For the wealthy, the experience is what’s important

February 12, 2012

Want yellow seat belts in your Porsche? Or green thread for your car’s leather seats?

Join the waiting list, says Kevin Gallagher of Porsche of Rockville.

“We’re finding that people want to sit down and custom order everything — the colors, the interiors, the wood paneling,” Gallagher said. “Fewer and fewer customers are walking in and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that one as-is.’”

As the economy sputters back from a deep downturn, analysts and business owners say the region’s wealthy are spending as much as they always have. High-end customers may be toning down flashy purchases, but they are increasingly looking for customized experiences and exclusive treatment — and local businesses are adapting to meet those needs.

“Value is perceived very differently than it was five or 10 years ago,” said Aba Bonney Kwawu, president of the Aba Agency, a public relations firm that specializes in high-end businesses. “It’s more about authenticity and having a unique experience. The more personalized you can get, the better.”

At Pampillonia Jewelers in Mazza Gallerie, traditional gemstones have taken a back seat to rarer jewels such as yellow diamonds and pink sapphires. More of the area’s wealthy are looking for historical homes in D.C. instead of instant mansions in Great Falls and Potomac, said TTR Sotheby’s President Jonathan Taylor. And at Conner Contemporary Art in the District, patrons are reaching for off-beat digital light sculptures and video art.

“Are people buying safer art in this economy? No, not at all,” said Leigh Conner, the gallery’s owner. “High-end collectors are more open to new kinds of art. There’s been a movement toward the cutting-edge.”

There has also been a shift toward exclusivity, said Milton Pedraza, founder of the Luxury Institute, a research firm that focuses on wealthy consumers.

“Luxury brands have cleared anything that could erode their luxury standing,” he said. “They want to be known for catering to the affluent.”

An influx of a younger aspirational population in the Washington area has also changed the way many restaurants, bars and even art galleries cater to the area’s monied.

The number of art collectors between the ages of 25 and 40 has surged in recent years, says Phillipa P.B. Hughes, founder of the Pink Line Project, an arts organization in the District.

“This is a very educated city and a very professional city,” Hughes said. “There have been a plethora of pop-up galleries to cater to the area’s younger population.”

Membership at the L2 Lounge in Georgetown, which charges an annual fee of $1,500 per person, has also increased steadily over the last year.

“We’re very careful about who we invite in,” said Katelyn Gimbel spokeswoman for the establishment. “We only accept people our members are going to like sitting next to at the bar.”

Potential members must go through an application process and be vetted by the lounge’s owner. When Maxim Magazine approached the establishment about hosting a party that would be promoted in the publication’s pages, Gimbel says L2 promptly declined.

“Any Joe Schmo who’s a fan of Maxim would have tried to come in after that,” she said.

‘An era of functional opulence’

At the Virginia Gold Cup, an annual horse race in May, more and more people are shelling out for access to Members Hill, an enclosed area reserved for badge-holders.

“It’s where all the V.I.P.s are,” said Vicki Bendure of Bendure Communications. “If you want to mingle with people wearing heels and hats, that’s where you go.”

Last year, event organizers turned to discount coupon site LivingSocial to help lure customers to buy lower-priced general admission tickets. They had no problem, however, filling Members Hill, where ticket prices start at $130 for general admission. For those who want to spend more, $6,000 will get a section of the skybox tent for up to 20 people, and a “platinum” hospitality tent runs $17,000 for 300 people.

“It’s not just about see-and-be-seen at the club anymore,” Kwawu said. “People are getting more creative. I‘m hearing a lot more that so-and-so hosted a dinner at her penthouse. We’re absolutely reverting back to that personal touch.”

As part of that trend, the area’s rich are adding guest wings to their homes and game rooms with video game consoles and jukeboxes to entertain not only their friends, but also their children and grandchildren, said Barbara Hawthorn of Barbara Hawthorn Interiors.

“The very wealthy are cocooning,”she said. “They’re doing more home entertaining. It’s an era of functional opu­lence.”

$4,000 table minimums

In Washington, a town where wealth is perhaps less ostentatious than in cities such as New York, some business owners say they’ve had to find ways to adapt to the area’s high-end clients.

Buddha Bar, which opened in Washington in 2010, scrapped mandatory bottle service at tables after managers realized that people wanted food and conversation more than a club-going experience. Now patrons have the option of meeting table minimums — which range up to $4,000 for a coveted table at the foot of the restaurant’s Buddha statue — with food as well as drinks.

On a recent Saturday night at the restaurant, tables were filled with people eating platters of sushi and drinking $550 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Brut. In the middle of the lounge, a group of six were celebrating a friend’s return from a trip to Vietnam with $200 bottles of Skyy vodka.

“We expect to spend a lot wherever we go,” said Lek Charnrissuragul, coordinator of Georgetown University Hospital’s continuing education program. He added that he expected to shell out about $500 that night. “We always buy bottles.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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