The Futurist Interviews Larry Bean, editor and chief, The Robb Report.
January-February 2008, Volume 42, No. 1
There are both more billionaires and more millionaires inhabiting the globe than ever before in human history. With economic growth accelerating in places like China and Russia, it's a safe bet that luxury marketers have a bright future. To find out what's on the minds of the world's wealthy, and what, besides big bucks, they might have in common, we went to Larry Bean, editor-in-chief of Robb Report magazine, which covers the luxury lifestyle like no one else.
FUTURIST: More and more super-wealthy people are seeking out unique luxury experiences over material objects. Rock and roll fantasy camp and private space exploration are two examples. How do you see that trend evolving in the future, because of course, once the price comes down on private space exploration, it becomes more common and then...
Bean: Where do you go from outer space? Something to keep in mind when you talk about international space travel is that there are a couple forms available. A trip to the international space station goes for, what, $20 million? Richard Branson, on the other hand, is hoping to offer a suborbital flight for about $200,000 where you get about five minutes of weightlessness. So, obviously, there are places to go beyond the suborbital flights. We did a piece on this for our October issue, which looked at things coming down the pike. One of the things we looked at was the concept of space hotels. I put that in quotation, 'space hotels.' There's a company based in Barcelona called the Galactic Suite that started this, what they're talking about are structures that you could go to that orbit the earth. They're expecting to launch these things in 2012. It will be like a molecule with pods attached to each other. That would be like $4 million for a three night stay. So obviously it's a little more than a stay in the country.
FUTURIST: It's a like a space station for tourists?
Bean: Right. The idea is you would participate in some experimentation, but they want to present it as being for tourists. That's the direction various space agencies--like the Russian space agency--are taking. They've figured the best way to fund things like that is through private sources, if someone is willing to spend $20 million then, great, we'll take that money. There's another company in Las Vegas called Bigalow aerospace; they're looking to build these inflatable, orbital habitats, which, in theory, could be used as space hotels. They're not promoting them as such so much as pharmaceutical research stations, but again, one of the other uses could be as a tourist destination. The biggest problem with these is that a reusable means of transportation--practically speaking--doesn't really exist, yet. Even the space shuttles that we have now are very expensive to launch. So in terms of what might be next, it might be that, whether or not it will happen, or whether it will happen by 2012, who knows.
FUTURIST: Is there anyway to tell what Superwealthy people will find interesting?
Bean: I try refrain from lumping people together in one category, speculating about the sort of things the very wealthy as a group might want. What do most people value? Many of the people we poll say privacy and convenience. A better question might be, once you're seeking those things, and you have nearly boundless means, what's possible? We've touched on is the concept of a supersonic private jet, something to get you from Paris to New York in a couple of hours. There are a couple of companies that are working on those. One of the problems was the sonic boom, with the boom you're somewhat limited in terms of where you can fly; a lot places won't let you fly those over land, so they're not so convenient if you want to fly from the East coast to the West coast. They were trying to create a supersonic plane that didn't create a sonic boom. They weren't that far off in the future that they were thinking about doing this. That's an aspect of the private flight industry, which is four times what it was a few years ago, and what that offers is convenience. But at some point, you have to wonder, might there be some backlash against private flight? How much fuel does a fleet of private supersonic jets burn? What sort of pollution do they make?
FUTURIST: Do you see a lot of wealthy people becoming more eco-conscious? Do you see a premium being placed on great environmental or eco-experiences for instance? Ecotourism is very popular among middleclass tourists.
Bean: Right, and there's a trickle down effect. It starts off being something that only a small percentage can afford and, with everything else, the price comes down, what was luxury becomes mass market. That's certainly been the case with eco-tourism. There were just a handful of resorts touting themselves as eco-conscious a few years ago. Now everything is. Eco-experiences are now fairly common. What you see now though, in terms of the higher end market, there are certain places that had been inaccessible that people with the means now want to see, in part because few other people could go there. Bhutan is an example. Recently a large hotel group opened a resort there. So, you have to have the means to get there, and there's a nice place to stay. I guess there are still some places like that, and we're always looking for that. We target readers that want to be ahead of the trend, that want to be the first on the block to have something. So we're always looking for destinations where you can have a comfortable experience yet there aren't as many people going there.
FUTURIST: Antarctica is all that's left.
Bean: I don't know many five-star places there, but with global warming, all these infrequently visited places could become tourist destinations. That's putting a very positive spin on things.
FUTURIST: The number of billionaires on the planet today according to the most recent Forbes list is 793 who, together, control $2.6 trillion in assets, about 1/5 of total U.S. GDP. That number is up from just 13 billionaires in 1982. Clearly the number of super wealthy individuals is advancing far faster than the pace of inflation. Where do you see this trend going in the future as more people develop super-wealth at an ever faster pace?
Bean: Certainly good for us. That partially explains why we've already launched a Robb Report Russia and are looking to launch a Robb Report China. You're seeing a lot of growth in the luxury market in China, Russia, and the Middle East, certainly.
FUTURIST: What trend in the way the super-wealthy spend their money interests you the most?
Bean: We look at it in reverse, in a way. We don't look at what they're spending on so much as what's out there to spend money on.
FUTURIST: What's the most interesting thing that you've covered lately?
Bean: Some of the new yachts, like the Maltese Falcon yacht that Tom Perkins owns, are certainly awe-inspiring not just in terms of the size but the technology involved, and the fact that, in theory at least, one person can sail that thing. That's fascinating to me. But I think some of the innovations being made in the green realm are also fascinating. For instance we did a piece on the new Tesla Roadster, it goes zero to sixty in less than four seconds and it's electric. That's a hundred-thousand-dollar car, and if you're going to spend that much on a car, it has to have the capabilities of a hundred-thousand-dollar car; it has to go fast, handle well, and look nice. This car has all of that. So you can have it all and you don't have to compromise the fun of driving the car, for those who enjoy getting whiplash. BMW, too, is doing a lot of work with hydrogen cells. What's interesting about that is, again, the trickle-down effect. They're introducing these products at the luxury end. If they appear like luxury products, then they become more palatable to the mass market later on. There's another company doing work on a solar-powered private plane.
FUTURIST: Very admirable, but I'm not getting in that thing.
Bean: No, Not on a cloudy day.
This interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker .