A Trip Made to Order

Originally published in Managing Wealth, a magazine for the clients of BDO Private Bank.

As an independent traveler, I’ve always prized the ability to plan my own itinerary. That’s traditionally been the privilege of backpackers and other budget voyagers: unfurl a map, set a pin somewhere, and go. To pursue your own interests, unhindered by a tour group or a set schedule.

With more air routes opening up between Manila and points beyond, I’ve found myself traveling alongside more affluent travelers seizing the independent-travel prerogative. On one hand, these travelers have the advantage of being able to afford rarer, specialized adventures way beyond my own reach – from dining in a Russian palace to hitching a ride with a camel train across an African forest.

On the other, their ideal experiences are simply not on the menu of most package tour companies; the latter go where the easy money is, focusing on more popular (and more profitable) destinations, while cutting costs through bulk bookings of hotel rooms, tour services and flights.

This kind of one-size-fits-all travel planning simply won’t fly for high-net-worth individuals, who like their travel experiences cut to fit. Luckily, a growing number of travel professionals offer bespoke services that give high-end travelers the custom-made trip of their dreams.

The Flexibility of Bespoke Travel

The travel industry borrowed the word “bespoke” from the world of haberdashery to refer to a specific set of luxury custom-made itineraries. As with bespoke clothing, these plans are tailor-fit by professionals to meet specific (sometimes extraordinary) needs – clients enjoy a superior level of flexibility that few run-of-the-mill travel agents can provide.

“Bespoke travel is customized to each traveler’s lifestyle, budget and travel objective,” explains Cristina Trinidad-Puyat, proprietor of independent provider Cristina’s Travel Boutique (fb.com/cristinastravelboutique). “Most of the schedule is not fixed, allowing the traveler to take their time in the places or activities they enjoy more.”

Such flexibility is a godsend for travelers who find the usual travel schedules and plans a poor fit for their own timetables. “[My clients tend to be] independent travelers who would rather explore on their own than with a group of strangers following a stiff schedule,” explains Ms. Puyat. “Flexibility and convenience are a priority [for them] – they are very busy people who can afford to travel but do not have the time and patience to plan it.”

Passion Plus Knowledge

Jose Cortes, co-founder of bespoke travel outfitter A2A Safaris (www.a2asafaris.com), told me that this involves approaching each client’s particular needs as a blank slate. “No two of our trips are alike,” explains Mr. Cortes. “[Our plans are] tailor-made to our clients’ profile, interests and budgets.”

A2A Safaris specializes in trips to the world’s last great wildernesses – the wildlife reserves in Africa, the jungles and prairies of South America, and the white wasteland of Antarctica. In these areas – far from the usual well-traveled tourist trails – bespoke travel specialists like A2A Safaris really come into their own.

“For our Africa trips, clients know they want to visit the continent because of the unique wildlife, but usually that is where it ends,” says Mr. Cortes. “We ask them what animals they are keen on seeing, are they interested in scenery, other phenomenon such as the great migration in the Serengeti and how active do they want to be, as we offer 4×4 safaris, horseback safaris, walking safaris and even canoeing safaris.

“Then we discuss the rest of the trip – whether they are keen on seeing Victoria Falls for example or tacking on a beach portion in Zanzibar or Mozambique or the Seychelles or visiting Cape Town for some R&R after their safari.”

A2A’s wilderness destinations lend themselves particularly well to bespoke travel itineraries – travelers not only dovetail their particular needs with the outfitter’s detailed knowledge of the destination, they benefit from the outfitter’s connections as well. “All the hotels, safari lodges and activities have already been curated beforehand by our team, so we have narrowed down the options to the best in class,” explains Mr. Cortes. “Given the range of accommodations and also activity levels we are able to fit in our clients into the hotels and activities that best fit them.”

Team Effort

Lions and tigers aren’t the only sight on offer in most bespoke itineraries, of course. You’ll find a growing number of worldwide travel outfitters catering to diverse and esoteric tastes, from climbing the Himalayas to river cruises down the Mekong to mountain biking in Europe. The only limit is the individual traveler’s desires, imagination and timetable.

Ms. Puyat’s clients tend to focus on experiences in Europe and Asia – “they will tell me that they would like to go on a beach outing or on a shopping spree or on a food trip or a romantic holiday,” Ms. Puyat says. “There are also those who have one particular thing they want to do, such as hear Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican, then I will just plan other things they can do around it.”

The final plan is usually a team effort – “[my clients] usually have a general idea of what they want, but the specifics mostly come from me,” she says. “One thing in common is that they do not want the usual templated tours, but want to have something that is specifically designed for them.”

More Value in Customized Tours

Such specialized planning doesn’t come cheap – luckily, they’re not as pricey as you may have come to expect. “[It’s a misconception that] bespoke travel is very costly,” complains Ms. Puyat. “Each itinerary is designed and planned depending on the traveler’s budget and specifications.  You get what you pay for.”

Ms. Puyat charges a small percentage of the total fees and fares, on top of a fixed design concept fee. Upon request, she can take care of the entire itinerary, or fix only certain parts as needed. “That’s why it is important for me to sit with the client and discuss specifically which bookings they want to do themselves and which ones they want me to take care of,” she says.

The right bespoke travel providers actually provide more value, not less: “We like to tell our clients that all our advice is free of charge,” says A2A Safaris’ Mr. Cortes. “We make our money from our partner hotels and suppliers, not from our clients.  We charge our clients the same amount they would pay if they booked direct with a hotel or safari lodge; usually we are able to get deals for our clients because of our long-standing relationships with our partners in Africa and Latin America and Antarctica.”

Changing Travel Tastes

As more and more Filipinos start to travel for pleasure – not just for their livelihoods – bespoke travel outfitters find themselves more and more in demand. Forget about shopping trips in Hong Kong or watching an NBA game in the U.S.; Filipino travel tastes are changing fast, and for the better.

“Rail travel is definitely something Filipinos are starting to become interested in,” says Ms. Puyat, who finds growing demand for “going around Europe via Eurail, Southeast Asia aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express, and travelling from China to Russia on the TransSiberian Railway.”

Africa is another brave new world for Filipino travelers, who seek Mr. Cortes’ counsel for extreme adventures in the dark continent: “4×4 safari activities would be tops; in Cape Town [South Africa] they love to whale watch and see penguins – and some of the more adventurous ones cage dive with great white sharks,” he says. “In Victoria Falls, our clients also love to fly over the falls via a microlite; flying over the Serengeti in a hot air balloon is very popular.”

The premium charged by an experienced bespoke travel provider is a small price to pay, if you want to drink your fill of these adventures (and others like it) at your own pace. The memories and afterglow of a successful customized trip are, after all, priceless.

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