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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Getting Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams Fulfilled Online

September 17, 2000|LAURA BLY

While promises of cheap air fares and cut-rate hotel rooms still dominate most Internet travel sites, a growing number of wealthy travelers are dipping their well-manicured toes into cyberspace, finding everything from a slide show of Conde Nast Traveler's "sexiest hotel pools in America" to $99,000 space travel packages offering the "ultimate ride."

Affluent consumers (those with assets of at least $1 million, excluding their homes) will spend about $800 million online on leisure travel in 2000, says travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., Internet research firm. That may pale next to this year's estimated $12.3 billion spent in online leisure travel, but well-heeled, technologically savvy travelers "are almost twice as likely to buy on the Internet as the rest of us," Harteveldt says.

Unlike their mainstream competitors, sites aimed at wealthy travelers usually require customers to pick up the phone or e-mail for more information, and would-be buyers of high-end vacations won't find many flashing banner ads: In this arena, Harteveldt says, "a whisper sells more than a scream."

A sampling of sites aimed at the champagne-wishes-and-caviar-dreams set:

* Though Travelocity.com customers can access its upscale, experienced agents for $25, the travel agency network Virtuoso (http://www.virtuoso.com) has established its own Internet beachhead. Travelers who register and list their vacation preferences online can search among 4,500 offers, which may include such extras as free excursions or room upgrades.

* Billed as the "ultimate authority on the world's best hotels," the monthly Andrew Harper Hideaway Report has been directing CEOs and other discerning travelers to relatively undiscovered gems for more than two decades. Harper's Web site (http://www.harperassociates.com) includes a sample copy of the newsletter, information on member-only lodging discounts and the 1999 results of its popular reader survey.

* You'll find a smattering of budget travel offers among the "great deals" posted every weekday at Concierge (http://www.concierge.com), the online offshoot of Conde Nast Traveler. But like its print-based cousin, Concierge is more geared to Ritz-Carlton habitues than to campers. Though most of the magazine's content isn't online, the site serves up a range of consumer advice.

* The best feature of Luxury Link (http://www.luxurylink.com) is one more often associated with bare-bones travel deals: a weekly auction of such upscale possibilities as a package at Florida's Cheeca Lodge or a getaway at Canada's Banff Springs Hotel.

* It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who noted "the rich are different from you and me," but Luxelife (http://www.luxelife.com) reprints the quote and tells us why: "For one thing, they have cooler vacations." While co-founder Valerie Wilson says most clients wind up designing their own escapes offline with the help of a Luxelife agent, the recently revamped site offers suggestions under such categories as spas, yachts, cruises and "super luxe." Alas, listings aren't always updated.

*

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Contact Laura Bly at LSBly@aol.com.

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