The thought of having someone else plan a holiday for me sounds so … old school. I can't think of the last time I used the services of a travel agent for finding flights, not when there are aggregators such as Momondo and SkyScanner, nor hotels, not when there are sites such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Coo Boutique, nor for planning itineraries, not when there's the Internet. So I didn't know quite what to expect when I travelled with Portico, a travel club, launched in February 2012, that provides its members with access to luxe villas in 70 locations around the world at below market prices.
I picked a dream destination from their portfolio of properties - the Maldives. I knew nothing about the tiny country, a collection of just less than 1,200 islands, except that it was in the middle of nowhere and that its president was the subject of a 2011 documentary (The Island President). For a beach holiday at what is essentially an all-inclusive, one would think there's not much, if anything, that needs to be planned ahead of time short of booking the airport transfer. But having someone else minding the details meant that this was, for the first time in a long time, a virtually carefree holiday.
Once I'd chosen the destination from Portico's portfolio, in this case a one-bedroom villa at Soneva Fushi resort, the club's "Escapist" took over - the concierge assigned to each traveller. Besides access to top properties ranging from a hotel room to a private villa for your extended family, from a ski chalet in the Colorado mountains to a beach bungalow in the Indian Ocean, it's the concierge service that members are buying when they pay Portico's $2,500 initiation fee and an annual fee of the same amount. That and extremely high standards for all aspects of the trip.
Upon booking, he got in touch to introduce himself, explain more about the destination and resort and learn about me - what my interests were, if I was celebrating anything while on holiday, how I liked to spend my time. It felt a bit odd to have the conversation; with a few hours of research and a handful of emails exchanged with the resort, I could've sorted everything out myself. But then again, after 20 minutes on the phone with Daniel, my gregarious Escapist, the only thing left for me to worry about was packing.
Beyond recommending, then booking, a visit to a neighbouring island for a taste of local life and confirming that the resort did have the gear for standup paddleboarding, it was with logistics that the concierge shined. Once he had my arrival and departure flights, the work was out of my hands. He arranged all transfers, and notified me of the exact process at the airport. He checked in with me a week before my departure to see if there were any last-minute questions or bookings I wanted him to make on my behalf, and he reminded me to take a lot of photos - with me in them - which I found quite endearing.
My arrival couldn't have been smoother, and waiting in my villa was a welcome note and fruit tray from Daniel and the Portico team, as well as a bowl of ice cream. I'm always happy to see a bowl of fresh fruit, but with temperatures in the mid-30s and humidity high, to have a two scoops of ice cream waiting, spoon at the ready, was a nice and needed surprise.
While there, the resort kept me well informed of daily activities and the guest services team was attentive, confirming excursions and making sure all was well with my villa, but Portico was also on call, with Daniel checking in to make sure my getaway was truly an escape and to offer help, which I did need when I wasn't sure who and what to tip at the end of the week, an awkward conversation to have with the person whom I'd be tipping, so I was thankful for the intermediary and the speedy response.
The only hiccup in letting someone else take care of the particulars of my trip happened at the very end when the resort received incorrect departure information and the transfer to another island I was visiting wasn't available at the time I'd requested. Somewhere, the information had not been passed on, something that would've been on my list had I had everything in my hands. Still, there are worse places to be stuck for a few hours than paradise in the Indian Ocean.
Planning a holiday can be work, a lot of work, a full-time job it feels like sometimes, which of course is why travel agents still exist. But there are other options for those who like to have some control over their vacation without all that's involved in planning it.
Travel assistance provided by Portico Club, porticoclub.com