Earth is a tiny travel agency in London whose 150 clients include business leaders, music and film honchos and other names you know. Its phone number is unlisted, and its website is a dead end, displaying only a dramatic image of the planet's surface and an enigmatic message: "Membership is currently restricted to recommendations from existing clients or by invitation." There are no further links. No one has been invited in five years, maybe more.
"We're really not mysterious, but we are rare," says founder Glen Donovan, 42, who after rigorous screening does, in fact, come to the phoneand not without a giggle over the secrecy of it all.
The rarest thing about Earth is that it purveys stratospheric levels of luxury. So lite is the travel that even the poshest hot spots are deep-sixed. "I would say we reject, in the nicest way possible, about 80% of what other companies promote as luxurious," Donovan says. On the docket instead are undiscovered, off-the-radar corners of the globe, most situated with private homes or hotels with few rooms. "It's not Monte Carlo and Dubai," Donovan explains. As for what it might be then? "It's a secret," he says with another giggle. "That's the only mysterious bit."
Indeed, Earth publishes no lists or brochures, and even clients receive their recommendations on a case-by-case basis, the better to protect the sanctity of its locales. "We're always looking for something slightly unusual," Donovan says. "For me, a place like Dubai just doesn't ring a bell. It's empty, really. What I hope we offer our clients is the antithesis of that. Something truly fulfilling and enriching."
Earth's trips enrich on many levels. As the first carbon-neutral company in existence, Earth claims, it offsets the pollution of each trip, sponsoring projects in places like Uganda and Mexico. The price tag for an Earth experience? Confidential, of course. "I'd rather leave it up to the imagination," Donovan says.
Blame it on hedge-fund hegemony. The quest for things exorbitantly exotic has reached a fever pitch of late. For one thing, more people than ever can afford to join in the pursuit. "This is the richest year ever in human history," said Steve Forbes, chief executive of Forbes, whose recent Forbes 400 list consisted entirely of billionaires for the second year since its inception. The past year has seen the number of billionaires grow 19%, to nearly 1,000, according to the company. In the past 10 years, the number of financial millionaires has more than doubled.
Half the new members on the Forbes 400 list come from hedge funds and private equity, and they form a fiscal fraternity that is not only wealthier but also younger, more diverse and more numerous than ever. While managing and making billions, the economy's latest whiz kids are shaking up the financial world and, quite often, the planet's spending habits along with it. "Never before have so many Americans gotten so wealthy so quickly. And never before have the wealthy spent so much on lifestyle and consumer goods," says Robert Frank, author of Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich. "So what do you do to stand out? The challenge for today's rich is to set themselves apart from the merely affluent. You want things no one else can afford or experience. The challenge is to always stay ahead." And while the recent stock-market turbulence may stall the tide, it is unlikely to stem it. "You can't get rich off financial markets and not be exposed if they fall," Frank says. "The next year or two, we might have a slight decline in numbers of millionaires as well as a decline in the amount of their wealth. But long term, I'm bullish on wealth. The rich are going to get richer, and more important, they are going to get more numerous."
So what, exactly, does it take to keep up with the hedgies? Apparently, anything from the tried-and-true status symbols (only on steroids) to the never before imagined.