The lone arrangers

High-end operators offering bespoke itineraries and vast contact networks are transforming the world of solo travel. Maria Shollenbarger reports.

July 02 2011
Maria Shollenbarger

‘‘It all comes down to dinner, doesn’t it?” This statement is delivered with a smile by Jeremy Sutton, director of Quintessentially Travel, the bespoke travel subsidiary of the luxury concierge service. We are at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, having breakfast and parsing the topic of solo holidays – the delights and pitfalls of travelling for pleasure on one’s own. When we get to comparing the solitary repasts we’ve negotiated in our respective careers, it becomes clear we’ve touched on the mother of all pitfalls.

But to explain how we got to dinner over breakfast, some background: not long ago How To Spend It’s associate editor Lucia van der Post reported on top-end dating services that cater to the world’s high-net-worth singles. This spurred a conversation with Anthony Lassman, the founder of members-only bespoke travel firm Nota Bene, more or less along these lines: surely these people – worldly, confident, patently successful – weren’t foregoing the exceptional travel experiences available to them, simply because they might have to make them alone? This in turn launched an intriguing canvassing exercise some weeks later at an invitation-only travel conference in Morocco attended by the world’s top luxury operators, agents and experts. It transpires that, no, of course they aren’t; and what’s more, plenty of worldly, wealthy people living very fruitful lives à deux (or, if one considers progeny, à trois, quatre or cinq) increasingly leave their happy domestic tableaux and go on holiday – whether to a Renaissance cultural capital, or a Caribbean Cay, or a Hindu Kush village – on their own.

“I’d say in the past couple of years a good 60 per cent of my clients are on holiday alone,” says Jonny Bealby, managing director of London-based adventure outfitter Wild Frontiers. “But by no means are all of them single. Lots of them just have partners with other interests,” or competing professional commitments. Sutton seconds this: “We have clients on both sides of the Atlantic – couples, often with kids at university – who come to us to create two totally independent itineraries to meet their diverging interests. The feedback we get is that separate holidays do wonderful things for refreshing their relationships.” Abercrombie & Kent, meanwhile, has crafted a selection of bespoke trips for solo travellers, which managing director Justin Wateridge calls “sort of ‘on your own, never alone’ experiences”; launching this autumn, they’ll cover destinations such as Bhutan, India and the American West, and offer private “matched” guides and home-stay options.

But there remain just as many travellers who find the solo experience daunting. They are intrigued by the prospect, and possess more than ample means, but hesitate to take the plunge. Which brings us back to dinner. Because as any travel journalist or operator will tell you, the evening meal is the crucible of solo-holiday self-consciousness – a candlelit forcing ground where the potential for solitude to become a liability is at its most pronounced. Your professional life might involve brokering billion-dollar deals or drafting geopolitically seismic foreign policy and never cause you to break a sweat; but a lone walk across a beachside dining terrace at sunset, past a gauntlet of couples whose curious (or pitying) looks nakedly broadcast their thoughts, while the maître d’ deposits you at the most conspicuous table? A C-suite title won’t protect you here.

The point is that the difference between a solo holiday with moments one endures and a solo holiday that delights can hinge on a hundred subtle things that you, the traveller, may not foresee, let alone be capable of managing (such as avoiding the above scenario). Hence the importance of putting yourself in the hands of a top professional: the bespoke experience-makers who take your measure, open their formidable contact databases and smooth out those potential places where your alone-less will be cast into relief. This leaves you to experience and enjoy the edifying, revelatory moments that journeys unencumbered by self-consciousness or nerves elicit.

The best of these professionals – Nota Bene’s Lassman and his peers – insist on knowing their clients quite profoundly: not just your interests and needs, likes and dislikes, but your fitness level, aesthetic leanings, cultural fluency (or lack of it) and, of course, the sum total of your previous travel experiences. “It’s about getting under the skin of someone and understanding what they can handle on their own, and learning what they want – which, despite what they’re saying, they might not actually be telling you,” says Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell, director of Cazenove + Loyd. Abercrombie & Kent’s Wateridge agrees: “I’ve had more than one instance of a client saying he or she’d heard marvellous things about a camp or hotel from friends; and I’ve had to explain to them, ‘Yes, it’s lovely and luxurious, but perhaps not the right place for you, because your friends experienced it as a couple and you’ll be on your own.’ I encourage them to consider the place a few miles up or down the road that’s more comfortable for someone travelling alone.”

