Mile High Club
Updated: 2011-09-18 07:58
By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)
Hong Kong-based Grant Thatcher cultivated a cheeky list of shopping tips into the runaway success of Luxe city guides
Grant Thatcher is a difficult chap to pin down. Although his office is based in Hong Kong, he is more likely to be on a plane headed to one of the 33 or so destinations that his Luxe city guides cover. And that's its biggest selling point: Luxe has a distinct, consistent voice, written by insiders who know and love their home well enough not to mind sharing its best kept secrets. Hip hideaway clubs, out of the way galleries, great massages or fantastic places to get custom suits can all be found in Luxe, written in a breezy tone that makes it a fun read.
"A lot of publishers hire people to go to a city," says Thatcher. "But I think the best guides are when the information is provided by people who live there. We have 25 to 30 contributors around the world who are picked for their special knowledge. They are feeding us information all the time. Then we fly in with an objective view. Sometimes locals can miss things that they see every day. We sort and weed, to give a complete view."
Thatcher was born in Bristol, England and was bitten by the travel bug early on. Formerly an actor, he came to Hong Kong in 1996 for what he thought would be a six-month stint. He ended up staying, moved to Bangkok in 1999 and back to Hong Kong in 2002.
While he was living in Bangkok, he decorated his home with furniture and accessories made by local Thai artisans. Friends admired the work so much that he assembled a list of the places where he did his shopping. That list grew and bounced around cyberspace for a number of years before arriving full circle when Thatcher mentioned to an acquaintance at a party in Singapore that he was going to Bangkok for a trip. The lady pressed a crumpled collection of A4 pages upon him, insisting that the information she was sharing was invaluable for navigating the Thai capital. It was his original list of suggestions - and Thatcher knew that he had the seed of a business venture in his hands.
"We spend a lot of time on the retail pages of our guides," he says. "I've always been very big on what artisans are making. That way, when you go home, you have something that nobody else has. These bespoke items were custom made for you. And that comes from living in Bangkok. My home was published in a magazine but people couldn't just walk into a shop and buy the furniture since I had them made. Instead, I listed out the places of where to get glass blown and silk dyed. And that was how Luxe started."
Despite the connotations associated with its name, Thatcher insists that Luxe is mainstream rather than luxury, and focuses upon style for the dollar. It's about getting the best for the right price: nobody wants to feel ripped off. "Readers can splash out or go for the greasy spoon option," he explains. "It doesn't have to be all Michelin stars."
The first Luxe guide featuring Bangkok was first published in 2002. Thatcher recalls those early days when he pounded the pavements, visiting shop after shop to see if they would be interested in distributing his baby. "It was key to understanding the mechanics of how distributions worked," he admits. "I walked the streets and went to see the buyers. I learned about scale and warehousing and ISBN numbers. We had a core of five or 10 shops - and then it just took off. We had no budget for marketing. Everything that we do is through word of mouth. And that is the best possible form of marketing because it works organically."
The second city guide was Hong Kong, launched just before SARS. To Thatcher's surprise, the Hong Kong guide outsold Bangkok during its first month despite the fact that tourism was at an all time low. "People who lived in Hong Kong were buying the guide as a reference," he notes. "There are a lot of expats in Hong Kong and a lot of visitors come through. People bought it for their guests. It makes things easier and they don't have to hang around being tour guides themselves."
Through Luxe, Thatcher got to know more than 30 cities very well. He still writes, as all the guides are filtered through him and resonate with his voice. "The travel industry is so dry," he says. "Everyone is trying to be the most discerning and definitive. But it's also about being fun and stylish. We're snappy and naughty."
The guides themselves are formatted to be compact, sized to fit into a shirt pocket or an evening bag so that users don't have to rip pages out or be bogged down with excess weight. Instead of being filled with photos, they are text based, contain highly personalized recommendations and are bound with stylish covers. "We wanted to produce something beautiful that you wouldn't be embarrassed to bring out," explains Thatcher. "It is the first travel guide that is also a style guide. You're just as likely to find us in Harvey Nichols or Paul Smith in London as a travel bookshop."
As 35 percent of sales are corporate, Thatcher has devoted care to developing slick box sets that are intended for gift giving. He continues to explore new destinations - Stockholm and Amsterdam are the latest guides - and has launched a number of apps including one for Niseko. And the next big thing will be little LUXE. "Our readers are having families," he says, "and we've re-engineered guides to fit people traveling with kids - which can be a nightmare! This is our contribution. It's about taking our standards, and taking the kids as well." The first little Luxe will be Hong Kong this month, followed by Singapore.
After a decade in the travel biz, Thatcher is still excited about his next adventure. "My attitude towards travel hasn't changed. I still get a great buzz from breathing the air in a new city. I never forget that it's a great luxury to be able to travel."
You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For China Daily
(China Daily 09/18/2011 page4)