Seasoned travel connoisseur Anthony Lassman is the co-founder of a travel and lifestyle management company that offers UHNWIs an escape from the ordinary. Here, he talks exclusively with Luxury Society about what constitutes true luxury.
Standing to greet me as I shuffle into the dim-lit bar of the impressionable establishment that is The Bristol Hotel in Paris, Anthony Lassman cuts an immaculate and eloquent figure in a sharp, tailored navy suit a tie.
To say he exudes the air of the perfect gentleman upon meeting would be an understatement. Despite my late arrival due to an infamous Parisian traffic jam, Lassman is courteous, articulate and engaging as he begins to unravel the origins behind the inspirational company he has built with his wife Elaine.
“ They have dedicated their lives to traversing the globe in search of the rarest locations, best restaurants & experiences ”
His partner in both life and business at Nota Bene, the ultra-luxury, tailored travel and lifestyle management company they have created, Elaine is similarly statuesque and impossibly chic when she sweeps into the room – the two combined are the epitome of class and, as I quickly learn – extremely well-travelled, with an innate instinct for what truly defines elite experiences.
It’s easy to see why their clients trust them to deliver travel itineraries which stand out from the rest, because – besides the fact that they have both dedicated their lives to traversing the globe in search of the rarest locations, best restaurants and experiences – the overall theme that pertains throughout our conversations is that they are connoisseurs of what constitutes the extraordinary in every sense – which is exactly what sets Nota Bene apart.
The concept behind its creation at first sounds blatantly obvious – the wealthy want travel experiences that are rare and are constantly on the hunt for the exceptional – but in a globalised world where everyone is mobile and information abounds, the market is saturated and options are limitless, so it’s no easy task to sort the mundane from experiences that truly stand out.
“ Every experience they recommend for their clients has been personally vetted ”
Nota Bene takes on this task and delivers to a fault – providing a unique take on travel and lifestyle, that gives their elite membership access to bespoke experiences that are a cut above, through both their experience and global connections. Indeed, on the very evening we meet the two breezily mention that they have a reservation at a top Parisian restaurant which is strictly no reservations – which immediately sets the bar for the seemingly impossible that they are able to execute in their line of work.
Every experience they recommend for their clients has been personally vetted by them or their savvy team of consultants at Nota Bene, ensuring that the locations they pinpoint are up to the standards they adhere to and not merely a result of reviews and shop talk – and it is this stringent quality control and the cultivated opinions they provide which undoubtedly provides their business with an edge in the market.
Yet as the global landscape, offerings available, and needs of each client are constantly changing, having a finger on the pulse and maintaining a credible reputation demands a sharp eye and a lot of work but – as Anthony himself concedes – Nota Bene is a labor of love and this sophisticated duo truly have a passion for finding the rarest gems in what constitutes real luxury – whether it be an offbeat location, a haute dining establishment or a crafted experience unlike any other. This is what drives them, what makes their selections so genuine and on point – and why their services are so highly regarded.
Indeed, their unique take on what constitutes a luxury lifestyle is so sought after, that Anthony tells me that they will eventually go back to publishing the inspirational travel tomes that sparked the start of their management business, as demand is increasing for a voice that cuts through the noise and provides refined counsel on curated experiences that transcend the commonplace.
Here, I discover more about how Nota Bene came to be – and what makes it such an indispensable tool for those who are on the hunt for the extraordinary.
Tell me a bit more about your business – the concept behind it its creation, its trajectory to date and its growth since inception.
My background was always residential real estate and I had nothing to do with travel. It was prompted really by the fact that I found so few people that I could really trust for their opinion to get things put into context of what I was looking for. It actually started when I was on a plane to New York, reading a magazine and I said to my wife, “I don’t believe that so-and-so could have stayed at this hotel.” She said, “Why don’t you do something then? You’ve spent your whole life taking notes and critiquing everything.” That’s how it really started. We started publishing beautiful colored books that were a text book style and they were sold by membership. Through that, I suddenly realized that we had this extraordinary database of really high profile people that were loving the opinion we had and really cherished these books.
“ We’re all about crafting and curating, and providing insider experiences ”
Then when everybody said: “Oh the whole world is moving online”, so we stopped printing the books and we moved the content online. We let the service take over because many people said: “We love what you write but we never manage to get this kind of experience through the providers that we’re using”. Whether it was travel agents or concierge services or card holder services. That’s how we started the travel and lifestyle management company. That is really the main focus of our operations and the main focus of our growth.
