Luxury tour operators go the distance

Words by
Kate Crockett
Photography by
Abercrombie & Kent Picture Library

22nd February 2016

Luxury tour operators are well practiced at going the extra mile for their clients, both metaphorically and literally. Kate Crockett discovers how the drive for unique experiences is necessitating a new breed of concierge-style tour operators.

The world is a small place these days — and anything is possible.

So says Andrew Dunn, founder of luxury tour operator Scott Dunn, whose job it is to realise the travel requests of clients, from the everyday to the extraordinary.


Dunn established his brand more than 25 years ago under the slogan “nothing is too much trouble”, a principle, he says, that’s still as meaningful now as it was then. “Guests evolve,” he continues.

“They want more and it’s our job to give them more.” And that means not only arranging their travel logistics, but also the things clients would like to experience during their trip, down to the very last detail.

While once Dunn’s team of consultants might have been asked to facilitate relatively straightforward requests, such as champagne picnics in the Alps or romantic suppers on deserted Maldivian islands, or perhaps to source a pink Rolls-Royce or a bagpiper at short notice, they now regularly rise to the challenge of arranging private dinners at the Pyramids or lunches on the Great Wall of China.

One client recently took tea in Kathmandu with Everest summiteer Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Tenzing Norgay. Most special requests are made for occasions such as significant birthdays and anniversaries.

“We’re not a tour operator in the true sense of the word,” Dunn explains. “For us, the guest experience is the most important thing.” This means consultants are just as happy to book a hotel room for you as to find out where that resort sourced its art, linen or even mattresses, and arrange for you to purchase them once you’re home.

The demand for customised experiences is booming, with travellers looking to create memories and moments that are distinctly different from their everyday lives.


Abercrombie & Kent’s range of experiences includes camping on an Icelandic glacier

“Escapism has always been a trait of humans. and for the seasoned traveller it is the cherry on the top of an already fantastic holiday to have a one-off. exceptional experience.” says Leija Graf, CEO, owner and founder of Select Collection, a luxury travel company that is well-known to high-net-worth travellers in Scandinavia.

For some clients, it is about trying something they wouldn’t ordinarily do unless they were on holiday; for many others it is about being time-poor and wanting to pack as much as possible into their down-time.

For a few, it’s all about bragging rights. “No matter how much clients are looking to pay for a holiday, inaccessible, one-off opportunities set their experience apart from anyone else’s,” agrees Dawn Smith, head of private clients at bespoke holiday specialists Abercrombie & Kent.

“That might mean arranging a private, after-hours tour of the Smithsonian in Washington, but it could also be creating a flexible itinerary so that the client can do something on the spur of the moment.” 

With 60 offices around the world, Abercrombie & Kent has a considerable reach.


Snowboarding in British Columbia with Exosphere

Its consultants work alongside their destination management staff in locations around the globe on a variety of requests, from sourcing theatre tickets to arranging private access to museums or booking expert guides.

The service is available on demand: so, for example, a businessman with an interest in modern architecture and a morning to spare in Tokyo could call on the team at short notice to arrange an architectural tour with an expert.

Leija Graf’s Select Collection contracts the services of a specialist concierge company to deal with the minutiae of clients’ trips. “Outstanding experiences as part of a holiday are the norm for us and our clients,” Graf explains. “All our consultants are trained to think creatively and to make exceptional things happen, but being a tour operator is not the same as being a concierge.”

She continues: “We have long wanted to take the position [of servicing this market more like a concierge than a typical tour operator] but have found it difficult to deliver on this promise. So we have partnered with a leading concierge company to be our extended arm in more than 70 destinations and to enable us to truly deliver on our brand promise.”

Having the added expertise of the concierge allows Graf’s travel consultants to focus on what they do best, she explains, recalling how her team recently smoothed the way for a marriage proposal by hiring the Musee Rodin in Paris, home to a marble copy of The Kiss. 

Select Collection’s “outstanding experience” extends to its first outpost in the UK, a quirky boutique in South Audley Street, Mayfair. Filled with curiosities (for sale) from around the globe, customers can run their fingers through jars of sand from beautiful, far-flung beaches before heading to the discreet travel agency at the back of the shop to book the resort on that very beach.

It's the cherry on the top of an already fantastic holiday to have a one-off, exceptional experience

Meanwhile, the luxury tour operator Grafs Swedish travel shop doubles as a spa, offering exclusive treatments from the resorts it sells. Cherry-picking the best of both models, boutique travel consultancy Exosphere, established in 2007, aims to create a new blueprint for tour operators and travel concierges, bridging the gap between the two with a kind of private members’ club for travellers.

“We are a travel consultancy, organising holidays at the very top end of the market,” explains director Sophie Leyton, who previously worked at Scott Dunn.

“We are different to tour operators in that we do not have contracts with any particular resorts or carriers, so we are not restricted in the choice we can offer our clients. This means we can create something that is perfectly suited to them.”