Also essential is remembering that the degree of “difficulty” of the travel – a cultural tour of Egypt or a Patagonian trek versus, say, an ostensibly breezy long shopping weekend in Paris – doesn’t necessarily apply when you’re on your own. On the contrary; urban long weekends or beach escapes can pose the far bigger comfort-zone challenges than active or experiential travel, where shared topical interest or the configuration of the accommodations (such as communal tables at certain camps and lodges) instantly diffuse conventional social barriers. “Are there places I’d categorically advise a client against travelling to on his or her own? Yes; the Maldives,” says Lassman. “It’s ravishing, but sort of inescapably redolent of honeymoons, anniversaries, coupledom. I’d probably also advise against St Barth’s at Christmas, which can be as cliquey as school was.”

And where would he send a lone traveller looking for a sophisticated city experience? “Brazil, and the Brazilians, are amazing. Rio’s best on your own when the Paulistas are up for the weekend; the buzz and openness are much more pronounced – it’s almost like a different city. In São Paulo, the teams at both the Fasano and the Emiliano are superb, ready” – when someone like Lassman calls ahead for you, that is – “to dine with you, take you out on the town.”

Lassman and others cite resorts or hotels with strong wellness components (as opposed to a destination spa – a very different animal) as being reliably comfortable environments; even if your intention is simply to flop and drop and pass on the vinyasas and vedic healing, you’re fine, because the spa aspect attracts enough lone guests to balance the numbers in your favour. “Como Resorts do a particularly good job of this,” says Lassman. “Look at [Como Resorts founder] Christina Ong: she travels a lot by herself, and you can feel the attention that’s been given to making this a comfortable experience at her hotels because it’s personal.” Lassman is a particular fan of Parrot Cay, though he insists on the one-bedroom beach villas over the hotel (number 1004 is especially ideal – set away from the resort, hidden behind a privet of oleander with a stretch of talcum-white beach, it presents a lovely deserted-island experience, which you’re free to disrupt at any moment with a yoga class or a shell-hunting expedition in the company of one of Parrot Cay’s charming, ever-so-slightly cheeky boat captains, who provide some of the most delightful company to be found anywhere).

“And of course you have your butler [if staying in two- or three-bedroom beach villas or Parrot Cay estates], who’s also your waiter at your meals and generally your companion, so you’ve diffused a lot of that ‘knowing no one at dinner’ awkwardness,” says Lassman. “And in any case you’ll likely be far from the only lone diner.”

A key concept, companionship. Because paradoxically, solo holidays can be made or broken by the quality of the company you’ll keep. In adventure-centric destinations, or culturally foreign ones, a guide’s role expands to include auxiliary friendship; like-mindedness (and indeed, likeability) become as crucial as destination expertise. Wild Frontiers’ Bealby won’t hesitate to send a lone client deep into northern Ethiopia, or Cambodia’s interior, or Assam province in India, because in these (and many other) places he retains highly educated Western guides whose personal profiles are often quite similar to those of his clients. “In Ethiopia I work with a Danish woman [Mette Steen] who studied at Soas and runs a responsible-tourism education project with local communities in the Omo valley. She speaks Amharic and knows an enormous amount about Ethiopia and its culture.” She’s also an urbane, well-educated professional, which means she can both articulate cultural nuances for a Western viewpoint and chat about current events over dinner.

