Luxury can be a lifestyle, an experience, an item. Defining luxury? That is the elusive, ever-evolving and challenging mission of the editors at Robb Report magazine, part of the CurtCo Media company that also owns Sarasota. “Our readers are intelligent and curious people,” explains Larry Bean, editor in chief of the illustrious niche publication whose average reader’s net worth is at least $5 million. To satisfy curiosity of that ilk, Bean oversees a stable of editors who have cultivated expertise and authority in their respective fields—everything from classic cars to couture clothing.
THE LUXURY EXPERTS
The quest for information on the part of this rarefied audience is so extraordinary that Robb Report magazine has spawned a powerful network of brand extensions, among them Robb Report Collection, Robb Report Luxury Home and Robb Report Motorcycling, to name a few. These vertical magazines inform and advise the ultra-affluent who are considering specific purchases (a yacht, a second home), or so passionate about a subject (audio equipment) that they hunger for the in-depth coverage the luxury industry’s preeminent voices can provide.
What’s more, CurtCo retained luxury industry expert Carol Brodie of Harry Winston and DeBeers fame two years ago, anointing her with the unique title of Chief Luxury Officer. By creating A-list events that bring affluent consumers and the world’s most luxurious brands together, Brodie has a chieved a coup in the publishing business: In effect, CurtCo and Robb Report have themselves become luxury brands. “We provide a 360-degree luxury brand experience,” Brodie says. “The events are elegant, creative, bespoke experiences in which the reader becomes a strategic partner with CEOs of the world’s most coveted luxury brands,” she explains. “Our advertisers get insights directly from the high-net-worth consumer they want to reach, and readers get insights directly from CEOs of what’s three years down the road.”
The 360-degree experience centers on Robb Report, which in turn focuses on connoisseurship: the pedigree and craftsmanship of luxury goods. “We cover a little bit of everything when it comes to luxury because the lifestyle encompasses so many different areas,” Bean says. The thread that holds everything together and defines the character of Robb Report, he explains, is this: “We are looking for items or experiences that aren’t everywhere—things that are prized because they are unique and the highest quality available.”
Rather than focusing on price, articles probe why a featured product or service costs as much as it does. “We explain what it is about an item that makes it interesting and valuable; why it’s worth as much as it is, the fine details of how it’s made, why there are so few around,” Bean says. The objective is to cull the best of everything, from vacation ideas and private travel destinations to ideal places to live, for an audience with an average annual income over $1.2 million.
In order to win and maintain readers’ trust, cars are test-driven, motorcycles raced and, in the case of the Robb Report’s annual Luxury Resorts issue, all 100 featured have been visited by a writer or editor of the magazine. “That’s a challenge,” admits Bean, but the first-hand accounts distinguish Robb Report Luxury Resorts from typical top-travel destination lists. “Our readers don’t always stay at five-star resorts, but when they do there are levels of expectations only well-traveled writers understand.”
One thing its audience doesn’t expect from Robb Report is celebrity-stalking. “Our readers don’t get to the position they are in personally or professionally by copying. They aren’t interested in what Brad Pitt is wearing; it’s the other way around,” Bean concludes.
CARS FOR COLLECTORS
As automotive editor of Robb Report and senior editor of sister publication Robb Report Collection, much of Gregory Anderson’s work involves piloting fine automobiles. Among his highest-profile responsibilities: selecting with staff members and a panel of judges the Robb Report Car of the Year.
“There are 140 luxury cars out there, and we start by narrowing the fleet: Only one car from each manufacturer can be represented,” Anderson explains. “We come up with a baker’s dozen with one wild card that isn’t necessarily in the same price range as the others—last time it was the Ford Shelby GT500, which would hardly be a blip on the radar at $40,000.” Still, he says the car had significant appeal—enough to warrant 10th place in the 2007’s top 13.
