Jackie Chalkley can easily call any travel agency and book a vacation from her Washington, D.C., home to wherever she wants. But she and her husband are among the affluent who look for something far beyond guided tours, a nice hotel and good eats.
The Chalkleys are members of the boutique travel service known simply as Andrew Harper, best known as publisher of the Hideaway Report newsletter, now in its 31st year, which offers suggestions for high-end travelers seeking top-shelf, hidden, off-the-beaten-path destinations.
The basic idea is that Harper's editors travel anonymously and at their own expense to offer bias-free advice to members of its private travel club. The company also provides custom trips, an online community for members and numerous publications, both print and online. Andrew Harper, based in Illinois, is named after the first Andrew Harper-a pseudonym for a longtime amateur travel writer who anonymously visited the hotels he reviewed. After a quarter of a century circling the globe, the original Andrew Harper retired six years ago and was replaced by his handpicked successors. Today, two contributing editors, both of whom remain anonymous-one based in New York, the other in Paris-carry on the role under the same pseudonym.
To this day, the new "Harpers" and their assistants reveal just which rooms in top-shelf properties offer the best views, have a bigger closet and the like. At first, Harper's missives were read by friends, but after many began clamoring for an untainted voice covering high-end luxury travel, the Hideaway Report was born and it is now one of the most distinct voices in luxury travel. To abide by Harper's strict rule about not accepting compensation from the travel industry and staking a non-biased position, the newsletter has no advertising and subsists strictly on subscriptions.
The company has evolved in other ways since Harper's globe-trotting days. Andrew Harper is no longer just a little broadsheet, but a full-fledged service owned by CapStar Partners, an Austin, Texas-based private equity group that bought it in 2005.
"We didn't touch our bags when my husband and I went to Java through Harper," explains Chalkley. "They had chilled champagne waiting the moment we arrived at the airport and after staying a night at a spectacular hotel, the very first thing in the morning we were brought to the top of Borobudur temple, a Buddhist monument, which was pre-arranged so we would be the only ones allowed at the top."
Full membership costs $400 per year and includes private travel planning services, the ability to travel with other Harper members, a subscription to the Hideaway Report and access to an active, members-only online discussion forum where many who have become travel partners and friends share recommendations and detailed descriptions of their travel experiences. Membership also includes a copy of the 800-page Harper's Collection, a listing of properties visited and recommended by Harper. Each month, members receive updated pages to place in the binder.
"We really are a travel service that places a focus on customizing trips for individual members or even larger groups who have met through being members," explains Harper's director of travel planning, Sandi Ferreria. "Where we differ from a standard travel agency is the reach of our ground operations ability, which includes connections with local concierge services and, for example, park rangers who know just when to bring guests to remote locations. That information and the ability to use it is what we specialize in."
Chalkley is among the affluent members of Harper who can tap into a community of worldly friends and trusted experts-people who share a passion for authentic and unique experiences. For Chalkley, luxury travel goes beyond staying at a five-star resort. She looks for recommendations that cannot easily be found online or in books. "Being a member makes a big difference," she says. "They communicate with the newsletter and other ways. I have met many wonderful, interesting and sophisticated people just through the discussion forums provided for members to share their experiences. In many cases there is a member who recently returned from a property and will point out what to some might seem like little details, but to a lot of us, that makes the difference."
Many travelers want to explore and understand the cultures of the places they visit and give something back to the communities that have welcomed them. "Our trips are split between just a nice top level vacation to taking the opportunity to experience the last of dying cultures or to see animals that may become extinct," explains Chalkley. In India, many never get to see Bengal tigers, but Harper had contacts within the park rangers and "had a ranger take us out to the spot where he knew the tigers would be."