Not every ultra high net worth individual takes after Phileas Fogg. While the 19th century fictional hero of Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days staked his fortune on a whistle-stop world tour, super-rich travellers of the present millennium are both savvier and pickier. They demand more than their money’s worth. They want exclusivity, adventure, and a kind of raw unexpectedness a la Walter Mitty. And they want bragging rights, of course, but not the pedestrian kind you’re likely to find hashtagged on Instagram.
From soaring over the Kenyan wilderness in the same yellow Gipsy Moth biplane that Robert Redford’s character piloted in Out Of Africa, or an exclusive backstage pass to premier fashion pageants in Paris, these well-heeled globetrotters are more likely to mention their escapades casually at the next huddle of the board of directors.
No one knows their pulse better than Anthony Lassman. This London-based realtor has a keen eye for the tastes of wealthy patrons, a trait he has cultivated over 25 years during his flourishing career in high-end real estate consultancy. Today, alongside that pursuit, he curates exclusive travel experiences for those he knows can afford them. His clients — the “cash-rich and time-poor” — are worth anywhere from $200 million to $8 billion.
Luxury for the UHNW traveller, he remarks, is about discovery, space and time, as much as it is about special places and people, and unique experiences. “Being able to do what you want, when you want to, with no one pressuring you about meal times, cars waiting, getting to airports…”
Nota Bene Global, the bespoke travel consultancy Lassman founded in 2005 with wife and fellow-traveller Elaine, has been described, often lazily, as “Airbnb for billionaires. Notable exception — you don’t just log onto their website and book your digs. You have to be invited to join their discreet, super-selective mailing list, which Anthony and Elaine have compiled assiduously over time by drawing the attention of prospects to their exclusive destination review publications. From this initial offering evolved an annual fee-paying service for UHNWs, which rounds off at $26,000 (`17 lakh approximately).
The Lassmans’ business cards may be found in any number of Hermes handbags and wallets. But if there’s one distinctive quality, besides a yen for travel, that Nota Bene Global shares with its clientele, it’s that they’re equally picky. “We are not right for everyone,” admits Lassman. “It is not always about what they can afford as much as their attitude to what the best can cost.”
The quality he seeks of his clients is discernment. “I don’t ever want to be taken for elitist and am not judging people’s wealth or what they spend,” he says, a tad defensively. “But they do need to understand that the best comes at a price, and even I get shocked by prices!”
Lassman is bitterly critical of what is marketed under the banner of luxury tourism. He once wrote in Huffpost of the ills of seeking travel advice in Florence: ‘For restaurant recommendations, never listen to a hotel concierge, particularly an Italian one.’ At once witty and insightful, his astute observations summarise not just a depth of well-travelled experience but a quest for the finest taste. “Luxury,” he declares, “should not be afraid of simplicity.”
It’s a refrain he labours time and again. The very first line on the homepage of the Nota Bene Global website reiterates: ‘We search endlessly for the special places for those who share our vision of life and luxury.’ “We are constantly listening with our antennae out for anything new and exciting — be it hotel, villa, private island, chalet, etc,” says Lassman. “We are constantly discovering new places, new people, new restaurants... It is a full-time occupation for the entire team.”
Lassman counts among his firm’s most creative itineraries a private jet flight to Antarctica from Cape Town, and a grand tour of the South Pacific from New Zealand to Hawaii. In the Northern Hemisphere, his favourite is a toss-up between Iceland and Greenland, or Norway and the Arctic Circle. ‘We know where’ is Nota Bene Global’s strapline, but Lassman stresses that it should be extended to ‘We know who’ and ‘We know how.’ Among the quirkiest wish-lists he has fulfilled include a one-on-one with the Pope and a meeting with the First Lady of Syria when the country was still safe to visit. On one occasion, Nota Bene Global organised a client’s own water brand to be shipped to the hotel where they were staying, and only this brand was used and seen for the duration of their stay. “The difference is like made-to-measure, compared with bespoke,” says Lassman.
Anthony’s love for travel started early. As a child, one of the first books he read was Luis of Spain about a young boy growing up in a family in a white village in southeastern Spain. “It fired my imagination,” he says. “Venice seduced me when I was 14 and it never fails to excite me.”