For one corporate client, this meant organising a private performance of Cirque du Soleil on a Swiss mountainside; for another, an American client, it involved arranging a private jet to Caen for a whistle-stop tour of the D-Day beaches. Leyton is currently organising a 36-day round-the-world trip for a group of five Spanish pensioners who plan to spend each day in a new destination. 

A highly personalised service is Exosphere’s USP: Leyton meets all new clients and each client only ever deals with one consultant at Exosphere, who is available to them, on-call, 24-7. “We are different because we are super-flexible,” she adds.

“There’s a growing demand for our services, but that level of service has to be paid for, and so we charge a management fee that is a percentage of the booking.” Tom Marchant, director and founder of tailor-made travel specialists Black Tomato and Epic Tomato, agrees that the demand for comprehensive service levels is increasing.


Epic Tomato offers adventures such as desert racing with friends

“The trend is for more and more people, particularly American clients, to have everything done for them—even down to us booking their airline seats.

Clients want everything sorted so that it’s pretty much foolproof.” While requests are often challenging, the expectations of high-net-worth individuals can be met providing you have “good attention to detail, you think ahead and understand the clients’ needs,” says Sonia Burdin, director of Private Label Worldwide, which specialises in villa and private island escapes in the tropics.

“This, combined with a well-established list of excellent, trusted contacts who we can call on to arrange what is required.” For Edward Ruggles-Brise of Quintessentially Escape, “the absolute understanding of the needs, wants and expectations of a client is imperative.” Part of the Quintessentially Travel group, Quintessentially Escape arranges one-off trips, experiential tours and expeditions such as to the North Pole and the Antarctic.

Its team recently sent a petrol -head client and eight of his friends on a nine-day, 2,000km dune rally along the west coast of Namibia, from its southern border with South Africa to the Angolan border in the north. “It was the first ever extreme buggy challenge across Namibia,” says Ruggles-Brise. “The client was so thrilled that he has booked again for 2013.” 

“Our chief criteria for a successful adventure is that, after excitedly sharing their experiences with close friends and colleagues, our guests should never hear this: ‘Oh yeah, we did that too’,’ says Daniel Oppenheim of San Francisco-based Expeditions Extraordinaire.


Abercrombie & Kent can arrange a safari in East Africa

Established two years ago, the company grew out of a few special requests from high—end clients made to Oppenheim’s first business, The Urban S afari, which is renowned for its offbeat and off-the-beaten track tours of San Francisco and New York. This under-the-radar branch of The Urban Safari now provides one-off experiences around the world that are “way, way out of the box”. “Our motto is ‘the answer is always yes’,” says Oppenheim.

In particular, Expeditions Extraordinaire excels in catering for the precocious progeny of the well-heeled and well-travelled. “Addressing the needs of children who have ‘been there, done that’ since birth poses some of our greatest challenges,” he explains.

“Back stage at the circus (yawn); professional sports arena tours, meeting the athletes (yawn); VI P passes at amusement parks (double yawn).

This is where we excel.” Memorable moments they have created for young people include creating a superhero with a comic-book graphic artist; designing a custom skateboard and learning to ride it with a leading skater in NYC; and making gourmet hot dogs with a famous chef on July 4.

“Two weeks of preparation for a two-hour expedition is not uncommon,” says Oppenheim. “Contingency planning, security and anonymity are routine issues and are all handled with great respect and confidentiality.”

So, the names of clients and personalities are out of bounds, but Oppenheim adds: “Suffice to say that we have worked closely with some of the 50 wealthiest families on the planet, as well as sports stars and celebrities that are household names.”

The glitz and glamour is all very well but it is during a crisis that having your personal travel consultant on speed dial really comes into its own.

For one couple arriving on a tight flight connection in Mozambique, Black Tomato managed to persuade officials to allow them to travel onward without their passports (which were with immigration officials) and catch their connecting flight; the passports were returned to the couple via a separate plane the next day.

When the Arab Spring reached Egypt last January, visitors found themselves stuck as the city descended into chaos. With the help of connections, contacts and “cloak-and-dagger tactics”, Abercrombie & Kent successfully chartered a plane to whisk a group of British and American clients out of Cairo and safely back to London.

During the volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Select Collection repatriated a couple to Europe on board a Celebrity cruise ship from Fort Lauderdale, while Scott Dunn chartered a fleet of luxury coaches (with pillows, blankets and provisions) to ferry 180 clients, including numerous families, back to the UK from ski resorts across the Alps.

Dunn concludes: “When something goes wrong and you turn it around, customers become infinitely more loyal.” And that’s something no money can buy. 


Abercrombie & Kent: 888 611 4711; 
Black Tomato: +44 (0)20 7426 9888; 
Exosphere: +44 (0)20 7591 4972; 
Expeditions Extraordinaire: +1 415 282 5500 
Private Label Worldwide: +44 (0)1628 621 77 11 71;
Quintessentially Escape: +44 (0)845 224 2506; 
Scott Dunn: +44 (0)20 8682 5099; 
Select Collection: +44 (0)20 7491 7171;