Honeymoon planner for billionaires

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 11, 2018.
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Postnuptial planning can be as dramatic as the big day itself

Summer is officially wedding season — which means it is also honeymoon season.

Lining up a dream postnuptial vacation can be just as high-stakes as planning the big day itself. (Remember Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s widely publicised indecision: Was it Africa or Canada?) It can be especially complicated, it turns out, if you are a billionaire.

Nobody knows that better than the planning team of Ovation Vacations, a leisure travel consultancy for ultra-high-net-worth individuals. (Think media moguls, real estate tycoons, financiers, movie stars, talk show hosts and pro athletes.) The company’s team of 30 agents plans more than 200 honeymoons a year, at an average of US$50,000 per trip (RM200,500). That is almost US$1 million in honeymoon bookings each month.

Ovation president Jack Ezon is like the Olivia Pope of travel, handling myriad client requests from the practical to the absurd. And as I learnt during a consulting crash course with Ezon and his team, there are many odd asks from the world’s richest honeymooners. By the end of my second day, I had arranged a couple’s hard-to-get dinner reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro (of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame), booked a private meet-and-greet with the pope (for a Jewish man, no less), and helped organise a transatlantic charter flight for a sheikh’s bird.

But wait, there is more … — Bloomberg



Someone has to carry the meat

After signing a non-disclosure agreement, your first rite of passage with Ovation is to travel with the meat. Literally. The agency’s clients include many kosher and halal travellers (along with plenty of otherwise picky eaters), and one of the most common requests Ovation fields is to have specific cuts of beef flown from a client’s butcher in the US to a location on the other side of the globe.

The title of T-bone chaperone always goes to the agency’s most junior planner. It is their unenviable task to lug the filet mignons through airport security in chilled briefcases, then onto a commercial jet and eventually to their desired hotel kitchen. Cooking the meat can be an exacting science, too: One planner, Amy, has received paint swatches in the mail from a traveller showing precisely how medium rare he wanted his steak.

Food requests go far beyond shuttling rib-eye. On my second day at the office I processed a request from a new client who wanted his al dente pasta boiled for an exact number of minutes. And one pop star client fulfilled the stereotype by requesting freshly picked dragonfruit every morning for her daily “pink drink” smoothie … in Iceland. The local authority had strict regulations against the importation of exotic produce, so Ezon had to volley test fruits with the Icelandic government for weeks before securing customs approval.


Celebrities are not the only ones with a dreaded rider

Riders are compiled for every one of Ovation’s honeymooners; often they are so complex, they make  J Lo seem easy-going for wanting the green M&M’s picked out of her candy bowl.

On the manageable end, particularities range from specific plies of toilet paper to strange bed-making methods.One

newly-wed visiting the Seychelles would drink only Fiji water; a crate was duly flown in to supply her nightly. Another wanted Elchim hairdryers everywhere she went — including far-flung Laos and Sri Lanka. Once, Ezon was provided with a typed list of 16 condom types a new husband wanted stocked in his minibar.

Sometimes the requests are so massive in scope that construction crews need to get involved. For a five-night trip, one prominent television actress paid US$40,000 to have her hotel bathroom’s granite sink lifted 17.78cm higher — all so she would not have to bend over when washing her face. Similarly, a husband recently spent US$80,000 to have a 64m yacht completely carpeted, so his new wife could wear her stilettos on board instead of having to — gasp! — go barefoot.


Sometimes you have got to build the beach

Why customise the perfect hotel room if you cannot do the same for the beach? That is what Ezon’s team did when one couple’s dream Caribbean vacation — in a presidential villa with a small private beach — was nearly destroyed by a storm that permanently washed away the seafront. The planning team’s quick solution? Hiring a motorcade of dump trucks to move sand in from another part of the island. It cost a cool US$50,000.

Sometimes the solution is not quite so extreme. One agent, Christiana, recently travelled to St Lucia to personally guarantee a picky couple’s beach bliss. The resort had a strict first-come policy for use of their chaise lounges, and refused the client’s offer to buy the entire beach (yes, you read that correctly). So Christiana checked in to the resort herself and claimed the best beachside seats for them before sunrise each morning.


