Masters of Modern Luxury: Brent Handler
Brent Handler Pioneered the destination-club concept when he cofounded Exclusive Resorts in 2002. Nine years later, he reinvented the industry he had helped create with the launch of Inspirato, a membership organization that offers access to vacation homes worldwide without the large up-front fees of a traditional destination club. Inspirato’s portfolio ranges from châteaux in Bordeaux to beach villas in St. Barts, but for Handler, it is the company’s personalized service and custom-tailored experiences that make the club a true luxury for travelers.
I think luxury is an overused term in many ways. If you have to say it’s luxury, and if you have to point to what it costs, then you’re misguided.
We don’t do a lot of the same things with regard to luxury as product companies do. That kind of luxury is much more defined and much more a function of taste. Where we view luxury is in more of the nonquantifiable attributes, such as service, certainty, consistency, personalization, and integrity. It’s definitely not the gold-plated-toilet-seat overdone excess of the 1980s. We talk about luxury as a kind of privilege. If somebody wants a Ferrari because they like that car and they feel comfortable with that automobile, there’s nothing wrong with that. But now it’s really more about, where do they drive? How do they experience the car? Do they take the car to interesting places?
When I started out in this business, luxury accommodations meant something very simple: It was a Four Seasons hotel. When you stay at a Four Seasons, you know what you’re going to get. It doesn’t matter if it’s in China, the Caribbean, or New York City; it’s going to be a very similar experience. We pioneered the idea that you could take the amenities of a luxury hotel and combine them with a nice house and put that into one package. Now that’s not even good enough.
What we’re seeing is that there is no one size fits all, even for the same customer. The depth of what people are looking for has broadened greatly. They don’t want to be confined to any one sort of experience. We now recognize that many members are going to want homes that are true ski-in/ski-out, but many other members would rather have ski homes that are right in the heart of a village. It’s not as much about where they stay, but how they live. They really will live on these vacations with us.
Because our homes are residential, there are so many things that can be done that are not really possible in a hotel room. We have detailed relationships with, and long-term commitments to, the clients that we work with, which are a few thousand families. Obviously our ability to understand them and their lives and what’s important to them is really important to us. I think that a lot of the other hospitality providers try to do that, but when you have 40,000 or 50,000 customers a year, the interactions are transactional by nature.
A lot of what we’re seeing in the travel space today is that the accommodation is really just the hub. The home is a critical part of it, and the service of course has to be great, but that’s really just the cost of admission. It’s what people do in the homes and what we can bring to them that are “wow” experiences that actually make a big difference.
It used to be that travel planning consisted of filling out a grocery order and maybe making a couple of reservations for dinner. Now we’re seeing a big trend for customization. We’ve had a lot of great experiences with members using the club in ways that we’ve never really thought of.
In terms of culture, we’re starting to get more and more people who are saying, “Show me how the people who live here live. Take me to the activities that they do, not just the fun tourist activities.” For example, we have a very large surfing contingent in the club. We’re always looking for ways to recommend those secret surf spots that aren’t where a normal tourist would go. That kind of experience is something that people wouldn’t get reading a travel magazine or just booking at a luxury hotel.
I’m not much of a physical possessions kind of guy. I’m not a collector of things. I’m not really into jewelry or clothing or things like that. But I collect photo albums and iPhone pictures. It has to be about the experience, not about the badge or the symbolism.