Sue Lyall, sales manager of Exsus, which organises bespoke travel in Central and South America, retains a roster of specialist guides in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lima and a handful of other cities. She matches solo clients with architects, sommeliers, professors; she has nightlife “specialists” of both sexes so that clients can capitalise on Lapa’s vibrant after-hours dance and music scene in good company (and safely). All, with enough advance notice, will clear their schedules to dedicate themselves to a client travelling solo for days in a row. “These are people we’ve vetted and sort of trained up to understand this subtle relationship; particularly with the English traveller, who can sometimes be reserved, only expressing his or her wishes in hindsight. These guides understand the importance of reading your comfort and interest levels carefully when you’re on your own. Alejandro, one of our star Buenos Aires guides and a wine expert, has more than once been asked to accompany [solo] clients on to Mendoza to tour wineries with them – he’s that affable, and that interesting.”

Guy Rubin, managing partner at Beijing-based Imperial Tours – widely acknowledged as one of the two best luxury operators in China – dispatches full-time escorts, called China Hosts, to accompany his clients. Usually resident Westerners, always fluent in the regional Chinese, they’re with the client all the time even when there are additional guides, such as a Beijing antiques expert or a Yunnan riding leader; they’re equal parts concierge, cultural interpreter, and proxy pal. “The match is fully defined around the personality of that traveller; that’s the point.”

Private safari guides similarly fill multiple roles for the solo traveller – including, sometimes, that of peer. They inhabit vastly different spheres of influence than do their clients, but they enjoy equal esteem. “That fit is key; especially in the bush where there are such subtle relationships and people can feel disempowered, out of their comfort zone,” says Cazenove + Loyd’s Wilmot-Sitwell. “It has definitely come down to me saying to a particular client travelling alone, ‘You simply shouldn’t do this trip unless Garth Thompson’ – or whatever A-List guide I have in mind – ‘is available.’ Garth, for example, is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s a straight-talker, quite macho – any solo client who was at all precious, it would be a match made in hell. But for other of my clients, it’s the only match I’d allow.”

A&K’s Wateridge agrees, adding: “The top private guides, besides being total experts in human nature, are on intimate terms with the staff of many of the camps and lodges you’ll stay at. This means they can contact managers ahead of your arrival and smooth the path without you even knowing. If you’re feeling sociable one day, they’ll have the GM arrange a big table for dinner, with guests whose interests you share; if you’re not, they’ll arrange to dine alone with you.”

And then there are the handful of regional access masters – those who’ve parlayed the twin blessings of being profoundly well connected and enterprising into careers as gatekeepers offering insider experiences. They include James Grace-Jaya-sundera, managing director of London-based Ampersand, whose reach in Sri Lanka is unparalleled; Mehra Dalton, managing director of Greaves India; Javier Arredondo, the owner-chairman of Latin-American travel bible Travesías, who has begun planning ultra-exclusive travel in Mexico (Mexico by ITG); and Emily FitzRoy, the owner of Bellini and the UK’s pre-eminent Italy specialist.

That FitzRoy, for example, has the general managers of the country’s top hotels on speed dial is a given; her real USP is her access to some of its most patrician citizens – those who’ll not just make their private country estate or city palazzo accessible for a dinner, but be present to host her clients. “A few months ago a well-known antiques dealer who’s a regular client called to say he’d always wanted to get to grips with Rome, but felt his family would slow him down. By day I had him pounding the streets with John Fort” – a distinguished author who moonlights as one the city’s two or three most exclusive guides. He’s lived in Rome for 35 years in an apartment in the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilij, to which he welcomed FitzRoy’s client for drinks in the evening. Greaves’ Dalton provides similar entrée across India. “Basically, they’re friends of mine,” she says of the guides and personal shoppers in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Jaipur and elsewhere she arranges for clients. “If I have someone travelling alone, I can ring up one of them and say, ‘Take her to the Willingdon Club for lunch, call so-and-so and have them come too.’”

Dalton describes India as a destination that’s “perfectly primed” for solo travel. “It has a blend of the personal and the deeply educated that’s unique. And people don’t realise tourists are a tiny percentage of its visitors. A lot of fashion- and luxury industry-related businesses” – gem sales and cutting, textiles, designers – “are based here, so there’s already a population of sophisticated professionals that’s here alone all the time.” As a result, she says – especially in the less “hotel-led” cities, such as Mumbai – no one bats an eye at a lone diner. Fancy that.

See also

Wild Frontiers