Maybe it’s schadenfreude. Maybe it’s envy. Maybe it’s the ever-widening wealth gap. Or maybe “The White Lotus” is just a really good show that satirizes the egos and excesses of the wealthy traveling class. Whatever the reason for the success of the HBO series, we can’t wait to gobble up the second season, which premieres Oct. 30, like free bags of pretzels in economy class.
And it’s not just prestige TV skewering the idle rich. “Triangle of Sadness,” a movie that upends the power dynamic (and stomachs) of the customers aboard a private yacht cruise, won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Propelled by the interplay of demanding charter guests and tip-dependent crews of “yachties,” Bravo reality show “Below Deck” has spawned four spinoffs. “The Menu,” which gets a national release in theaters Nov. 18, has an ominous trailer that suggests a bloody end for guests at an exclusive restaurant on a remote island.
As we prepare for more depictions of cringeworthy behavior, travelers in the back of the plane are probably wondering: How real is this sense of entitlement? Do the elite really make such outrageous demands?
The answer, according to travel industry workers who spoke to The Washington Post, is yes.
“Nobody cedes their privilege,” Mark, the emasculated husband played by Steve Zahn, says to his family in the first season of “The White Lotus.” Not even on vacation.
To find out more, we interviewed concierges, travel advisers, hoteliers and tour guides that cater to 1-percenters. Here are their stories, from the cashmere-lined trenches.
‘We have a mermaid on speed dial’
Employees of the Nightfall Group — a sort of Airbnb and concierge service for celebrities, C-suite types or anyone else with a ton of money to burn — have a Rolodex full of niche specialists to take care of any whim a client could throw at them.
Like the time a guest renting a 13,820-square-foot mansion in Los Angeles requested a mermaid to swim in the pool — which you can peek into from a room in the house — for a cocktail party starting in an hour. Not just any mermaid, but “a real authentic mermaid with a splash tail,” says Angelica Bridges, spokesperson for the Nightfall Group. “They wanted to see, like, gills.”
Not only would the company need to find an available mermaid who could beat L.A. traffic in time for the start of the party, but it would also have to heat the pool to a mermaid-friendly 80 degrees. Not a quick feat, even for the already-heated pool, but the company managed.
Fortunately for the mermaid-seeking guests, “we have a mermaid on speed dial,” Bridges says. “We got her there in probably an hour and two minutes.”
The group usually has more lead time for big requests. Like the client who asked for a 60-by-60-inch temperature-controlled safe to be installed in her week-long rental to store her mother’s ashes. Or the client who wanted Santa Claus and real reindeer to show up at his L.A. rental on Christmas Eve.
“We do have a company that does have reindeer,” Bridges says. “We even got elves there, too.”
Sandra Weinacht, a travel planner and co-owner of Inside Europe Travel Experiences, regularly hears stories of extreme behavior from friends and business connections who work in Europe’s five-star hotels.
She says a hotelier in France told her that they had a guest request a huge amount of Sanpellegrino to be delivered from Italy in the same day. No other sparkling water would do; it had to be Sanpellegrino — and not because the guest loved the taste.
“His Russian client needed that water to wash her hair, and it could not be Perrier,” Weinacht says. “It had to be Sanpellegrino.”
A roughly $4 million shopping tab
When Christina Stanton, a New York City tour guide with decades of experience, was hired to guide a Russian oligarch’s wife during their family trip, Stanton had to give her cellphone to a body guard at the start of each day.
While the three kids were off with their own tour guide, Stanton helped the mother do some back-to-school shopping. Bergdorf Goodman opened its store early so the two could browse in peace. They picked up 58 pairs of shoes at Little Eric Shoes On Madison. Over the course of their four days together, Stanton estimates that her client spent roughly $4 million.
When Stanton learned her client’s last name at the end of the trip, a quick Google search revealed that the woman’s husband was one of the richest men on earth. Although their wealth was as shocking as their shopping bill, another detail struck Stanton.
When the family reconvened for meals at restaurants such as Balthazar and Serafina, she noticed that “the family wouldn’t speak to waiters, the bodyguards did,” Stanton says.
In one instance, one of the children wanted a straw, and the server forgot about the request. The bodyguard was not pleased.
“The way he [talked] to that server, you know that he’s killed a man with his bare hands,” Stanton says.
‘They want bigger, better, more, free’
Stacy H. Small, founder of the Elite Travel Club, had a client who was a reality TV personality. Small says the Bravo channel star screamed at her driver for not picking up her luggage fast enough, then refused an upgraded suite at a luxury hotel but remained furious at Small over the price of the room — even though they had already approved it.