Anderson, Robert Ross and Paul Dean are the writing professionals judging the cars. Another 40 car experts and enthusiasts complete the panel of judges, some of them having earned their place at charity auctions. “They’ll pay as much as $170,000 at fund-raising auctions to participate in the two-and-a-half-day event,” says Anderson, noting that in the past two years, $3 million has been donated directly to a number of charities as a result of the Car of the Year program.
The judging is divided into two waves of 20 people. “Some of the judges aren’t car guys,” Anderson reports. “But they really work at these evaluations, and if they weren’t car guys when the process began, every one of them becomes a car guy after the experience.”
Since the judges are Robb Report readers, editors get unique insights into what attracts them to luxury cars. “What they complain about and what they praise is fascinating,” Anderson says. This year’s winner, the Bentley Continental GTC, was chosen for its design and opulent interior as much as its power. “They loved the sound of the engine; it might be the only four-passenger car that can match the performance and charm of Italian sports cars,” Anderson says.
Many of the judges found the speed of Anderson’s personal preference, the Bugatti Veyron, a bit frightening, however. “There has never been and never will be anything like it,” he says of the $1.3 million vehicle. “It does 253 miles per hour, but you can drive it on the street. It’s a monument to automotive history, with so many mind-blowing features.” Zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds is one of them. But Anderson has been to racing schools; he’s used to power.
Robb Report Collection is published monthly, with six issues a year devoted to autos, boats and aircraft; the other six highlight real estate and home design. It’s basically an emporium for buying and selling, Anderson says, with editorial content leaning toward the car-buying experience. Still, topics as intriguing as “Green Machines” are covered, highlighting automakers who are leading the transition to alternative fuels in concept and consumer cars. “The trend is to reduced fuel consumption,” Anderson says. “Wealthy people may not need to worry about the cost of gasoline, but trends in cars start in the luxury market because the low-volume production of a new technology is expensive.” He points to GPS systems, available initially only at the high end, and now available at every price range. “The technology that will be used in the future may be 20 years away,” he predicts, “but certainly no more than that.”
CUSTOMIZED MANSIONS AND HOT NEW GETAWAYS
“Robb Report readers are early adapters,” says Adele Cygelman, editor in chief of Robb Report’s Luxury Home and Vacation Homes. “They want to be the first with new products and they don’t want their homes to look like anyone else’s,” she adds, noting a major trend toward customized products among the affluent. “This is a powerful audience that uses interior architects and designers. They’re not interested in going into showrooms; they want everything customized—ironwork, gates, every piece of furniture made to exact specification.”
In this audience, most primary residences are in the $8 million range; homeowners typically spend $10 to $20 million, including furnishings. And uniquely in this market segment, men are intensely interested in home design; they actively invest their time, money and passion in creating distinctive environments. “No other magazine was talking to men, and we felt we could fill this niche,” Cygelman says.
For Robb Report readers, second kitchens (catering kitchens) are de rigueur. “They can’t have enough appliances, and wine cellars are commonplace,” Cygelman says. When choosing homes to be featured in the magazine, she gravitates to designers who devote incredible attention to detail. “The designers who appeal to our readers operate under the radar; they are not known to most people and are at the top of their game,” she explains. “They bring in a great mix of furnishings, top-notch art and antiques. But the homes are very relaxed. They make you feel comfortable; you want to be in them.”
For Robb Report Vacation Homes, Cygelman says she’s always looking for the next big place. “Waterfront property is becoming scarcer, more expensive and sought after,” she reports. “Never underestimate the value of a view.” Since most readers have access to private jets, they can build homes anywhere there’s an airstrip nearby. For that reason, Costa Rica and Panama are becoming important to the affluent second-home market. Cygelman is also carefully monitoring Costa Rica’s emergence as what she calls a prototype for luxurious yet environmentally sensitive vacation-home design.
