Bored of the cookie-cutter hotel suite? How about a night in a Tudor castle? Itching to go off-road in something more rugged than a 4×4? Might sir fancy the keys to an armoured personnel carrier instead?
To amuse their well-heeled, globetrotting patrons, luxury marques are pulling no stops in planning unforgettable “drive aways”, industry-speak for self- driving convoy tours. Drivers usually come along in their vehicles on such trips, but if the destination is too distant, brands are also happy to supply new cars on location.
Itineraries could be as elaborate as a week-long sojourn to the UK where Bentley habitues stayed at Thornbury Castle Hotel just outside of Bristol, a country manor in which King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, once lived, as well as learnt to handle a Cold War-era FV432 battle taxi under the instruction of former British Army soldiers. Or it could be a quick weekend getaway for Mini drivers up north or down south for some durian, and allowing their cars a chance to romp around and clear the carbon out of their engines.
These jaunts are often subsidised, with fees covering only basic operational costs, admits Andrea Tan, the marketing manager of distributor Wearnes Automotive, but it is a great investment in getting to know the clientele and bringing the “Bentley family” closer together.
She continues: “It also allows owners to understand and appreciate their Bentley cars better, as they are exposed to driving in different environments and terrain, like last year, when customers had to drive their Bentayga SUV across a stream to get to their resort. It is an experience they still talk about today.”
ALL IN THE DETAILS
To execute these dream holidays, carmakers and distributors, armed with a wish list, turn to a handful of bespoke travel experts specialising in driving events to organise everything from booking luxury accommodation to managing convoys and security.
The co-founder of Pitcrew Events in Singapore, Jason Chew, says: “We started this company, because we found there is a big gap (in the market of companies offering services) where you can just show up and go.”
Chew, who has handled drive aways for a laundry list of brands from Audi to Volvo – and a few dozen others in between – has accumulated more than a decade of experience planning such road trips. These have taken him to virtually all the Asean countries, and as far away as China, Australia and the UK. He is already working on his next exotic locale, Russia.
He maintains a close-knit network of global partners and instructors to tap on for ideas and execution, which is especially crucial if the travel destination is foreign to him. After crafting an itinerary, he goes on location to perform a recce, mapping out the roads down to the last mile and ensuring that restaurants and hotels are up to scratch. Nothing is left to chance – he even audits the toilets en route for cleanliness, and confirms that hospitals with adequate emergency facilities are not too far away.
“You can’t simply google these things,” the 39-year-old explains, adding that many details which participants take for granted have actually been meticulously planned.
Take, for instance, the mandate that all drives be concluded by nightfall for safety. To make that happen on a recent trip to New South Wales, Australia, he arranged for the sightseeing boat to dock by Park Hyatt Sydney, where the guests overnighted, to pick them up for a private whale-watching cruise.
This was, superficially, an exclusive touch for a rarefied bunch.
But just as importantly, he says, the move had a further purpose: to shave a precious hours off the usual tour. This allowed drivers to reach their Wolgan Valley resort before dusk, in time to tuck into a traditional Aussie barbecue dinner over campfire in the outback.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
One further example: It is no coincidence that Chew concludes every trip with a dinner at an authentic Chinese restaurant.“Singaporeans [and Malaysians], no matter how worldly, eventually seek the familiarity of Chinese food,” he observes. “By the fifth or sixth day, they would have grown tired of steak and pasta, and want to chow down a plate of fried rice and char siew.”
Another group had a craving for durian, so another event planner, Ivan Khong, took them to a specialist stall on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. He recalls with a chuckle: “They ate to their hearts’ content, spending more than RM6,000 just on durian and durian chendol.”
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Chew has received his fair share of tough requests from customers, whether it is to hunt down a rare bottle of wine or to procure an otherwise sold-out Hermes Birkin bag. He recalls a shopaholic family of four that arrived with four bags, but left with 15. And that is not including the various boxes that they shipped back directly from the store, he notes.
But the hard work is all worth it. Customers are known to express their gratitude in surprising ways. Chew recalls helping a guest source for truffles – which Chew had also wanted for himself – and finding the delicacy in London’s Borough market. After paying, the man turned around, passed Chew a bag of the stuff and told him to take it.
WHEN THINGS GO SOUTH
Of course, even the best of plans can go pear-shaped, whether it is due to a vehicular breakdown, carjacking or a crash. Organisers have in place standard operating procedures to take care of these contingencies.
For instance, Chew ensures that he provides enough backup resources to manage multiple simultaneous breakdowns, which means hiring a large enough crew to wait kerbside with drivers for the courtesy car to arrive, and to hang around till the tow truck comes.
In areas where security is a concern, he also employs licenced security firms to accompany the convoy. At petrol stops, these watchmen reassuringly guard entrances and exits from ingress by potential miscreants, keeping customers safe. One interviewee, who declined to be named, has even organised traffic police outriders to ensure protected passage.
And then there are the crashes. Chew recounts an incident on a wet day in Malaysia, when a car from the opposite direction lost control and smashed into his convoy. Within minutes, he had checked that the drivers were okay while his team removed the event decals, the windscreen labels and the licence plates from the customer’s car and covered it with tarp.
“The fewer the photographs the better,” he says. “Accidents happen. There is no point in getting him additional publicity. Whenever there is an accident between a Perodua Kancil and a luxury sports car, people assume that the latter must have been speeding. But in this case, it was the Kancil that had lost control. It is about protecting the customer’s interests.”
For Chew, his worst experience where everything went awry was, in a small mercy, not when he was with customers but on a site recce. He was in Cambodia checking out an off-road course in a sand-floored jungle when, as night fell, one of his instructor’s cars ran over a sharp rock, completely rupturing a tyre. The spare had been left behind in the hotel, but even if he had one, the jack would not have worked on the soft jungle ground. When he tried to ring the hotel to send help, he found that he had no mobile phone signal.
But there was a silver lining amid the snafu, with a twist. Some curious villagers showed up, realised that Chew and his gang were hungry, and offered them food from a barbecue; the feast comprised rat and snake meat.
“No matter how many SOPs that we put in place, we are still human,” he says. “But it was a good demonstration to ingrain in us that we need to make sure that all our equipment and spares are in our cars before we move off.”