What do you get when you combine luxury travel with carpooling and membership discounts? A new company called Fame Route, a company aimed at execs and celebs who want to travel in style but without busting their bank accounts or pissing off their shareholders. And what do you get when you fly me in a private jet with a bunch of celebrities to attend a fashion show in Miami? One very confused writer. But more on that later.
Fame Route was started up by venture capitalist Gil Peter, who also happened to be a frustrated frequent flyer. "My homes are in New York and Florida, so I shuttle back and forth," he told me. "And the funny part is, I did this a little out of selfishness, because I was so fed up with flying that I said, 'Man, this is a good idea, because it's going to preserve my life a little bit.'" Fame Route outsources its entire business. Other licensed carriers provide the planes and pilots; Peter says, "We don't have any middlemen. We buy hours in bulk so we get a great deal." And their Concierge 360 service has alliances with hotels, salons, car services and other swanky service providers -- everything a well-heeled traveler needs for a fancy-shmancy trip.
This may seem like a weird time to launch a company that flies private jets, given that last year at this time the American public was ready to tar and feather the Big Three auto execs who winged their way to DC to beg for billions. Ah, but Fame Route has a recession-friendly angle -- they provide luxury travel on the cheap. I don't mean they fly you in a 1930s biplane and then schedule your dinner at Roy Rogers. You still get the goods, you just get it for less than you would if you had your secretary, lackey or manservant charter a jet and book your hotel and entertainment for you.
What's the catch? Well, it's twofold. First of all, you have to be a member. And that membership will cost you a cool thousand bucks a month, plus a $550 one-time application fee. And of course you still have to pay for your flights, car service, hotel, etc. Like any well-run club, Fame Route plans to make its money from the members who don't use the services very often or at all.
The other catch is that Fame Route doesn't want your private jet to be 100% private. By matching up members with similar itineraries, they divide the cost among more people, saving them money to the point where, they say, a flight won't cost much more than flying first-class on a commercial airliner. It's like carpooling for the jet set. As Gil Peter puts it, "You just tell them, you're going to fly with them because the cost is lower, and when you do get on the flight, that the social networking is almost as important as the flight itself."
Which is where I got stuck. Really? Would CEOs, sports stars and other assorted privacy-cravers really want to fly with total strangers? Couldn't they do that on a commercial jet?
I suppose that's why Fame Route invited my skeptical self to check out the concept in action. I can't really think of any other explanation for my presence on a seven-seat Hawker 800XP winging its way to Miami, along with fashion designers Nicole Miller and Richie Rich, singer/actress Deborah Cox, and Fame Route founder Gil Peter, among others. I know nothing about jets or fashion, and very little about Miami. But I wasn't about to pass up a free overnight trip to Florida, either. So I showed up at New Jersey's Teterboro airport with an open notebook and closed mouth, prepared to not give my ignorance away.
Teterboro, if you've never been, is probably best known for being mentioned as an alternate landing spot for the US Airways jet that "Sully" Sullenberger wound up landing in the Hudson River last winter. It's off the radar for most travelers because it serves small private planes exclusively. Try to wrap your head around an airport with no lines, no security personnel from hell and no need to take your shoes off. That's Teterboro. Show your ID and you're good to go. Everyone's ready to roll a half hour early? No problem. Get on board and take off. All that was missing was a masseuse kneading my shoulders as I walked across the tarmac. And I'll bet that could have been provided, too. For anyone with the means who needs to fly frequently, this is an amazing alternative to flying commercial.
This was Fame Route's maiden voyage, and our mission was to fly the aforementioned celebs and their assistants/companions to Miami for the city's Funkshion Fashion Week. We were also transporting some red dresses designed for a fashion show to benefit for the American Heart Association (Fame Route hopes to lend its services to at least one celebrity-laden benefit event per month). Between the dresses and our luggage, the seven of us didn't have a whole lot of room -- we had to climb over each other to get to the bathroom -- but the plush, swiveling leather seats were damn comfortable. Deborah Cox, who's starring in an upcoming Broadway musical based on Josephine Baker's life, drew my attention to the cashmere throw blankets which were there in place of the plastic-wrapped scratchy faux-wool jobs you get flying coach -- "You have to mention these!"
The food, inevitably, was pretty lame except for the packaged stuff like potato chips and candies, but we did get a lot of it, and the fully-stocked bar was ours for the drinking, which most of us did with gusto (at 9 AM -- celebs know how to party). The bathroom was described by one passenger as "a Mile High Club bathroom," and indeed, it seemed best suited for lovemakin'. To use the toilet, you had to lift up a leather-padded bench that wouldn't stay up, making things somewhat difficult for the gents who had to pee. But still, the soft lighting and real sink with real faucet and handles were a big plus.
As I mentioned before, none of the celebs on board knew each other. Club kid-turned-designer Richie Rich, classy mainstream fashion designer Nicole Miller, and R & B singer/actress Deborah Cox don't have very much in common with each other. Each one could have opened up a book, gotten out a laptop, or caught some shut-eye and it would have been like a more posh version of a commuter flight. But I've gotta hand it to Gil Peter and Fame Route -- the social experiment worked. The 2 1/2 hour trip was like an airborne cocktail party, with stories traded, jokes told, many snacks and airline bottles of booze consumed, and email addresses and phone numbers traded at flight's end. Did everyone become lifelong friends? I have no idea. But it was definitely an enjoyable way to spend the morning.
At flight's end, Gil Peter was ebullient: "What you saw today was seven people who really didn't know each other at all, right? But by the end, they were all friends, they were all trading numbers, emails, and you know, I see that happening with business people. Five, six people go in, and they've got ideas, and I think it will perpetuate good business relationships. And that's what we see as a really good part of this whole thing." Um, sounds good to me.
In the weeks since the flight, Fame Route has started to get the word out about its services and rates, and according to their publicist, they've now got more than 400 members, including "roughly about 100 celebrity members. We can't release names for obvious reasons." Not even a hint? Alas, no. And suppose that if I were a member, I wouldn't want my name bandied about by publicists, either. So I guess we'll just have to take their word for it.
Once we landed in Miami, I tagged along with the Fame Route team to catch Richie Rich's fashion show at Miami Beach's Setai Hotel, along with the pre- and post- show festivities. The show itself, from what I remember, lasted about 15 minutes, climaxing with the inexplicable appearance of Pamela Anderson, wearing her old Baywatch one-piece and sporting a derriere as firm as it was two decades ago.
Much of the rest, frankly, is a blur. Before I knew it, I was flying back to New York -- on a commercial jet. In coach, no less. And landing in a rainstorm and and going home from JFK on the subway. And while I shivered on the outdoor platform waiting for the A train to arrive, I thought to myself that a Fame Route-arranged limo would be infinitely preferable. So if any big corporations need a CEO, hey, I'm available. If nothing else, at least I'll be able to cut down on the travel expenses.
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