“Anything with family appeal is powerful,” she says, citing the cross-generational amenities at Yellowstone Club in Montana, and the Promontory Ranch Club in Utah’s Rocky Mountains. “We’ve seen a huge explosion in the fractional industry: Hotels like Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis and Mandarin Oriental are developing components around the world and selling out immediately. By combining condo and hotel amenities in one package they appeal to people who are brand loyal to the hotel.”
The market covered by Robb Report, vacation homes priced from just under a million dollars to $1.5 million plus, is growing because affluent consumers are building portfolios: a house on the water, a country house, a ski house. What’s next on the horizon? “Idaho is the hottest place for vacation homes in the U.S., because Montana and Colorado are built up, expensive and completely developed,” Cygelman says.
COOL CRUISERS AND SWISH SPORTS BIKES
Believe it or not, motorcycling is not uncomfortable, dirty or greasy. According to Arthur C. Coldwells, editorial director and publisher of Robb Report Motorcycling, it is anything but. “The idea of targeting affluent motorcyclists is unusual. But our readers are not rich guys who happen to ride motorcycles. They are motorcycling enthusiasts who happen to have boatloads.” Far from dilettantes, these enthusiasts are split into two distinct groups: the custom cruiser guys and the sports bikers, Coldwells explains.
In the rarefied culture of Robb Report, custom cruisers are serious hand-built bikes that command prices as high as $100,000 to $150,000. Outstanding in this category is Bourget, a brand distributed by 40 dealers nationally, three of them in Florida. According to Coldwells, the category bikers fall into generally is determined by where they live. “The cruiser is perfect for Florida terrain. All the roads are straight; you pull out and don’t see a corner for 100 miles.”
Sport biking, on the other hand, is literally a sport, Coldwells says, explaining that the Ducati is the Ferrari of the motorcycle world. Coldwells himself recently tested the MV Agusta F4312 (which does 312 kilometers, or 194 miles per hour) on the track at Monza outside Milan. “In the sport bike category, riders are serious athletes, fit and strong,” he says. “There is a skill and precision to racing that requires hard-core athleticism.”
The magazine has also identified a third, up-and-coming category: custom touring guys who ship or haul their bikes to a specific destination or fly to a location where bikes are rented or supplied as part of a luxury guided tour. “We’re seeing a lot of husband-wife tours,” Coldwells reports. “I can safely say that anywhere you can think of can be toured by bike.”
Robb Report Motorcycling has covered two such companies. Edelweiss Bike Tours, a global operator, offers everything from tours of French chateaux to the Far and Middle East. Top Shelf Motorcycle Tours of Calistoga, Calif., offers wine tasting tours, with stops at spas and resorts. The operators have come up with formulas that allow wives to participate as much in the biking as they like, with opportunities for facials or cooking classes if they want alternatives to full touring days.
In the end, the magazine is a tool designed to inform those ready to make buying decisions. While women are the fastest-growing segment of motorcycling, Coldwells says the major part of the demographic is men. “Men are fascinated by good-looking mechanical objects—cars, boats, watches,” he says. But the lure of motorcycles is more than skin deep. It’s also about freedom, excitement and fun.
FANTASY THEATERS AND MEDIA ROOMS
“I’ve seen home theaters in bathrooms. I’ve seen them on yachts. I’ve seen cars with home theaters. I’ve never seen one in a laundry room, although I have seen a laundry room that had a $3,000 pair of ceiling speakers,” reports Brent Butterworth, editor in chief of Robb Report Home Entertainment.
“One of the hottest trends right now is media rooms,” Butterworth says. Unlike a dedicated home theater, a media room serves a general purpose. “It could be a living room, a family room or den where you install a really kick-ass system that can completely disappear,” he explains. Butterworth says media rooms are typically set up with plasma TV and a couple of in-wall speakers, supplemented by a projection screen that drops down in front of the TV: “You watch CNN on the plasma TV during the day, but at night when you want to watch movies, you drop down the projection screen.”