So the crux of it is travel and lifestyle management. I equate it to the same as asset management. People are managing your money, we’re managing your time and we’re making sure that it’s a hell of a lot more than travel agency. There is a big travel agency element within it but it’s much, much more than that. Firstly, it’s really about inspiring people. Secondly, it’s about organizing these incredible experiences booking it, managing it and offering the bespoke element.
We’re all about crafting and curating, and providing insider experiences – taking people to places that, generally speaking, are not available or not known by too many.
“ Whatever we write about, we’ve been there. It is all based on firsthand experience ”
Tell me more about the team behind Nota Bene.
We have a team, a relatively small team, split into two parts. We have one team who take care of the travel management which is actually headed up by my eldest daughter who is amazing and has a wealth of knowledge. She lives part of the year in Africa, so she’s had a huge amount of experience on safari and East Africa and unique experiences there but she’s also traveled extensively around the world.
She’s lived in Sydney, Australia, in Moscow, in Togo, West Africa, in London. She heads up the team. Then we have the other team who do the online material and a certain amount of reviewing and publishing.
Obviously your target market is ultra-high-net-worth individuals, but how do you go about targeting your market and communicating with your clients?
We have a content portal for our fee-paying clients – and whatever we write about there, we’ve been there. It is all based on firsthand experience. Everything is based on travelling to the destinations. I’m still very much involved with the business, so obviously I get involved in the planning of what we’re going to publish, working out the travel schedules, who’s going where.
But it’s a combination of things. Quite a lot of it is word of mouth, and quite a lot of it also comes from people who originally read the books we used to publish at the beginning, sharing our travel experiences, and for one reason or another at certain times didn’t need the service. Maybe they used other services but slowly but surely they’ve contacted us, because either they’re not happy with who they’ve been using to plan their travel or they’d like to try us or a friend recommended us, etc. It’s a combination of that.
There are also certain partnerships that we have, so a few people get recommended that way. There’s been a certain amount of press coverage over a period of time but sometimes people don’t respond to that immediately. They may mark it out and then come back a couple of year later. Personal circumstances change, people are traveling in one year and maybe not in the next year etc. That’s how the market works in this field.
Take me behind-the-scenes of the process of organizing something bespoke once a client comes to you – how do you define what they are after and what kind of experience will match, and meet the mark?
It’s a combination of things really. Sometimes, for example last year, we had a male client, who was getting married. His brother was a Nota Bene client and he wanted his honeymoon arranged and he was quite specific. He said he thought about where he’d like to go, so it was definitely Europe, but he’s quite well-travelled so he was thinking about a boat for part of the time and then perhaps Paris for some shopping. So from there, we started thinking and the thinking process leads to the curation.
“ In working closely with people who travel a lot, it also allows us to learn more about them, and what they want ”
Then we started to map out an itinerary that we thought he would love. It ended up that we included Turkey, but we then also suggested Capri, so we organised for them to travel privately from Capri on a speedboat to Naples, Naples to Istanbul – all privately. Then they went down to the Turkish Riviera. We charted them a beautiful boat where we knew the crew, we knew the boat, we’d seen it, we’d been on it, we could vouch for it. Then on the return they went to Paris and it was all about the hotel suite, the restaurants, the VIP access to certain arts shows. That’s the kind of thing e provide – it’s all extremely tailored to the client’s needs.
Other times we have clients that are travelling very, very regularly and they want advice on where to go in the locations they are stopping at. In working closely with people who travel a lot, it also allows us to learn more about them, what they want and what we can offer that is ne and inspiring all the time.
You have two levels of service – Nota Bene Personal and Nota Bene Bespoke – how do you distinguish the two, what it the difference between them?
The difference with the Bespoke is that it is for those who require a far greater amount of personal attention, and a far greater depth of service – we provide a one-on-one consultant who is exclusively for them.
So, basically, to put it into context – when you are a Nota Bene regular client we will organise the trip. Of course you’ll have access to the content portal, you have access to one of the team, we will plan the trip and inspire you, and time it and manage it all. Then we give you a list of recommenced restaurants and things you can do.
“ With the Bespoke service, we provide the client with a one-on-one consultant who is exclusively for them ”
However, when you are on the Bespoke side we do everything for the client. We book the restaurant table, we will book you the spa treatments. We will organise things like having your luggage personally delivered, provide you with personal security services, every single detail is taken care of. We’re selling a lot more time, a lot more service, and all that together is what constitutes the Bespoke experience.
Nota Bene is member-based – how does that work and what does that entail?
Members have unlimited access to the team to plan as many trips as they want to do. They also receive weekly communication, and they have access to the online portal, so they also have access the content we curate.
