Luxury travel can be crass. Obnoxious, even. The Louis Vuitton holdalls piled up next to a tall, sleek-haired, golden-tanned woman, her oversized sunglasses perched self-consciously on the end of her nose. Her beefcake partner nearby, with a t-shirt that’s too small and an ego that has the opposite problem. Their private jet looms in the background. They have money and they want everyone to know it. They don’t care where they’re going as long as it’s hot, there’s champagne on ice, and everyone speaks English to them. Or at least that’s the stereotype.
Anthony Lassman, however, has a very different idea of what constitutes high-end travel. A former real estate mogul, he founded Nota Bene Global five years ago, because no-one was offering what he considered to be true, authentic luxury. That is: thoughtful, excruciatingly, painfully-detailed trips for people who don’t just want to throw money at their holidays.
“To meet the head of the Catholic Church. God’s right-hand man on earth? ‘One of our team knows someone who can organise it'”
His is the kind of travel company that makes my very pedestrian idea of luxury look like McDonalds. Burger King, if I’m being less generous. This is the kind of travel company that can quite literally make anything – and I mean anything – happen.
Lassman, who’s in his sixties, is refined, thoughtful and just the kind of guy you’d trust your millions with. Because he treats travel as a privilege, not a status symbol. “We’re not really about flashy, glitzy money” he says when I meet him in Soho in late August. “They’re comfortable with their money. They’re well-educated, they’re well-informed.” Put simply, a private jet with a flashy hotel at the end of it simply will not do.
This comes at a price, of course. You don’t just call up Anthony Lassman and ask him to book a holiday for you – you have to get on his list of annual subscribers, along with the likes of Michael Kors and David Lauren. From there you’ll be assigned a personal travel assistant; there are six in his employment and they’re all intimidatingly well-travelled, like their boss.
From there, his repertoire extends out to a book of contacts who have been tested and put through their paces. A bad contact can ruin a trip, and lose Lassman a client. A good one can get them an audience with the Pope. True story: this was a recent request from a very Catholic American client.
“One of our team is based in Italy and she knows someone who can organise it”, remarks Lassman. And can you believe it – it only costs $55,000 (£42,288). To meet the head of the Catholic Church. God’s right-hand man on earth. I suggest to Lassman that he’s underselling himself and he laughs: “you probably only get two minutes.”
“In thinking about one destination for a particularly choosy client, I suggest Space. Lassman chuckled: “Oh no. He’s been there.”
His coffee arrives and he gives it an inspection. He mentioned when he sat down that he only has one a day – so it has to be good. It’s this kind of attention to detail that lets him get away with charging a $30,000 (£23,068) subscription fee. The rich and famous he deals with (he won’t give me any more names than the two I mentioned earlier) have not got to where they are by flying fast and loose with their cash. Everything is accounted for.
“Oh my god. You would be amazed, people will spend a huge amount of money then pull you up on something really small and say that’s too expensive” says Lassman. If you give them a $300,000 (£230,675) quote for flying in a G4 [a Gulf Stream Four private jet], he explains, and they’ve had a broker in the past who’s quoted them $290,000 (£222,986) for the same trip, you will instantly get pulled up on it. “They’re very sharp and they have lots of people around them who know this. They pay the right price.”
Dealing with the world’s ultra-high net worth individuals requires skill. Diplomacy, for starters. And patience. “Some people still consider phoning at 1am as reasonable” smiles Lassman. “One day I’ve got to write a book about the super-rich and how they function and how they think. Not that many people can deal with it.”
I ask for an example. What constitutes as unreasonable when you have the world at your feet and every door open to you? “I had one Canadian client who phoned me up and it was getting very cold and they wanted to go somewhere warm and fabulous, and we were talking about Brazil.”
“And then they said they would stop in the Caribbean because they didn’t like to fly for more than five hours at a go, and it was in their own plane, and I said ‘well when are you thinking of going?’ The call was on Thursday, and the response was ‘oh well, ideally tomorrow, but otherwise Saturday and at worse Sunday. We want to be out of here by Sunday because it’s really cold.’” Two days then, to organise an out of this world trip for people who pitstop in the Caribbean and fly across two continents just because they’re a bit chilly? Now that takes some doing.
Then there comes the matter of dealing with people who have been everywhere and done everything. How do you continue, year-in year-out, to offer something novel and exciting? One client is currently celebrating an important birthday on a Greek island, after visiting Norway and Portugal as part of a $500,000 (£384,385) Nota Bene-organised trip.
“We have a Monday morning team call to talk about where to send people, and we’re running out of ideas for this guy. We’re racking our brains and thinking well – where hasn’t he been?” Space, I suggest? Lassman laughs again and I think maybe I’ve just suggested something brilliant. No such luck – his laugh quietens into a chuckle: “Oh no. He’s been there.”
This is the thing I like most about Lassman. The world’s ‘super-fixer’ as his PR put it to me. He is understated. His mantra, he tells me, is ‘luxury shouldn’t be afraid of simplicity.’ “I believe in it, I can stay in a very exclusive expensive hotel, but I can also stay in something very simple that has integrity and I think it is important to be able to do both”, he explains.
This approach extends to who he takes on as clients – after five years, he’s assembled 80 clients, and doesn’t want more than a hundred. “First, we’re looking at those who demand the highest level of service and spend the most, because they’re our priority” he explains. “And then some others who don’t spend that much but we like, we’ll keep. And then there are the ones who can be extraordinarily demanding and are ungracious and don’t yield that much – and we’ll replace those.”
Call me old fashioned, but it’s nice to know that in the world of the ultra-high net worth individual, good manners and common human decency still count for something.