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Select Collection - Luxury travel profile

Summer’s upon us and if you’ve opted for a luxury villa somewhere exotic then chances are you’ve booked with Select Collection. Starting as Select Travel in 1992, this purveyor of luxury holidays grew from one office in Stockholm to a reported £24 million business in five countries, with a new name - Select Collection. Sat Bal talks to its founder Leija Graf.

 

You started the agency Aktiv-Resor back in 1981. What keeps you enthusiastic about this industry?

It is a fascinating industry. There are always new hotels, new destinations and new challenges, developing the business with new techniques and new marketing methods. And of course you meet generally happy people. I had valuable experience at Aktiv-Resor and would not change any of it. In catering to a full market I discovered my special niche. So it led to the right decision – to start Select (in 1992) - just when the recession demanded a new kind of excellence.

 How would you advise a young entrepreneur  interested in starting their own high-end travel service today?

Today I would say don’t start a dedicated luxury agency. It would be difficult to compete with well-established agencies. Select Collection, for example, established 20 years ago, has 80% repeat customers.

 

 

Amankora, Bhutan - a Leija Graf favourite

 

There are a fair few companies offering the luxury travel vision. What distinguishes Select Collection?

Our passion, expertise and personal contacts. Our consultants are widely travelled and constantly on the look-out for secrets to share with our clients. We pride ourselves on one-to-one contact with our customers in designer chic offices and the bespoke tailoring of each and every Select Collection itinerary. Expectations are much higher today so we also provide a proper concierge service to better serve our clients. By partnering with a leading concierge company we have an extended arm in more than 70 destinations. Also very important after so many years in the business, we have wonderful contacts among hotels, DMCs and airlines. So we get excellent rate contracts and are also able to offer added value and VIP treatment. On top of that, apart from the revamped website, we still have our luscious Select Collection signature brochure - 468 pages of delicious hotels, now spiced with hot fashion.  

 

In essence, is luxury in this context about experiential enrichment more than high-end facilities? 

You are absolutely right. It is about service and an enriched experience from the moment you make contact with the tour operator and start planning and booking.  The general trend is that people are looking for change and excitement which moves them away from everyday life. It is the cherry on the top of an already fantastic holiday to have a one-off exceptional experience. Some resorts have factored this into their facilities and services. One example is the tree top dining pod at Soneva Kiri in Thailand. Another is fishing expeditions arranged for father and son. The fish is grilled on the beach for mother and siblings – an unforgettable experience for the whole family.

 

Soneva Kiri, Thailand

 

In my experience, money is generated from two polarised sectors today : the luxury sector and the budget sector. If you could significantly increase revenue and profit from budget-sector operations, would you abandon the luxe segment?

Good question. When I started Select I had a lot of people coming into the agency to request budget travel. Though we needed more business I always said 'No – we sell only luxury'. I think that answers your question?

 

Red Carpet interviews a lot of music and film celebrities - what are the destination trends for this demographic?

Crusoe-style islands with just one hotel are a growing trend for this market and the popularity of the Maldives is rising dramatically at the expense of other ‘paradise’ destinations. Select has a special affinity for smaller properties and in the Maldives we offer boutique style island hideaways which a group of musicians and extroverted theatrical types could take over for sole use with no neighbours to disturb except the crabs and rays. Or if they really want to make a big sound without transporting equipment, I suggest Villa Rockstar at Eden Rock on St Barth...

 

Studio at Villa Rockstar music studio

 

How intense is competition in your market?

The competition is very tough. We have to be really on top of things, offering not only passion and expertise but added value and concierge services, while our hotel prices should never exceed those on the internet.

 

“On aircraft, of course it is a suite you want these days, not a seat.”

 

Your most memorable destinations?

Bhutan is my most amazing memory – a closed kingdom that values Gross National Happiness over GNP – it’s like walking back in time. I travelled to four Amankora resorts, each a cultural experience in itself – one like a temple, for example, another like a country house. We went on beautiful hikes every day, seeing changing scenery and monasteries clinging to mountain slopes. Another unforgettable experience is the Seychelles – North Island and Fregate Island. Pampering paradises, where you can be totally alone on white beaches washed by crystal waters, and never need to meet other guests or dress up if you don’t feel like it. Finally a rather unexpected destination for a luxury operator – Lloret de Mar on the Costa Brava. I chose it only for a special hotel there – Alva Park. A hotel fetishist has created the ultimate lush luxury destination within its plain walls...it has to be experienced to be believed!

 

The Alva Park resort, Costa Brava

 

Boeing or Airbus?

The best beds I think are in the Airbus 388 (A380-800) and the Boeing 77W (Boeing 777-300ER), which is a variation of the Boeing 777. Of the two, I would probably choose the latter.

 

The flatbed from Virgin Atlantic

 

British Airways or Singapore?

Singapore. In the 77W both First and Business have four suites in a row, while British Airways has eight suites abreast in Business. On aircraft, of course it is a suite you want these days, not a seat.

 

Singapore Airlines suite

 

Haneda or Heathrow?

It is a difficult comparison for me to make because we have very little traffic to Japan and I have never been to Haneda. But Heathrow is improving with all the lounges.

 

British Airways Concorde Room at T5 Heathrow

 

The Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow is fabulous. But at Select we are more impressed with the exclusivity and smooth operation of the Lufthansa first class lounge at Frankfurt – with its own separate building, own security check and passport control, and transfer to the plane by Mercedes and Porsche. We are also impressed by the total exclusivity of BA Concorde Room at Heathrow with its elegance, fine menu and great choice of champagnes; Singapore Airlines' private room in Singapore with fabulous personal service, food and style; and the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul with interiors by Priestman Goode. Own lounges by Middle Eastern airlines Qatar and Etihad at Heathrow are putting pressure on BA.

Private jet charters show increasing demand within Europe but we find little interest in private jets for long-haul flights.

 

Champagne on board Virgin’s Upper Class bar 

 

Finally, how do you think the Leija Graf of 1981 would view you today?

I think I would be very pleased to see that my ideas on ultimate service turned out so well. I might of course be surprised to see I had expanded to five countries - Stockholm, Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen and London - and had a gorgeous spa in my Stockholm offices. But I am sure I would be very happy that I seemed much less stressed in 2012 than I was in back in 1981...

 

Select Travel London Boutique:  62 South Audley Street , Mayfair

 

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