We also have a Nota Bene Exclusives program that’s just about to launch. Which the clients will have access to special privileges that we have negotiated with hotels that we personally approve of around the world. So, for people who are travelling off peak that service will provide a number of benefits that Nota Bene can offer them.
“ It comes down to taste, discernment, being able to contextualise who the experience is for – and that’s where I’m confident ”
Luxury travel is an increasingly a saturated market, with more and more luxury travel providers now offering tailored trips and services – is this on your radar and how do you personally carve your niche in this crowded market?
You’re absolutely right in that it has become increasingly saturated. There are so many new concierge companies. There are opinion formers, there are people who blog, people who say: “I’m an expert, I’ve got this guide”. Loads of them. I suppose that in the same way, there are also loads of magazines out there, lots of fashion designers, and also so many brands that are constantly being created and launched.
So, the way I respond to the question is that anybody – in theory – can do this, anybody can set themselves up and say: “I’m a luxury travel provider, we know the best, we have access to the best, etc” – because many of them have done that. But what I always say is: “Well okay fine let me test you. Let me find out what you rate such location or establishment – and then I can tell whether I think you are going to be right for me.”
The best test is to talk to somebody and say: “Okay, if I’m coming to London or I’m going to Capri or I’m going to New York – where do you think I’d like to stay? Where do you think I’d like to eat? Who do you know? Who do you connect with?”
I can go on and on and on. It comes down to taste, discernment, being able to contextualise who the experience is for – and that’s where I’m confident without being arrogant. But I am the demographic, so I know what they are after.
I didn’t start doing this as a good way to make money. Real estate makes more money. I went into this out of pure passion and a life time of experience. I’m in my early 60s, so consequently I’ve lived the life. So I feel pretty well-qualified to say: “Look I’ve travelled extensively, my wife has been involved for many years in fashion and lifestyle. We know what we’re talking about.”
So, it does come down to whether our clients buy into our taste level, our discernment, our take on things. Savvy customers want to know: “Where does your opinion come from? Where does your knowledge come from? Where do your contacts come from?”
“ I think trust is the most important thing, because so much can be appropriated, but you can easily find out when something is a genuine thing ”
So I think with Nota Bene and whether it’s the right fit – it’s really about identifying: “What is Nota Bene’s point of difference? Do I really buy into their opinion? Do I trust them?” I think trust is the most important thing, because so much can be appropriated, but you can easily find out when something is a genuine thing with us. Everything we write, publish, everything we do and suggest – we’ve been there.
It’s an interesting point you’ve made in that you are the demographic and therefore that puts you in a great position to gauge what your clients are after – does that provide a competitive edge?
I think so, yes. Because, the thing is – unless you really have understood what it is that makes, for example, really great housekeeping – unless you really know what a really beautiful turndown service is – how can you speak on it? What makes a bathroom that has all the right appointments, the right towels, soaps, the sheets on the bed, all of those things? Unless you actually can appreciate that – unless you have drunk a really great espresso – how would you ever know what a great espresso is, what sets it apart?
“ It’s all about the details. It’s the details that really matter, yet are so often overlooked ”
All of those details, and that’s the test to me. It’s all about the details. It’s the details that really matter, yet are so often overlooked. It’s not about what hotel is best. It’s about: “Where is the nicest view? Do you like light? Do you want a view? Is having a peaceful night sleep the most important? Which suite do we think is the loveliest? Who is the head concierge somebody you should connect with? What can you tell me about the atmosphere? Who would I expect to find in that kind of a hotel? Why should I go to that one as opposed to that one?”
If you’re coming to London as just one example – the choices are relatively extensive but it’s being able to put it into context, who is going to like what, when and why? It’s really such a layered process that I do consider it to be almost like an art form.
Nota Bene has been running for about 10 years now – do you feel that the demands of what is expected of luxury travel experiences as well as where and how they travel has changed?
I think today more and more people are much more demanding because there has been such an explosion in wealth and wealth has probably gotten slightly younger. The quick money generally creates even more demanding people. Because there is so much out there, there’s so much content, there are so many options out there the people are more and more and more wanting to try new things. They’re hearing about new places, new things but they want to make sure that they’re at the same time that they’re getting it right. I think that deals with the first part of the question.
The second thing is I’ve found that people plan a lot less than they used to. Years ago people would plan all of their main holidays. They would think about the summer much earlier, they would think about Easter, Christmas, the skiing trip, a few city breaks, their American Thanksgiving etc.
