A travel stylist can give you the personalised trip of a lifetime, writes Sheriden Rhodes.
These days you have your own hairstylist, personal trainer and therapist. So if you're not happy with your last packaged holiday, maybe it's time to consult a travel stylist.
Kerry Schmook admits her business card, which lists her occupation as "travel stylist", raises a few eyebrows, usually followed by a flurry of questions.
"When it comes to interior decorating or our hair, we seek the guidance of an expert and if you want the best out of your travel experience, then someone like me can facilitate that," Schmook says.
She is one of a new breed of high-end travel planners who design experiences tailored to cash-rich, time-poor clients – based on an understanding of them as a person, their likes and dislikes and their personal style.
The chief executive of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, Jayson Westbury, says the travel stylist is indeed an emerging niche that he expects will expand. He describes the stylist as a reinvention of the traditional agent in an evolving, highly competitive industry. Schmook, who worked for Ansett for 20 years, spent 12 months on research and development based on the business models of high-end travel planners in Britain before launching Melbourne-based Luxury Preferred.
There's not a brochure in sight when clients first sit down with Schmook, nor will the consultation initially involve talk of destinations, unless the clients have somewhere in particular in mind.
"The benefit is that you're guided to a travel experience that's best suited to your personal needs, rather than being sold a package ... that may not be the right fit," she says.
Typically, specialist wholesalers and hand-picked partners do much of the background work, including bookings. But – and this is their big selling point – stylists are not bound by preferred arrangements and are able to offer independent advice and recommendations.
The general manager of Elegant Resorts and Villas, Glenda McMillan-Andersson, who works closely with stylists such as Schmook, says they're the ones in the background arranging everything from candlelit dinners on the beach and breakfasts delivered by canoe to over-water villas, to personal chefs cooking memorable dinners in Tuscan villas and spa treatments and restaurants.
Understandably, such a service doesn't come cheap, starting from between $500-$900 for a week away, so Schmook admits a stylist is not for everyone.
"My service ensures people not only get a holiday personally matched to them but that they're also well looked after wherever they go, from getting a room upgrade, front-row seats at an opera, to being just a phone call away if anything goes wrong at any time of day or night."
And often, Schmook says, things with travel do go wrong: "While any travel provider can post a great-looking website with enticing photos, I've heard my fair share of horror stories about things that go wrong when people book online – including a hotel that didn't even exist."
Brad Horn's agency, Epic Private Journeys, also matches tailor-made, top-end tours for a range of clients. At the extreme end of the spectrum, one client spent more than $US500,000 on two safaris in Africa, while at the other he crafts adventures for executives wanting to challenge themselves physically and mentally. On average, his well-heeled clients spend between $10,000 and $30,000 a head.
"We customise every itinerary to suit the client's needs and we go to great lengths on the phone (and preferably face-to-face) to dig down to the motivation of the client for taking the trip," he says. "We are truly bespoke in that we reinvent the wheel every time, based on each client's specific interests."
Horn says the difference between booking your holiday through someone like him, as opposed to a regular travel agent, is that while most agents visit the product every few years, boutique operators like himself pretty much live and breathe the destination, with dedicated offices in regions where they operate.
And just like any bespoke product, Schmook and Horn go to great lengths with final documentation and presentation. Epic Private Journeys, for instance, delivers the final itinerary housed in a hand-stitched kangaroo-hide wallet, with abbreviated day-card itineraries. Coffee-table books are presented, pertinent to the destinations the client is travelling to, while practical things like bags, shirts and caps are also provided for the trip.
Due to the labour-intensive nature of their business, very few true travel stylists exist in the Australian market, although Horn believes this is what many travellers are searching for.
"The end product does not come cheap as it takes an inordinate amount of time and effort to piece together a customised trip," he says. "It's a demanding game and not many have the stomach and patience to go the extra mile."