Club, with a full view of the Manhattan skyline.

“It’s about the experience for these guys,” says Marchant. “And the travel industry wasn’t really serving them.”

Well, there were a couple of companies on the scene. About three years before Black Tomato, some other City financiers founded the London-based Original Travel. And around the same time, in America, a former Credit Suisse banker set up Blue Parallel. But there was plenty of room for another. So Black Tomato was created to cater specifically to the needs of the growing thrillionaire market – the need to take a motorbike safari in the Philippines, for example, or go gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

All these companies have more or less the same goal – to provide the thrillionaire generation with customized trips that combine exclusivity, extravagance and imagination. Typically, they veer away from traditional tourist sites in favour of the path less traveled – that’s why Johnston went to the Patalan instead of just living it large in Rio, or even take a trip down the Amazon. Instead of 5 star hotels, they tend to offer private mansions and villas to stay in. And the experiences on offer are specifically chosen to sear into the memory. They’re so important that no time or expense is wasted in getting to the them as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a world of private jets, helipads and waiting limousines. Not waiting for the bags to emerge on the carousel.

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“My customers want a balance of adventure and luxury,” says Emmanuel Burgio, the founder of Blue Parallel. “So I give them adventure in the day and luxury at night. Remember, these guys aren’t extreme sportsmen. They just want a taste. Real adventurers camp at night, they don’t get pampered like these guys.”

So after trekking through the glaciers of Patagonia with an expert guide, or partaking in a private shamanic ceremony near the Machu Picchu ruins, Burgio’s clients are often helicoptered to a lavish estancia leased on an exclusive basis, where world class chefs are on hand to cook, and the finest musicians are waiting to perform.

Every so often, however, he comes across a thrillionaire who wants to go a bit further. Burgio is currently planning a bespoke trip for a senior partner at JP Morgan who loves to hike. It has him hiking through the Antarctic all day, and spending the night out among the penguins. Then a private plane whisks him up to the warmth and flamingos of the Atacana Desert in Northern Chile, where he will meet his girlfriend and hike up to the rim of a volcano. “They call Chile the land of fire and ice,” says Burgio, “so that’s what I’ve put together for him.”

All in all the ten day trip is likely to cost $70,000 all in, or $3500 per person per day. But the expense is immaterial. When your clientele includes the CEO of Sun Microsystems and one of the top hedge fund managers on Wall Street, these costs are trivial.

In a way, the thrillionaire is just a super-sized example of a broader, more general trend. Milton Pedraza of the Luxury Institute describes it as “the experience economy”. While the emphasis was once on accumulating assets, now it’s more about accumulating experiences.

“Why spend your money on jets or yachts which will depreciate or even on multiple properties that need constant upkeep,” he says, “Why not just rent? That way you can experience even more jets, yachts and mansions around the world without the burden of ownership.”

Only the truly minted can talk of the ‘burden’ of owning numerous mansions, but certainly leasing offers a greater range of experience and freedom. And it’s a booming business. Wealth is increasingly measured not by what you own, but by what you can access, often via membership to an exclusive club. And clubs abound – for jet hire, elite, and concierge services like Quintessentially.

But leasing has also made the standard experiences of wealth – such as driving expensive cars and staying in fancy hotels – available to the considerably less affluent, if only for a short time. So immediately the exclusivity and uniqueness is compromised. And this is thrillionaires are on the rise. When it’s no longer a statement to merely holiday on a yacht, then it becomes more important where you sail it and why. It takes more than just money to be a thrillionaire, it takes imagination.

Pedraza has isolated two kinds of experience that the thrillionaire generation have mostly been pursing. There’s the experience to be had from seeing the world in an innovative and adventurous way – the Stuart Johnston approach. And the connoisseur’s high. For a sailing fan, the greatest thrill might be sailing an America’s Cup yacht. A climber might get his biggest kicks from climbing Kilimanjaro with a crack team of world class climbers and local experts.

Often, the biggest thrills are fairly straightforward. Great experiences needn’t necessarily be complex. It is one of the ironies of this trend that in spite of the knotted logistics of jets and helipads and flights in some of the most remote sections of the world, the actual end experience is often very simple.  The joy of trekking through Patagonia needs little embellishment. Its beauty speaks for itself. And in an even greater irony, these stunning experiences of nature are not only the province of the super-rich, they are also a daily affair for the locals, who are often among the poorest people in the world.

Having said that, there are some thrills that require quite an operation. When Bob Camping, a 33 year old property developer from Knightsbridge, decided to take 54 friends to ski in Klosters, it was Original Travel that made all the arrangements

“It was great. Our boots and skis were all there waiting for us when we arrived. And after dinner at the best restaurant in town – which we had exclusively – we all skied down to the bottom of the hill. We had it all lit up with flaming torches. Not sure how safe it was actually, some of us were quite drunk.”

Camping had such a good time, he’s doing it all again this year, except this time with the added treat of a fleet of Ferraris with spiked tyres. He wants to race them on a frozen lake. Before then, though, he’s off to Iceland for a spot of dog-sledding followed by dinner on a glacier.

As for Stuart Johnston, he’s back to working hard again. Long hours of wading through reports and company financials. But Johnston doesn’t mind. “I’ve been talking to Black Tomato about my next trip,” he says. “For ten grand I can go volcano surfing in Nicaragua!”