The height of luxury is at 41,000 feet.
It’s Friday night, I’ve finished work and I’m being whisked over the Alps to a five star hotel in Milan on a private jet, wearing a look of smugness that can only be described as insufferable. ‘This seems excessive,’ says my girlfriend, who’s sitting next to me. ‘Are you going to propose?’
The experience economy is booming. In Western countries, millennials, The Economist noted, are ‘keener on memorable experiences than splashing out on bling’, forgoing savings and traditional courtship such as diamond engagement rings in favour of #nofilter moments.
We spend less on buying things and more on doing things — then telling the world about it online afterwards. The more exclusive the experience, the greater the payoff in followers. It was recently reported that a Moscow company is renting out a grounded private jet as a photography studio for aspiring travel ‘influencers’ to pretend they’re living the luxury lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of. Never has the expression ‘fake it till you make’ it seemed more relevant.
Thanks to various apps and services styling themselves as the ‘Uber for experiences’, a luxury gig economy is arising, meaning that high living is becoming not just for the super-rich, but available on a pay-as-you-go basis. I wanted to see if I could use these to enjoy the kind of lifestyle my cash-strapped fellow millennials can only dream of (I am, odiously, trying these experiences gratis). So for the next week I will be an out-of-pocket millennial living, no, ‘experiencing’ life like a millionaire: two nights at Milan’s Bulgari Hotel, a personal trainer in Notting Hill, a state-of-the-art ‘millennial gym’ and being swaddled in 23-carat gold in a luxury London hammam.
‘It’s the online equivalent of showing off around the water cooler,’ says Zia Yusuf, whose app, Velocity Black, provides a digital concierge service that ‘powers the ultimate lifestyle from your pocket’ and counts Gigi Hadid, Martha Hunt and Poppy Delevingne among its founding members. For £2,000 a year (plus a one-time joining fee of £700) you get access to a digital ‘membership community’, a worldwide network that sets up experiences from restaurant bookings and all-access Coachella passes to days out diving with orca whales, driving Formula 1 legend Damon Hill’s old racing car and taking fighter jets to the edge of space. Prices for these signature experiences vary. ‘It’s very much of this generation because it’s both digital and completely frictionless,’ says Yusuf. ‘You never have to pull out a credit card or provide details once you’re signed up as a member. Our customers are busy and ambitious: they wish they had more time to do the things they love, they’re very focused on their careers and travel four times more than the average person. They live for novel experiences and to create memories. This solves that problem.’
While they’re not inclusive or affordable enough for many of us, apps have democratised and disrupted the high-threshold world of PJs and personal trainers, lowering operational costs. We’ve booked a private jet via JetSmarter, a membership charter airline service that recently ferried Cara Delevingne from Europe. It aims to bring private aviation ‘to the masses over the next 20 years’ as operational costs come down. Right now, though, membership starts at an eye-watering £11,400 a year (plus a £1,900 initiation fee), although this includes free flights to all destinations under three hours away, two renewable shuttle tokens, complimentary seats on all JetDeals, access to helicopter transfers and in-flight catering. You use the company’s app to reserve flights on a private jet as often as you want.
It is painfully obvious that I do not have the swagger for this super-rich lifestyle. I arrive late at Luton Airport just in time to catch my flight, sweating my little man boobs off after hauling a luxuriant amount of luggage across London. Being dressed to impress is causing distress. My suit is tailored (I’ve borrowed it from ES Magazine’s fashion cupboard) but among the Mulberry bags and hard-backed suitcases, I’m the only person with a camo-printed backpack. ‘Milan is a fast-paced metropolis where looking good is compulsory,’ says our Lonely Planet guide. I look at my Nike flyknit trainers and realise I’ve forgotten to pack a smart pair of shoes.
No matter, because our feet are soon whisked off the ground. After being plied with flutes of Laurent-Perrier in the private lounge for half an hour, our Learjet 40 taxis onto the runway. It’s like UberPool for high-net-worth individuals (although there’s no discount if the flight is full), with six plush leather seats (we’re joined by three immaculately dressed Milanese and a man who looks suspiciously like Steve Bannon). Compared to the cramped sardine tin of economy class, everything is both intimate and immediate, as the skies break out into a glorious pastel sunset.
Tucked away on a private drive next to a botanical garden and just steps from fashion-label mecca, Via Monte Napoleone, Milan’s Bulgari Hotel is both trendy and tranquil. I try to maintain a quiet dignity as the concierge guides us through our palatial room’s features. Brunch at the restaurant the next day, beneath chestnut trees in gentle autumnal decline, is a cornucopia of al dente pastas and paella with saffron and cream, as staff in embroidered tunics waft around.
Could I get used to this? I stick out like a sore thumb. My trainers are a giveaway, so I tie my jumper around my neck and try to blend in. When I explain my angst to my girlfriend, she asks if I want the concierge to bring me a small violin. I feel both scrutinised and ignored by my glitzy companions.
To ease my troubled, pampered soul — and better squeeze into my troubled, pampered trousers — I arrange some luxury fitness sessions on my return to London. On Sunday evening, eyes still starry from Milan’s twinkling Navigli canals, I head to KXU in Chelsea, a pay-as-you-go ‘millennial’ gym that is as much about the experience as the workout. If there’s a glamorous way to sweat, this is it.
On Monday morning, I try TruBe, an app which for £140 a month delivers a personal trainer for four sessions to any location at the touch of a button. It’s the international jetsetter’s workout of choice. Never an early bird, I squeeze in a gruelling 30-minute workout in Holland Park with Mohammed, who views the short time I have as a challenge rather than an impediment, putting me through my paces at double time.
For an encore, there’s the gold hammam treatment at Hotel Café Royal’s Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre, a 75-minute procedure where a mixture of 23-carat gold, mother of pearl and caviar extract is applied on the body and face, then exfoliated. I have never felt so valuable.
This is as good as it gets. I have peered through the pearly gates at the lives of the super-rich, only to be sent tumbling back to earth. An overdraft, rental payments and student debt are my reality. Still, at least I have something to instagram.