Wall St Journal

WHEN JUDE HANNAH headed off for a 14-day vacation to Western Australia earlier this year, she was looking forward to more than spending time at the hotel spa and horseback riding on the beach. “I wanted to hook up with some real people,” says the 43-year-old Los Angeles-based creative consultant. Sixty-five thousand dollars later, Ms. Hannah found herself hobnobbing with ad directors and artists, including her favorite designer, Rick DeLaRosa, at an intimate dinner party in Broome set up by her travel agent. “Sure, you’re paying to be put in front of these people, but there are no name tags saying who has paid and who hasn’t,” says Ms. Hannah. “It’s great for networking. . . . I’m constantly shooting them off emails.”

Travel agents are increasingly selling vacationers something they can’t book on the Internet: friends. Bluefish Concierge recently got a client vacationing in St. Tropez onto a private yacht trip with local movers and shakers, introduced a traveler to a French pearl-seller in Bora Bora, and in August squeezed clients vacationing in Miami into private parties after the MTV Video Music Awards. Ellison Poe, president of Arkansas-based Poe Travel, says she taps her friends around the world, including a safari leader who invited two honeymooning clients to a personal gathering at his home in Nairobi, Kenya. Another travel agent arranged for a friend who lives on Italy’s Amalfi Coast to drop in on her clients and take them for a walk.

Travel companies and schools have been introducing visitors to locals for years, of course — arranging home-stays with families, or setting up lunch visits with residents — but those primarily are designed for students or budget travelers. Web sites like jambo.net and asmallworld.net also let travelers connect directly with potential friends. But the newer services offer more-tailored introductions; rarely advertised, they often come as part of travel bookings that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Such services are being offered by a range of travel agencies, high- end concierge services and other companies whose offerings include vacation planning. Personal-concierge services such as Elan, Mint Lifestyle and Preferred Group, all founded over the past three years, say they’re increasingly planning travel, and as part of that service often help clients gain access to social scenes away from home.

When it was launched 11 years ago, Bluefish, a concierge service in West Palm Beach, Fla., was getting its clients into exclusive restaurants or VIP boxes at local football games; now, with travel representing 65% of its business, it’s helping its customers gain access to parties and events in spots like Monaco and Venice. These customized social offerings are one way for travel agents to compete with less-expensive online booking services. Since 2000, the percentage of people who book their travel on the Internet has doubled, according to the American Society of Travel Agents, and employment of travel agents is expected to decline over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s impossible to affix a price to friendship, of course, or to set a value on an opened door. Still, for the agencies that offer them, these services tend to pay handsomely: Prices range from hundreds or thousands of dollars for an agency to set up contacts or entrance to a VIP event, to millions or more for full trips that include custom introductions.

For example, Elan, of Newport Beach, Calif., is arranging a trip next month for a client that will include a private jet to Buenos Aires, a week in the presidential suite at the capital’s newest hotel and 24-hour access to a “personal experience manager” — plus, the agency is organizing a private gala it says will attract 200 Argentines, from government officials to supermodels and tango stars. (The company declined to name its client.) It says it will offer the same package to others, for $6.4 million. Jackie Bergman, a 38-year-old single mother of two from Mesa, Ariz., wouldn’t disclose the price of her trip this year but says she paid “a lot” to have a LaCure Villas, a Toronto-based villa-rental service, immerse her in Jamaican society. She booked a flat rate for the summer, which included a private cook and introductions to several Kingston residents that shared her interests. Once there, she paid extra for local staff members to bus locals they’d chosen to a beach- party dinner she hosted. “It was great to connect with Jamaicans I could relate to,” she says.

Travel and concierge agencies say they don’t pay the foreign contacts — instead, they say, they arrange introductions they think will yield social or business benefit for both sides. Providers say they have to gauge the compatibility of their clients with their local contacts, accounting for the fact that in unfamiliar situations, some people may not be themselves. “I get stories back that my clients were closed-off or awkward — totally different from the way they presented themselves in my office,” says Mara Solomon, director of Homebase Abroad, a Scituate, Mass.-based company that provides Italian villas. Failure, agents say, comes at a high price: The matchmakers may risk losing clients or hard-won contacts abroad. “These things are not for the general public,” says Scott Grody, president of the 20-year-old Fugazy International Travel, who says he offers these services to only about 5% of his clients.

Mark Denker, an endocrinologist from Los Angeles, says he got the last-minute jitters when he showed up at a party in Miami hosted by rap star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “I’m not in the industry, so I wasn’t sure if I was wearing the right things, or if I would fit in,” says the 45-year-old father of two, who paid Bluefish $1,000 to get him into the party because he was tired of socializing exclusively with other doctors. Although Mr. Denker didn’t exactly bond with Paris Hilton, Shaquille O’Neal or the other celebrities there, he says the experience was worth the money. “It wasn’t so much about meeting the people but about seeing the scene, and being seen.”

There are some requests, agents say, that require them to draw the line. Bill Fischer, president of the high-end Fischer Travel Enterprises, received a plea last month from a plastic surgeon in Tokyo who wanted him to arrange a vacation for her. Her special request? To meet a “potential soul mate for life . . . a wealthy man — maybe someone in the oil business.” Mr. Fischer declined. “I told her to go on J-date,” he says, referring to an online dating service. “That’s something we wouldn’t do — it’s just too involved.” Wall St Journal

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