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How the ultra-rich are traveling during covid, according to their travel advisers

Forget about renting private yachts and jets. They’re just buying them now.

(Illustration by Bea Crespo for The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article said travel adviser Jaclyn Sienna India once booked a private island for former president George. W. Bush. The private island was rented for Mariah Carey. She organized a trip for Bush to Ethiopia. This article has been corrected.

Pandemic travel has looked a little different for the rich. While the everyman debated whether it was safe enough to visit family for the holidays, there was the Kardashian who used a loophole to go to Paris when the border was closed, or the other Kardashian who rented out a private island in Tahiti for her birthday.

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But brief backlash hasn’t stopped the wealthy from returning to travel. After a year of being confined to their one, two or three homes, they are spending more than ever on vacations to make up for lost time. So what does a dream pandemic vacation look like when you’ve already been everywhere and bought everything? That’s the question travel advisers for ultra-high-net-worth individuals have to ask themselves on a regular basis.

We spoke to three travel advisers about what kinds of trips they’re planning for the 1 percent.

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The ultra-rich are taking bigger, better, more expensive trips

The ultra-rich are not holding back with their vacation spending.

Erica Jackowitz, co-founder of Roman & Erica, a travel company for ultra-wealthy clients, said her clients are spending double to triple more on a trip than they would have pre-coronavirus.

“They’re open to spending way more than they ever would have considered two or three years ago,” said Jackowitz, whose retainer for clients starts at $100,000 per year. “People aren’t holding back from any want.”

The post-covid luxury spending boom has begun. It’s already reshaping the economy.

For example, clients who would have normally spent $150,000 on a ski week over Christmas are now open to spending $250,000.

“I’ve had a client spending half a million dollars a month since last June,” Jackowitz said. “And on a private island and has been traveling since then.”

It’s more about the journey than the destination

At the luxury travel company Brown and Hudson, founder Philippe Brown calls on the “art and science of luxury travel” to design vacations for the elite.

“We apply scientific principles to the travel that we plan — principles like hedonic adaptation,” Brown said. For example, to combat hedonic adaptation, the concept of getting used to or bored of something (even a really, really good thing), Brown plans ahead to keep his clients impressed day after day. That may be as simple as changing a client’s accommodation after a few days so the view doesn’t become blasé.

Right now, Brown said, he is getting more clients who come to him with a desired feeling vs. a specific destination, which hasn’t been the norm in past years.

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“Initial conversations are more interesting and a bit more fuzzy because people are talking about ‘I want to feel energized’ or ‘I want to be vital again,’ ” Brown said. “People of a certain age … they want to do stuff that makes them feel like they’ve achieved something beyond paying off the mortgage, having a jet, a car, whatever it is.”

For a client to feel a sense of adventure, Brown has planned a “luxepedition” across Madagascar. For a dad to feel closer to his son, Brown planned a U.S. road trip that included pop-up drive-in movies in unexpected locations, and he arranged for them to meet celebrities in Hollywood.

For Jaclyn Sienna India, founder of ultra-luxury travel company Sienna Charles, the pandemic has made the ultra-rich embrace different vacation ideas. (You may have heard of a few of her clients, including Mariah Carey and former president George W. Bush. She once rented out an entire private island for Carey and helped organize a trip to Ethiopia for Bush.

India said her clients are no longer following the “billionaire calendar.” Instead of having to go to Aspen or Switzerland’s St. Moritz in the winter, they feel free to go heli-skiing in Iceland instead. The same goes for summer hot spots such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

“They’re not just running places because they felt socially that they had to,” she said.

They’re keeping their trips secret

While her clients are more open-minded about where they go, India said, they are not open to sharing where they go with the public. The pandemic has changed the way her clients see social media. Vacations aren’t for bragging rights, at least not online.

“A lot of our clients are CEOs, and a lot of their staff is either laid off or on unemployment or struggling to make ends meet,” India said. “So we have found that every single one of our clients, even with a private profile, do not share when they travel.”

India said she sees this not as a passing trend but as the new norm.

“They’re not going to be letting people know exactly what their moves are and how they’re spending their money,” she said.

They’re competing for luxury rentals, from private jets to private islands

With the ultra-rich spending more money on travel than ever, there is a growing shortage of high-end travel goods and services.

“Those presidential suites and those top villas and the yachts and the planes — they’re sold out,” Jackowitz said. “There is a very limited availability for, for instance, charters to Aspen from New York in December.”

India said the best hotels in the country, such as Amangiri in Utah or Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, are selling out faster than before. With that kind of demand, prices are going up for what is available.

“In Miami in April, there was a hotel that had listed their deluxe king room at roughly $3,000 a night for 500 square feet … even if you have billions of dollars, that is insane,” Jackowitz said. “And it sold out.”

For many clients, instead of fighting over luxury rentals, they are buying the assets instead.

“People are buying yachts and the planes and the second and third and fourth homes as opposed to renting them,” India said.

Jackowitz said the most popular places for her clients to buy vacation properties during the pandemic have been Hawaii; Malibu, Calif.; Park City, Utah; Miami; Palm Beach, Fla.; the Hamptons; and Aspen.

They’re pushing the boundaries of virtual experiences

Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when people were at home going on virtual tours of national parks and museums? The ultra-rich are taking that idea and running with it in an Usain-Bolt-breaking-world-records kind of way.

To meet the needs of a few clients, Brown is working with a company in the United Kingdom called Immersive to create personalized virtual experiences that are far more engaging than staring at a screen.

The plan involves hiring people to follow a client during travel to capture footage of their trip, or gathering footage that already exists, that can be woven together to build a virtual experience coupled with physical stimulation delivered by haptic bodysuit.

“One client is interested in revisiting a place as they experienced it when they were young,” Brown said. “So there it’s a whole augmented reality experience where you’re using footage of the place and turning it into an experience to live at home.”

The cost of creating these virtual experiences starts around $400,000. Brown said he believes these kinds of virtual experiences will continue to appeal to wealthy clients well after the pandemic.

“I envisage a time when our website will have two ways in,” he said. “One will be virtual experiences and one will be physical experiences.”