Although they were destined to be fellow-travellers, it wasn’t travel that brought Anthony and Elaine together. He was in real estate. She was a model-turned-fashion designer. In the summer of 1976, they met at a garden party in London. “I thought she was the most elegant and beautiful girl at the party but I didn’t go near her as she looked aloof, and I was probably fearful of rejection,” he remembers. “But then, several hours later we got talking, and I realised she was sweet, and we clicked.” As personal travel preferences go, Anthony and Elaine are chalk and cheese, yet they share an extraordinary chemistry that infuses their lives with balance and verve. “I am much more of an adventurer and Elaine loves the space," says Anthony. “She is very aware of the atmosphere and aesthetics and likes to zone out. We manage to combine both our passions and quirks, sharing a love of Italy, its language, food and wine. We also love New York.”
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From honeymooning in Barbados and Martinique, to a love affair with Round Hill, Jamaica, when their children were teenagers, the couple went on to make memories in India's Rajasthan, Botswana, Iceland, Peru, Bhutan and many other destinations. “They have all shaped my interest and fuelled my passion,” says Lassman.
If the Lassmans are indeed living their dream, they owe it to an argument. The story goes that when the couple was on a flight to New York, Anthony began grumbling about a hotel review he had read in a magazine. They had stayed at the hotel recently, and Anthony carped that the review was ‘untruthful’. After enduring his tirade for a while, Elaine snapped back: “If you can't find what you are looking for, why don't you do something yourself?” And that’s how their love-child was born. First as a compendium of meticulously — and truthfully — reviewed destinations and experiences, from which was spawned a bespoke luxury travel service called Nota Bene Global.
Lassman, who had done the equivalent of a university course in estate management before he went into commercial real estate practice, later diversified to residential. And that’s how Nota Bene Global also recently introduced real estate advisory as a service.
Well-travelled children are invaluable assets for a family-run business. While Anthony focuses on the real estate side, his eldest daughter heads the travel management team. She has lived in Sydney, Moscow, Togo and London, and spends a great part of the year in East Africa, where she has a deep knowledge of safari and other unique experiences.
Now that their children are adults, Anthony and Elaine have more time to travel — both together and alone. Work keeps Anthony Lassman jet-setting. From Marrakech to Rwanda and Berlin, his passport is fresh with recent stamps. It begs the question: where does a luxury travel consultant take a vacation? “Anywhere in Italy, at almost any time,” he says. “From the history, the buildings, the food, style, sea, countryside, lakes and mountains, and great hotels... it has everything I want.”
Now, as then, Lassman’s travel philosophy continues to be about the adventure of escapism from everyday life. “Even a day and a half this
week going to Hamburg fulfils,” he says. “And last week in New York fired up the adrenalin. It keeps me young and active and I am always discovering something new.”
What is wrong with luxury tourism today?
It tends to fall into two camps — either packaged luxury with brand-name hotels and first-class commercial flights, or highly experiential travel packages for the high net worth. Yet, there are very few who can tailor-make super luxury with extraordinary experiential for the same client looking for the best of the best any time of the year.
To many people, luxury travel equates to extravagance. Do you agree?
No. Luxury should not be afraid of simplicity. Extravagance, in any case, is relative. What may be extravagant to one is quite regular to another.
What three qualities does it take to succeed in your line of work?
Passion, perfectionism, and determination to provide a superior service, going above and beyond in a very focused way.
What’s the most and the least exciting thing about your job?
Most exciting is having created such a niche brand dealing with many of the world’s most illustrious names as private clients. The least exciting is, as with any business, managing staff and making sure quality control is always preserved.
What do your clients find convincing about Nota Bene’s value proposition?
They love how we inspire them, coming up with ideas they might never have thought of. Then it’s our choice of where to go, when and where to stay, and how to do it in style. It’s the complete experience that matters most — from the hotel suite or guide or restaurant table, or could be the crew on a yacht, the staff at an African compound. We have to get it right.
Are there places or experiences that are strictly off limits?
If they don’t meet our criteria, they are off limits. There are few Eastern European destinations which make it. In the Indian Ocean, we prefer the Seychelles over Mauritius. Anywhere unsafe is off.
Three travel essentials that you never forget to pack.
1. Sun-care products as part of a comprehensively packed wash bag;
2. Freshly-laundered white shirts;
3. Some layers for the plan to provide for temperature variations
What’s your greatest travel anxiety?
Not making it in time to the airport and being too late to catch the plane!