Karin Seelow: Bucket-list destinations are timeless, but experiences are unique

October 25, 2019

We talk to private travel designer Karin Seelow of Crossing Travel about growing demand for South America, where luxury travellers seek more active holidays and unique cultural experiences, but bucket-list destinations remain the biggest attraction.

Karin has worked in travel since leaving university, starting out in airlines and tour operators before joining luxury bespoke tour operator Crossing Travel five years ago. She specialises in luxury independent travel, working mainly with couples and families.

Have you seen increased demand for South America in the past few years?

For sure. In the last couple of years we’ve probably seen a 70% to 80% increase in our sales to South America. Up until last year, South America was a small market for us, although it was a region I’d already worked with. Two years ago, we sent a large group of family and friends to Argentina, and it has snowballed ever since.

It wasn’t on our clients’ destination list previously because they didn’t know much about it. They like us to promote destinations for them, so once we started to focus on South America, we found a lot of interest.

We tailor-make everything for our clients. They may come up with an idea or sometimes just the dates, then we put together a bespoke package for them. Almost all our business is by recommendation and word of mouth. If one client visits a new destination, word spreads quickly and soon our other clients want to go there too.

What destinations and experiences are growing in popularity?

Argentina and Peru are the two main ones for us. Argentina is a great destination because it’s so varied and offers lots of exciting experiences all year round.

Mendoza wine region, Argentina. Photo credit

We adapt and change everything to meet our clients’ needs, so we don’t have set tours or itineraries. We’re always looking for variety. In Argentina, we may combine a wine tour of Mendoza Province, Argentina's most important wine region, with a city trip to Santiago in Chile, as it’s only a short hop across the border.

Buenos Aires is a fantastic destination for gastronomy experiences. Another favourite is hiking to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the far south of Argentina. The wild coasts of Patagonia are also perfect for watching several species of migrating whales.

Machu Picchu, Peru

In Peru, our most popular destination is Machu Picchu, as it’s one of the wonders of the world. There are a number of different hiking routes up to the site, so we tailor the experience to suit the fitness level of our clients and the amount of time they have.

The Nazca Lines in Peru are another wonder that our clients love. The best way to see these mysterious, ancient drawings is from the air, so we can arrange a private jet to reach the destination followed by a private aerial tour by helicopter or small plane.

What destinations or experiences do you recommend to clients visiting South America for the first time?

First of all, we get a lot of information from our clients, so we can recommend the right experience for them. We look at dietary requirements, previous experiences and where they have been before, so we can offer them something new. We want it to be the best vacation they’ve ever had. We always try and include surprises and excitement in everything we do. We don’t offer standard tours and we always introduce unique elements.

I would often recommend a tango show in Buenos Aires because they are the best in the world and the tango is so much part of Argentina’s culture. The tango scene is huge in the city, so local knowledge is important. Many people go to big, mass-produced shows in the La Boca quarter, for example, but we do something different – we offer a customised tango city tour, where two dancers appear from around a corner and give our clients a surprise private tango performance live on the street. We prefer to do things differently rather than go with off-the-shelf events. It’s the same for any destination that we choose.

What ‘hidden gems’ do you recommend to clients looking for something new?

Clients usually want to see Buenos Aires, Perito Moreno and Patagonia in Argentina. In Peru it’s about Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Cusco and Lima. These are all must-see destinations and don’t differ too much, so it’s all about incorporating elements of surprise within the experience to make it truly unique and memorable.

These are large countries with huge distances between destinations. Flights, trains and connections aren’t always easy and journey times can be long – we focus on combining the right destinations within a trip, then offering unique experiences within the destination.

Perino Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

We arrange bespoke hiking trips to the Perito Moreno Glacier, for example, where our clients can sit down to champagne and canapes at the top of a mountain and enjoy a  private, exclusive experience in the middle of nowhere with a stunning view of the glacier.

Have you seen any themes or trends emerge in South American luxury travel?  

More active holidays are becoming popular, because our clients really want to immerse themselves in local cultures and experiences.  

There was a time when our clients just wanted to lie on a beach, stay in a luxury resort and not do much else. Now our luxury travellers are very much interested in experiencing the local culture and exploring the region they’re visiting. We do things like arranging a dinner hosted by a local family. There are no airs and graces about the event - it’s a traditional family dinner and an authentic experience.

