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A Language Rich in New Definitions of Luxury

It isn't enough to have the best. That idea is so '90s.

November 13, 2000|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe money can't buy happiness, but that doesn't stop most people from shopping for it. Joy bearing a price tag might take the form of a $40-million private jet, a $10,000-bottle of wine or a $26-million yacht. But anyone purchasing such tangible symbols of bliss probably formed an image of the good life back when more was more, when the whole point of having money was flaunting it. How retro.

If you've been too busy counting your Wall Street gains to notice, conspicuous austerity has trumped unbridled consumption lately. The big spenders of this post-materialist age aren't busy acquiring traditional status symbols as fast as you can say "platinum card." So what do the rich want? It's a question of great consequence to people who market luxury goods and services, so much so that seminars seeking answers have become a growth industry.

Henry Welt, an expert on luxury goods at the New York law firm of Kronish, Lieb, Weiner & Hellman, has attended five in the last year and been invited to at least 10 more.

"Because of a tremendous intergenerational transfer of wealth that will occur in the next 20 years, and the growing numbers of Internet millionaires, there's an awareness that very substantial amounts of money will increasingly be in younger hands," he said. "Luxury businesses are seriously trying to understand what that group wants. It goes beyond selling expensive widgets. It's how will you comprehend the needs of a younger generation."

Welt was among a group of 140 attending the recent Luxury Summit 2000, a conference at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City sponsored by American Express Publishing. The subliminal message of the gathering was that the organizer's magazines--Travel and Leisure, Wine & Food, Departures, Travel and Leisure Golf, and Travel and Leisure Family--are tuned in to the affluent consumer whom marketers want to reach.

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Yet even among purveyors of high-ticket items, snagging wealthy customers is only the tip of a lucrative iceberg. The real money comes from fanning desire among those who aspire to affluence. So part of the merit in appealing to the rich lies in the trickle-down value of their choices. Luxury brands still appeal to a broad audience because they offer gilt by association.

As the conference participants explored how to entice, delight, surprise and hang onto the prosperous, it became obvious that the study of the spending habits of the 21st century affluent American is a discipline with its own vocabulary. The buzz words sound familiar, but their meanings can be recondite.

Novelty: It isn't enough to have the best. Real bragging rights come with acquiring something no one else has. "Experience collecting" has replaced accumulating things, a trend that surfaced as far back as 1991, when Billy Crystal starred in "City Slickers" as an advertising salesman whose idea of a great vacation was driving a herd of cattle from New Mexico to Colorado.

Anyone can go buy cars in every color, but has your neighbor kayaked on an uncharted rain forest river? OK, then, top this: Did he pay a guide $65,000 to push him to the top of Mt. Everest, the going rate Jon Krakauer cited in the disastrous 1996 climb chronicled in "Into Thin Air"(Random House, 1998).

"One of the hot new resorts is a 27-room Mexican hacienda where rooms start at $675 a night," said Nancy Novogrod, editor of Travel and Leisure. "It takes two hours to get there from Guadalajara airport, traveling over very primitive roads. But people want to be there first. Bali and Southeast Asia are the new Caribbean. The visible signs of wealth can be purchased by the very rich and the not so rich, so the new status isn't something you can see. It's a unique experience."

Scarcity: The harder that experience is to come by, the more desirable it becomes. In 1966, Toronto lawyer George Butterfield and his wife, Martha, pioneered luxury biking and hiking vacations throughout the world. A number of companies have tried to imitate their bike tours, but the Butterfields excel at engineering what he calls "wow moments." He'll warn a friendly vintner that a Butterfield & Robinson group will be bicycling past his Loire Valley vineyard mid-afternoon. The accommodating Frenchman will then invite the cyclists to help him pick grapes. "We have to keep notching up, and one way we do that is by adding the element of surprise," Butterfield said. "People love it when they get something unexpected."

Exclusivity: The Fisher Travel agency's New York number is unlisted, and before they'll deign to as much as hire a limo for someone new, a $10,000 membership fee and a personal reference from an existing client is required. Then, having joined the ranks of Oprah Winfrey and other gazillionaires, you can ask Bill Fisher to book a private island with its own helipad, or get you an appointment with a wizard of a plastic surgeon who is ostensibly booked till 2002.

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