“They can afford it, they just don’t want to pay for it,” Small says of her reality TV clients of the past. “They complain a lot, because they want bigger, better, more, free.”
Now, Small only works with clients she carefully vets. The trips are still extreme — $100,000 summer vacations are common — but she hasn’t had any bad apples since becoming more selective.
Discretion is everything
While some of the rich and famous flaunt their fabulous lives, many prefer to keep a low profile. Rob DelliBovi, founder of full-service travel agency RDB Hospitality, says many clients request their drivers sign nondisclosure agreements.
Once, at Kalon Surf, a luxury all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica, a woman emailed asking who else was on her husband’s upcoming reservation. Staff members were unable to share the information.
“Discretion and privacy is number one for us,” says owner Kjeld Schigt.
The woman explained that she had gotten wind of her husband’s affair and wanted to confirm his mistress was joining him. The hotel still couldn’t budge on its policy.
The woman says she understood and ended their correspondence with one request, Schigt says: Could one of his surf instructors take him out on the biggest wave possible “and just push him off, so he gets as hurt as possible?”
No expense spared for pets
In February 2021, while pandemic travel anxieties and strict border restrictions were standard, the private jet charter Monarch Air Group got a request for a client to travel from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Vancouver, British Columbia. The pilots were bewildered when their sole passenger arrived.
It was Bella, a pomsky (a Siberian husky and Pomeranian mix) who had been dropped off for a $60,000 trip home to her owner.
In another instance a few years ago, the staff at the Dolder Grand in Zurich received a request from a Russian guest that chef concierge Jens Maier deemed “bizarre,” even for the most pampered pet.
She “asked us to organize a piece of lawn so that her dog could pee in the suite and she didn’t have to leave the hotel,” Maier says.
The staff offered to walk the pup around the property’s forested paths. The guest declined and insisted on an indoor lawn delivered to her room within two hours. Of course, you can’t just run down to the corner store for a square meter of turf. “The whole thing was complicated,” Maier says.
With help from a local florist, the hotel was able to secure a fake patch of grass that, for an extra touch of class, came in a wooden frame. The setup cost around $800, which the guest paid.
“The lady was overjoyed when the almost impossible could be made possible,” Maier says.
The dog had no comment.
The $50,000 tree frog
For many in the hospitality industry, it’s not the specific requests that rub them the wrong way, but how or why they’re requested.
“The old, ‘Please separate M&M’s by color,’ that exists,” DelliBovi says. “People do that just because they’ve heard of it and they think it’s hilarious. But as a guy who’s run hotels, we know that’s not hilarious.”
Curtis Crimmins, once a concierge at five-star hotels and now the founder of a startup that customizes hotel experiences called Roomza, points to the time a famous guest asked for a particular foreign tree frog for his daughter.
Crimmins finagled an introduction to a congressperson who was able to help him expedite the Agriculture Department approval process to get the frog into the country.
“It was $50,000, conservatively, just for the frog to be left in the room when they checked out,” Crimmins says.
Not all rich people
Being wealthy does not automatically signal bad behavior, says Schigt, the owner of the Costa Rican resort.
“No, absolutely not,” Schigt says. “It depends, but sometimes it’s the more wealthy that are actually a lot more laid back.”
DelliBovi has come to a similar conclusion in his time orchestrating trips for rock stars and very wealthy individuals.
“We have billionaires who are like, ‘Put me in the standard room. I don’t care.’ … And then we have billionaires that are like, ‘I better have a Ferrari picking me up and my water better be this temperature,’ ” DelliBovi says.
The 80-20 rule
Schigt has been dealing with wealthy clients on a daily basis since he opened his Costa Rican property in 2011. After playing host for more than a decade, he has found that most guests are easy to accommodate, but a select few are impossible to satisfy.
Dealing with difficult guests is a lose-lose situation for the resort. Not only would staff fail to appease the unappeasable guests, but tending to their every complaint also took service away from other patrons.
Sometimes having staff dote on laid-back guests can be enough to fix the problem. He has had difficult clients ease up after noticing other guests having fun and getting more attention.
“We realized in the past that we were spending 80 percent of our time on 20 percent of our guests,” Schigt says. “Those guests were very demanding, and they were not going to be happy anyway, because some people come to be not happy.”
Nowadays, Schigt trains Kalon employees to try to make every guest happy — within limits — “but at the same moment, try not to forget the other guests that are equally valuable,” he says.
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