We arrange hikes or trips guided by genuine locals who have grown up in the location. They offer a truly authentic experience because they know the area inside-out. They can introduce travellers to all the locals – the people who bake the bread, who make the shoes, who run the restaurants, or the craftspeople who make the beads for the dresses, the local artists and so on.

Active holidays are becoming very popular in South America, Japan and South Africa.

We recently hosted a couple in Morocco and Petra in glamping-style accommodation, but this kind of trip is becoming more popular everywhere. We aim to do it on a sustainable level and make sure that we give back to the local community. The people who work in tourism in less-developed countries obviously don’t have the same standard of living as their guests, or the companies providing the service, so we like to offer these individuals something extra for the fantastic service they provide.

What is something that might surprise us about luxury travel in South America?

I like to say that travel in South America is about local instead of luxury. It’s all about the authentic local feel rather than necessarily a standard level of luxury. You won’t find ‘six-star’ hotels like on the Palm in Dubai, but you will find hotels built with love which exude charisma and the genuinely local and traditional.

Buenos Aires is a huge metropolis with five-star luxury hotels, but in Patagonia and other destinations you get a different sense of luxury with a local feel that’s full of character. It’s still a high standard though, and this can surprise people. They expect to be in less comfort because they’re in the middle of nowhere sleeping in a log cabin or a tent, but they’re provided with a very high level of service.

Connections within Argentina and other countries in South America are more challenging because of the huge distances involved. It can be a challenge to be sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint too, because we often have to rely on organising trips by private jet for our clients, because they’re busy people. They may want to see a lot of Argentina in ten days, and that’s just not possible in a short space of time without private jet travel.

The contrasts you can find in South America are extraordinary. Even within Argentina you’ll find huge differences in cultures, food, customs, landscape, climate and standards of living.

What is the best VIP experience in South America?

It depends on the clients, but I’ll give you a couple of examples of amazing VIP experiences.

Nazca Lines, Peru

We recently sent some clients to see the Nazca Lines. We arranged for them to be picked up at their hotel in Buenos Aires and taken by private jet to Cusco in Peru, and then flown over the Nazca Lines in another plane with a local guide and pilot. They filmed it and sent me the footage. They were crying together in this little plane, because it was such a dream come true for them.

We also have a client who loves to sing. I arranged for him to take the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train through the Peruvian highlands from Cusco to Machu Picchu. They have excellent musicians who play for guests in the bar during the journey. I arranged for them to call him up as a total surprise and ask him to sing with them. I think that was a better experience than anything he could have paid for on this trip. It’s the sort of thing money can’t buy.

These are two very different luxury experiences. The private jet is one kind of luxury - it offers exclusive travel and gets you there faster,  in more comfort, than any other mode of transport. At the other extreme is a personal experience that money can’t buy, but was one of the highlights of our client’s holiday.

What is the height of luxury in South America?

It totally depends on what luxury means to the client, so I wouldn’t say it’s a particular hotel or destination. In fact, it doesn’t have to cost the earth for someone to feel like they’re having the best experience they’ve ever had.

Private experiences are one kind of luxury. We arranged for some clients to visit an orphanage in Lima in Peru. They wanted to give something back, so they spent time with the children, sang some songs with them and took some gifts. This wasn’t an expensive experience, but it was much more meaningful to them than fine dining or a city tour.

We promote giving back as a company. India is a huge market for us, and every time a client books a trip to India we donate an item of clothing to a local community we work with. Now that South Africa is an up-and-coming destination for us, we’re working with a local company to set up something similar.

I don’t call this a trend because I want to it stay, not come and go. Our clients like it because it’s a way can show their love and appreciation for the places that they visit. We help local economies by sending tourists to smaller destinations in South America and South Africa where there are huge issues with poverty – but it’s great to be able to offer help to the wider community beyond hotels and restaurants.

What does luxury mean to you these days?

Luxury means making dreams come true. It’s not about how much you spend on a vacation, it’s about what you get out of it. Whether it’s going away for a week with your family and creating bonding time that you normally don’t have time for, or just enjoying the downtime of sitting on a plane for four hours with no outside pressures. It’s a chance to have time for yourself, to relax with your family or loved ones and just be yourself. To us that means luxury, because it’s precious time that busy people don’t normally have.

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