COVID-19 has ushered in a new kind of vacation: the ultra-exclusive road trip for the uber-wealthy traveller

Napa Valley Wine Train; Samantha Lee/Business InsiderLuxury travel company All Roads North and luxury community Exclusive Resorts now offer discreet, nearly private seven- to nine-night excursions.

For the better part of a year, the novel coronavirus has put many aspects of life on hold — or on Zoom. But for those with enough money to spend, not even a deadly, contagious virus is reason to let their wanderlust go unsatiated.

Instead, they can take a trip along the California coastline, stopping for a private Michelin-starred tasting menu, a wine tasting with a vintner, a coastal bike adventure with a naturalist, a private sunset yacht excursion, or a tour of the LA art scene with a Getty Museum curator.

This is just one set of possibilities offered by the new partnership of luxury travel company All Roads North and luxury community Exclusive Resorts. Together, they deliver discreet, nearly private seven- to nine-night excursions that connect the dots between some of Exclusive’s properties in a given region.

These trips further isolate these wealthy travellers from the hoi polloi, a longstanding trend that has become all the more pronounced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where exposure and survival rates have been so heavily influenced by income level.

Such experiences, of course, don’t come cheap. This trip costs in the mid-to-high four-figure range, plus the $US1,400 per night fees for stays at Exclusive Resorts locations. But for the affluent traveller, it seems to be money well spent.

Exclusive Resorts is aptly named, a closed membership club with fewer than 4,500 members, each of whom pays $US150,000 for the 10-year privilege of staying in one of the 400 two- to five-bedroom private residences the club manages in desirable locations around the world. All Roads North is a Los Angeles-based boutique travel agency that creates private itineraries for American road trips featuring insider access to unique one-on-one guides, experiences, and locations.

These companies have a shared vision, of sorts. Both cater to upscale clients who want to maximise the impact of their vacation time while minimising the tedium of planning. Both are predicated on privileging privacy and solitude. And both are oriented around providing attentive, concierge-level services. Working together, each expands on the strengths of the other, to elevate and further encapsulate the bubbled travel experience these clients demand. Exclusive Resorts provides a curated cohort of vacation-ready single-family homes, and All Roads North provides a literal and figurative pathway to and from properties like these, and expands the offerings of available local activities.

“We have a lot of members who want to travel still, but they don’t want to fly, and a lot of families who are working remotely and can be anywhere,” said James Henderson, CEO of Exclusive Resorts, working from one of his company’s properties in California’s wine country instead of his home in the San Francisco area. “All Roads North’s itineraries allow members to travel at their own pace, in their own vehicles, and to provide our members with things to do when they’re on our properties.”

All Roads North founder Sam Highley concurred. “We’ve always tried to provide private homes for our clients while they’re travelling, but it’s difficult to vet private homes and know that they’re going to meet our clients’ needs and standards. Now, having access to Exclusive Resorts’ network of fully-serviced private homes, it provides a great synergy.”

The idea here is to offer the ultimate private road trip experience — no hotels or large group settings, just private homes and private guides and tours — to insulate the wealthy traveller, and offer experiences not available in other ways or settings.

“This works for people who are very frequent travellers who want to go to new places,” said Henderson. “Also for people who aren’t good planners, as it takes away that issue and gives them time to relax.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated this need for enjoyable isolation, making this kind of travel even more appealing to the target demographic. “People are really gravitating toward membership-based clubs, because they afford safety, privacy, and trust,” said Henderson. “Our members have a deep trust that we will keep them informed and keep them safe.”

Milton Pedraza, the CEO of The Luxury Institute, a research and consulting firm that focuses on the upscale market, agrees. “Affluent people are very much drawn to private travel right now, to finding places to go where they can seclude themselves with family and friends: private air travel, chartering yachts, villa rentals, places where you can really have the place to yourself and cocoon in a beautiful, luxurious space,” he said. “But people also want discovery, adventure, and entertainment. They don’t just want to isolate in a home.”

This sense of cautious exploration, coupled with the difficulty in travelling internationally, has highlighted domestic travel for many wealthy people, continuing a trend amongst this segment that predated COVID.

“Seeing America together is something that a lot of affluent families had on their bucket list, but never did,” said Pedraza. “Now, people are finding a way to do it.” Yet this cohort is not staying in elegant lodges, spa resorts, or even boutique hotels. “People are less wanting to stay in bigger properties where they will have more contact with other guests,” Highley said. “The most popular locations for our clients right now are private homes or properties structured as cabins or cottages, with wide open spaces, where people can get back to nature.”

These travellers are also often moving around less once they reach their destinations. “Whereas previously we might have had a two-week trip with five locations, and three nights in each place, we’re now seeing people asking for two week trips with just two or three locations,” Highley said. And more of these trips are beginning and ending in proximity to clients’ primary residences. “We’re starting to focus more on trips that are natural loops, that don’t require flying,” Highley added. “Trips that start and end from home.” Moreover, instead of going out for dinner, exercise, and activities, vacationers in this elite realm are bringing the experiences in, inviting (and often conducting virus screenings on) private chefs, private trainers, private guides, even private doctors.

Membership in a selective club, especially one like Exclusive that requires conformity to specific personal protection and safety protocol for all members and workers, also affords new social opportunities, even during the pandemic. “Our members love to connect with each other, and we see that as one of the things we can do with this partnership with All Roads North,” says Henderson. “They don’t want to wait in lines, they don’t want to have a lot of exposure to people, they don’t want to share dining rooms.” But they’re willing to accept small group experiences with each other, with people they see as, quite literally, inside their club, both demographically and psychographically.

This means that while large group travel — the hardest hit sector of the category, and often the most affordable — might struggle to recover, wealthy people will still long for interaction. With each other. “One thing we’re looking at is, what does the next generation of private travel, or travel with a small group of strangers, look like in a year or 18 months?” Highley said. He spoke of putting together small group experiences that are available only to Exclusive Resorts members. “They have a pretty well-vetted, small membership,” Highley says. “So if you’re going to travel with a group, that would be a group that would probably come back pretty early, a like-minded group of people.”

This could afford new levels of private experiences that may expand the leisure divide between the haves and the have nots. “Renting out an amazing oceanfront space on a dock with a private seafood chef, that may not work for a family of four,” Highley says. “But if you’ve got 10 Exclusive Resorts members, that can start to make sense financially and provide for this underlying need to connect.”

Pedraza sees this as an emergent trend for the future, even beyond the pandemic. “While we may still go back to larger open tours,” he says, “I think this idea of cocooning while mixing safely will endure, especially amongst the wealthy.”

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