The criterion for any home theater that makes the pages of Robb Report is that it has to look great. “A big part of the message is the equipment doesn’t have to impact your design,” Butterworth says. “It’s not just a pile of black boxes; you don’t have to sacrifice anything except for a few dollars to build this stuff into any environment, without it detracting in any way from the environment.”
But there are all sorts of levels of connoisseurship in home entertainment. “Some people may want big speakers sitting out on the floor, and that’s fine. Others may want it to be so hidden that even an expert can’t find the gear,” Butterworth explains. The important thing, he says, is the gear must fit your lifestyle. “You control it; it doesn’t control you.”
There are two major directions in the home entertainment market, Butterworth says. One is towards Best Buy and similar stores where you buy a home theater in a box system for a few hundred dollars. “Frankly, a lot of those are pretty good nowadays,” he says. At the opposite pole is the high-end, custom-installed system.
“We don’t want the gadget guy or the one who is looking for a great deal on a plasma TV. Our audience wants to know what’s new, what’s hot, what they should be looking for. In a lot of cases, they find the product they like and the dealer will direct them to an installer,” Butterworth says.
Capable of installing a fairly complicated system, Butterworth and his editors review new products in every issue. “Most of our product is really fantastic, so there’s not a lot of downside,” he says. Half of the magazine is devoted to hands-on product reviews; the other half to interior design applications. “We try to capture the whole house and how the technology integrates with the lifestyle, rather than just showing pictures of the gear. There really isn’t any other magazine that takes that approach,” he explains.
Yachts are the ultimate incarnation of the luxury lifestyle. And nowhere else are the inside stories, the glamorous events and ever more glamorous yachts covered as tenaciously as they are in ShowBoats International. Based in Fort Lauderdale, the international yachting capital, the magazine is a must-read for high net-worth yacht owners, builders, brokers, captains and designers.
At the helm is Jill Bobrow, whose keen perspective on the industry is grounded in a lifelong passion for sailing. Author of 10 books on subjects ranging from classic yachts to mega yachts, sailing the Caribbean and yacht interiors, Bobrow is uniquely qualified to predict and monitor industry trends.
“Big boats are getting bigger. One-hundred-foot yachts were considered large; now large is 150 feet and more,” Bobrow says. “We’re seeing 200-foot, 250-foot, up to 400-foot boats that push all boundaries of high-tech engineering.” Extraordinary feats of technology are rivaled only by the decorating of today’s mega yachts. Bobrow is seeing interiors that look like French chateaux, home entertainment systems as complex as in primary homes, and a growing trend to shadow boats that carry personal watercraft, jet skis and other toys.
What price is such luxury? If you have to ask you can’t afford it, Bobrow says. “Nothing is more expensive than a yacht,” she explains. She does the math: A 200-foot boat requires 15 full-time crew members; a 100-foot yacht could do with seven in crew with a captain earning six figures. Figure 15 percent of a $15 million showboat’s cost in annual expenses.
ShowBoats International covers the entire lifestyle, from destinations to restaurants, fractional ownership and charters. The magazine has featured vessels that can be rented for up to $200,000-plus a week, not including liquor docking fees or fuel. “Some people prefer to charter before they buy a yacht,” Bobrow says.
In some cases, ShowBoats International actually makes the news it covers. Each year the magazine hosts a rendezvous in Monaco to kick off the Mediterranean yachting season. Surrounded by extraordinary mega yachts with owners from all over the world, the event is capped with the ShowBoats International Awards honoring yachts in 18 categories, from most innovative to best technical achievement, best refit, best interior and more.
Winners, says Bobrow, set the bar a bit higher each year, challenging themselves and their peers. That in essence is the level of excellence to which ShowBoats International readers aspire.
Sarasota’s style editor Carol Tisch is a former editor in chief of Home Furnishings News and was founding editor of Shelter Magazine. In addition to her shopping and design stories in Sarasota, she writes a weekly online blog, “Retail Therapy,” at sarasotamagazine.com.