Travel: Movin’ on Up

Town-car driver Russell Figaredo greets most members of Private Escapes Destination Clubs with a refreshing glass of fruit juice or a bottle of water when they arrive in the Big Apple. But when two guests from Tennessee flew in on a hot day last summer, the lifelong New Yorker suggested cold beers instead. “With some clients you take a risk,” Figaredo explains. “I pulled off at the 7-Eleven, we grabbed a couple of tall boys, and I drove them into the city with Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ playing on the stereo.”

Similarly populist concepts served as the basis for Private Escapes’ inaugural membership program, Premiere, which the company billed as the first affordable destination club when it launched three years ago. This summer, however, the Fort Collins, Colo., firm introduced a new program that caters to a less cost-conscious clientele. Members who join Private Escapes at the Pinnacle level—a program that requires an initial deposit of $350,000, annual dues of $22,000, and $185 nightly usage fees—have unlimited access to a 4,770-square-foot antebellum mansion in Charleston, S.C.; a five-bedroom lodge in Deer Valley, Utah; and other multimillion dollar residences.

Pinnacle’s debut came at an inauspicious time for the destination-club industry: Just as Private Escapes was introducing its new program, competitor Tanner & Haley, considered the originator of destination clubs, was filing for bankruptcy. Still, Private Escapes president and CEO Richard Keith, who founded the company after working as Tanner & Haley’s chief of operations for two years, believes his firm’s size and structure will ensure its success. “Leasing doesn’t work,” Keith says of his former employer’s business model, which did not include acquiring all of its residences. “We started out only owning properties and will continue to own all of our properties.”

Keith claims that Private Escapes, which has 300 members and 50 homes in its three programs (the company has a midrange offering called Platinum), is the second largest destination-club company (behind Exclusive Resorts, which has approximately 2,000 members). Private Escapes caps the size of each of its programs—Pinnacle will be limited to 400 members—and maintains a six-to-one member-to-property ratio, an approach that Keith says allows his company to invest in unique, stand-alone residences.

In New York City, Figaredo drops Pinnacle members off at 1600 Broadway, the newest residential building in Times Square. Set on the 25th floor of the structure, the club’s two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath apartment features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out directly on the square’s Waterford Crystal Ball. Opposite the windows sits a red, $35,000 Bang & Olufsen sound system, which the apartment’s local host—a self-described “Jewish mother” who also stocks the refrigerator and assists with any reservations or other arrangements—instructs guests on how to use.

Although the accoutrements of Pinnacle’s New York penthouse represent a new level of luxury for Private Escapes, the club’s charm may reside more in the amiability of its local staff. When it was time for the members from Tennessee to return home from New York, they called Figaredo. “They said, ‘We want you to pick us up two hours early,’ ” he recalls. “So I took them on my Malcolm X tour of Harlem, and then they took me for lunch in Astoria. When they come back, they want to go out with me to the local taverns.”

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