Founder Grant Thatcher, an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor who has lived in Asia for eight years and in Hong Kong for a total of six, started his business after producing countless “Here’s where to go while in Bangkok” tip sheets for friends.
Launched in November 2002, a guide for Hong Kong followed soon after and the
Luxe City Guides series was born. Interestingly, despite launching the Hong Kong edition during the SARS crisis of 2003 when there were nearly no visitors, sales of the guide were good. Why? Thatcher and his team discovered residents themselves were using the slim pocket-sized guide, carrying it around in their briefcases, handbags and suit pockets.
The guides, concertina-style offerings that fit nicely even in small hands, strive to deliver on a promise to carry only the best insider knowledge. Hong Kong residents seem to like the final product, and Luxe has built a strong base of repeat customers who place regular multiple orders for their visitors.
Luxe now has guides for Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Singapore. Compilation typically comprises the top recommendations of up to 25 residents per city. Contributors are chosen for various reasons but the common denominators are style and flair. Some are Olympian shoppers, others are “spa babies” or activity-/design-mad. The original Bangkok contributors included the Queen's florist, a New Zealand-born mother of twins, an interior design editor, a property design couple and a gay lawyer. Recommendations, which in some cities reach the 800-mark, are collated into a “master guide” and every entry is personally checked by the city editor. The top 250 to 300 shopping, dining and lifestyle recommendations are selected for publication.
Appropriately, Thatcher reveals, Luxe’s motto is “No Stone Unturned.” A Newsweek reviewer seemed impressed enough to write in September 2003, “It’s hard to beat seeing a foreign city with a native, but if you’re headed to Asia, this sassy guidebook comes in a close second."
Luxe updates its guides twice a year – highly frequent for a travel guide publisher. Thatcher believes Asian cities move so fast there is never a lack of exciting new entries. So Bangkok, its first guide, is currently in its fourth edition, while Singapore, the latest, is still in its first edition.
Thatcher describes the Luxe reader as 25 to 50, stylish, smart and solvent, someone who knows the value of money and is as happy to find a bargain as to splash out. Someone who does not wear her luggage but neither does she fly everywhere in helicopters.
Thatcher attributes word of mouth to Luxe’s growth. He believes the brand’s emphasis on unique and bespoke items strikes a chord with readers, who tend toward original items and personalized service, rather than obvious, branded “look what I can afford” designers. Understanding all too well that good service can only enhance its brand image, Luxe has a full-time client services director answering the constant stream of thank you mail, queries and feedback. The company also draws upon client feedback and sometimes chooses new contributors from those who write to them.
But what exactly is Luxe’s “X” factor? Thatcher quotes the company’s rather unapologetic tagline, printed at the back of every book, that the guide is “brutally frank and sometimes, frankly, brutal.” So while you will find the Peninsula, Hong Kong’s much-loved grande dame hotel mentioned, some of the city’s revered and wildly popular restaurants have not made the cut. Thatcher says, “There would have been no point in making just another guide like all the rest. Luxe prides itself on finding entries not featured elsewhere.”
By “elsewhere,” Thatcher could be referring to travel guide publishers like Fodor’s, Frommers, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and DK Eyewitness Guides. All have some version of a portable, condensed guide, but none can claim to offer what Luxe does –
recommendations made by residents.
The guide that comes closest to being able to make a similar claim is probably DK Eyewitness. Its Top 10 Travel Guide: Hong Kong was written by three people – two freelance writers, one of whom resided in Hong Kong, and an employee of the Hong Kong Tourist Board. But DK loses out in terms of number of contributors, timeliness (the edition is dated from 2002) and brevity. That said, there will always be travelers who want the full monty – history, demographics, maps, dozens of hotel, restaurant listings, and so on.
Thatcher is not about to dispute this, but he is not about to include such information in Luxe guides. As he reasons, “There is room for everyone in this business. We're just doing what we're doing.”
Another differentiating factor is Luxe’s irreverent writing style. In the Hong Kong guide, Luxe starts with, “Looking for Suzy Wong? Well, she’s dead, get over it.” When introducing a cosmetic surgeon in Singapore, Luxe cuts to the chase with “Skin in the bin?” When asked if it ever occurred to Luxe that its writing style might alienate readers, Thatcher counters, “You can’t please all the people all the time... The Luxe style developed precisely because we were bored stupid with the sweet, inane ‘travel-speak’ you find everywhere else. Ultimately it's what is in the guide that’s important, you don’t have to like the style to find the information indispensable.”
The guides are indeed are, as Thatcher admits, “outrageously opinionated,” which gives one the sense of reading no-holds-barred opinions from a good friend who loves you and wants you to know the good and bad for any given recommendation.
Fans of the guides obviously appreciate this candor. Howard B. Weiner, executive vice president of Seattle-based Two Downtown Ltd, recently spent a month in Southeast Asia and says he loves Luxe. He used it extensively in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Bali and found the descriptions and recommendations “so accurate.” Carolyn Kan, managing director of M&C Saatchi in Singapore, who has used the Bali guide and has the other guides, loves that the recommendations are “on the money” and that the guides ooze attitude. Her only wish? That Luxe would hurry up and cover more cities.
Kan and fans like her may not need to wait much longer. In the works are guides for Sri Lanka, Shanghai, Tokyo and Sydney. Luxe also has plans to move outside the Asia-Pacific region and grow the brand by expanding into lifestyle products.
Thatcher admits that one of Luxe’s greatest challenges is distribution. The guides are sold in four cities in Asia (Hong Kong is its largest retail market with availability in 48 stores), two in Australia, two in the US and globally through www.luxecityguides.com. Despite limited physical distribution and offering only six Asian guides, Luxe says it receives mail and orders from all corners of the globe, even unexpected locales like Iceland and Fiji. If its popularity, growth and plans are anything to go by, Luxe should soon be on every savvy traveler’s and stylish resident’s lips, and yes, in their pockets too.