“ People are much more demanding because there has been such an explosion in wealth ”
Today, people are much more last minute. There’s a much greater tendency for people to suddenly wake up and think: “Oh it’s really cold I’ve got a few days, I want to go somewhere”.
The expectations are also higher up the scale you go, the expectation of things being available is even greater. So, again, to cater to that niche, you have to be really, really well connected. You have to be really connected with the people that matter – so, owners and GMs of hotels, etc – to get the very best. Relationships are vital, it’s not just knowing somewhere. It’s being able to say: “Look I’ve got so and so they’re really a really great client for you. I want them to come what can you do?”
What does it take to cultivate those kinds of contacts?
It takes years and years and years. You can’t just suddenly have access and knowledge of many of these amazing providers around the world. Whether it is chartering a classic craft to go sailing through remote islands of Indonesia with the best guides, or an art curator that you want to engage with because you’re going to the Venice Biennale or San Paulo Biennial.
Or the incredible couple we work with in Rome who have created the most unique experiences in tours. For example, they orgnaised a trip for me once to a relatively contemporary villa but where ancient Roman ruins had been found beneath it.
So, you go into this relatively conventional but very stylish villa and a basement opens up through this glass floor and you go down to these old ancient ruins that are absolutely superb. They also did something for a client of ours on the stunning terrace overlooking the Colosseum that was used in a scene from the Italian film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty.)
It was made available for a private dinner for a client of ours, privately catered for a special event. I think it was an anniversary. It’s those kinds of things. That’s what we do for our Bespoke clients, those kinds of experiences are what we offer.
Have these changing times where in some locations, there is quite a lot of political unrest – has that added extra complications to the travel planning for clients?
It’s bound to affect certain people and generally speaking North Americans on the whole who make up a large percentage of our clients are traditionally cautious. They can be quite easily spooked, so they won’t go to certain places. But I think as we all know, memories are relatively short-lived, life continues. An interesting thing I found is that the wealthier people are, generally the braver they are. I don’t quite know why, maybe it’s the fact that if they want to go somewhere they will generally do it. If they feel: “Well look I’m not going to go commercially but I’ve got the money to go privately and maybe I’ll feel safer doing it that way”, they’ll find that way to do it and they have the means to do it.
“ The challenges in this kind of business are always based on the quality of your team and the kind of intelligence and service that you can provide ”
What are key challenges then that you foresee as a whole on the horizon for the luxury travel industry and perhaps for your business in particular?
I would say that the challenges that face say the travel industry per se, in general terms, could be things like economic factors. So, obliviously if there’s an economic downtown that there would be an effect. But then, the higher you go up in the market chain, the more insulated that becomes. I think for our level of the market that is not necessarily a challenge.
I think the challenges in this kind of business I’m in, are always based on the quality of your team and the kind of intelligence and service that you can provide. Keeping up with everything and keeping up with all the new openings, going back and revisiting things, places that you thought were great two years ago making sure they still are.
How is the new style of management? Does it have the same taste that it had once before? What do we think about the new hotel brands from the East, compared with the more traditional European brands of hotel. All those kinds of things.
“ It’s not always about how much it costs. It’s that X-factor that you have to pick up ”
Those are the challenges because you don’t want to be caught out. People expect that you’ve covered things, that you know things, that you can advise them on whether they will like it. I also find that as a businessman the challenges are always in finding a great team of people, the best people… This is not something you can learn.
It’s not a science. People have to feel it, love it, breathe it. They have to really understand their clients and they have to get what comes with choosing a great place and what doesn’t.
It’s not always about how much it costs, it’s not always about the size of the room or the quality of the room. It’s that X-factor that you have to pick up. Because, look – I’ve been to certain places that don’t not cost a fortune, but they have such integrity and passion in the people that run them that I felt: “Oh this is wonderful”. I would have no compunction in sending somebody there. Other times it is down to the most expensive offers the very best. But figuring all that out and al that it involves to stay current and relevant – they’re probably the greatest challenges.
But – I’m not worried about competitors. I’m not worried about the sheer number of new concierge services that have opened and all of the online booking challenges where people are doing it themselves. It’s the same as with a real estate agency – good realtors, good property buying companies will still get their share of business, because people who have the money to spend love opinions and surveys from people who really know their market.
Those people don’t just want to rely on things that they see online. So, there is always a place for the true professions, for the people who stand out from the crowd that can offer service and taste, and discernment and trust. Why do people engage so many different people to do so many different things for them in their lives? Because, basically, if they have the money they want to buy expert time and experience. It does come down to that.
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