Most wishes can be granted … except if they will land you in jail

“We’ll do anything for our clients as long as it’s legal in the country they’re visiting,’ said Ezon, who has fielded only one request for a prostitute in his 18 years of honeymoon planning. (We’ll get to that story shortly.) There have been asks for cocaine and even money laundering — which are both a hard no — but most of the boundary-pushing demands tend to revolve around exclusive experiences. Tickets to the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party are low-hanging fruit. More impressive, Ezon has organised an overnight at Versailles for honeymooners who wanted to sleep in King Louis XIV’s bed. Another time, he arranged a meet-and-greet with Vladimir Putin (no Trumps were involved). Within two hours of joining the agent team, I was on the phone with the Vatican, sorting out the logistics of having the pope marry an interfaith couple on their elopement-cum-honeymoon.


There is crisis management, around the clock

Two consultants are on call for every trip to ensure that travellers get a near-instantaneous response to any on-the-ground emergency — a service that about 80% of Ovation’s travellers use. Typical on-the-road requests range from restaurant reservation alterations to complete itinerary overhauls; maybe the forecast in Hawaii calls for eight days of rain.

But sometimes trips go wildly awry, like when a couple in Paris got stuck behind a car accident on the way to the airport. Ezon immediately arranged for four motorbikes to pick them up in the middle of the highway (two for the travellers, two for their luggage) and zip them between gridlocked vehicles to make their flight.


And sometimes it is trouble in paradise

Remember when Britney Spears married and divorced Jason Alexander within 55 hours? Some of Ezon’s clients have had their marriages go bust even faster. Just 36 hours into their Maldives honeymoon, one of Ezon’s couples decided to call it off. The bride was flown out in a jiff. As for the groom? He stayed and requested some professional “company”. Escorting is strictly illegal in the island nation, so Ovation put him on a four-hour flight to Bangkok and set him up with a “nightlife guide” instead.

Another time, a wife rang Ovation to add her hairdresser to the upcoming trip roster. But after Ezon arranged the ticket and hotel room, he received a call from the husband requesting that the extra booking be cancelled. As it turned out, he was having an affair with his wife’s stylist … Fredrick. (And yes, the honeymoon went on as planned.)


Some honeymooners are good at finding their own trouble

There have, perhaps predictably, been instances of the honeymooners getting woefully out of hand. Ezon explained: “At Ovation we adhere to the same credo as Ritz-Carlton: ‘We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen’, and there is a line that clients can cross when it comes to gentlemanly behaviour.” The wife who hurled dishes at her server when he forgot to bring her Tabasco for her eggs? Yeah, she has been put on the agency’s very polite blacklist. Racist comments are another hard no-no — as is making a pass at a spa therapist, even if you do not bellow “Don’t you know who I am?” when she rebuffs.


Adding up the tab

Ovation has a honeymoon minimum of US$20,000, though prices quickly escalate into six figures. On average, clients spend US$1,950 a night for their accommodation, and trips last 2.78 weeks. (Ezon said a large majority stay connected to work while on vacation.) Among the most expensive trips the team has recently planned? A month-long private yacht adventure through Africa and the Maldives for a high-profile wife and her billionaire husband totalling more than US$1.85 million; a 45-day tour of Oceania, Southeast Asia and the Med for members of a royal family priced at US$1,625,900; and 10 days in Sardinia where the accommodations alone cost US$250,000. Ezon’s hard work does not go unnoticed either — tips have ranged from Bottega Veneta swag and Hermès cuffs to cases of Tuscan wine and checks for more than US$100,000.


Three’s not a crowd

Asking your hairstylist along on a trip is nothing out of the ordinary for Ovation’s clients — many request the presence of their most trusted helpers, even on a honeymoon. To some high-profile travellers, it is not privacy unless it is shared with a security detail to keep the paparazzi at bay; others just like having their housekeepers, make-up artists, trainers and personal chefs around. One couple paid US$2,250 per day to accommodate a trio of German clinicians who could administer intravenous vitamin B-12 solutions to cure their champagne hangovers.

Sometimes those extra travellers are not even human. Honeymooners who cannot live without their dogs have been known to splurge on suites with extra bedrooms, massages, gourmet food and even custom-built hotel furniture. As for the second-most common companion creature? Falcons. Christiana has booked several birds of prey on long-haul flights — they are allowed on Emirates and Etihad without a handler, she said, as long as you book them a US$21,055 first-class suite.