Gstaad, Marrakesh, Capri... these hubs of the jet set thrive on two things: money and influence. Anyone can fly to Gstaad, of course, but there’s a world of difference between just being in Gstaad and being invited to have dinner with Carey Mulligan there. A small world of difference, as it happens.
Members of the online network A Small World (ASW) will on Monday find out exactly how small it is when the brand relaunches as a paid version of the site that was once dubbed “Facebook for the few” with a celebrity-studded party in Marrakesh. Under the new format, members will be invited to join the site, a place “where like-minded members come together to share travel advice, extraordinary experiences and special benefits,” says Sabine Heller, CEO of the site and a globetrotter herself. “ASW is for ‘citizens of the world’, who want to be plugged in wherever they are or go. For ASW members, travel is a natural by-product of their lifestyle.”
Welcome to how the other half travel in the internet age: Couchsurfing for those who buy their couches at Armani Casa, except instead of finding someone to crash with, it’s being guided to people and companies that can introduce you to the more exclusive delights a destination may offer, encouraging you to throw your Lonely Planet out that first class window.
“The idea of walking around Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower with a physical guidebook seems somewhat outdated,” says Heller. “Today’s traveller seeks the type of three-dimensional, relationship-based insider experiences and peer-recommendations ASW uniquely offers. Where else can you land up in a new city and hit the ground running with events to attend, hotels and stores that recognise you — and give you special treatment,” she adds, also mentioning the network gives members access to people “some of whom are sorted into groups by your interests, industries and travel patterns” — and a geo-location mobile app that allows ASW members to find each other. Also included: chauffeured airport transfers and office space in major cities.
“I have had extraordinary experiences when I’ve travelled using ASW. People all over the world have welcomed me — hosted dinner parties for me — and have helped me along my way. I even met Rahul Gandhi through ASW.”
Heller points out examples where ASW members have used the network to get out of sticky situations abroad, from finding a safe haven in an African riot to a lawyer in a Middle Eastern court case.
But there are fun times to be had, of course. “It’s not uncommon to meet dates on ASW — with 40 parties per month around the world, it’s inevitable that some will connect on a more, some might say, intimate, level,” she says, citing a member who found a job, married the man who posted the notice, then had a baby with him. “Listen, we’re not saying we’re here to hook you up, but it’s been known to happen,” she says.
Membership to the club is the princely sum of $105 (Dh385) — yes, you read that right — and includes a week’s stay at the Kittitian Hill luxury sustainable Caribbean resort. The catch is that your request has to be accepted by the site (register at asmallworld.com) or you have to be invited by an existing member, and numbers are even more limited than before — to 250,000 members.
“Our members will make a pledge to only invite like-minded travellers into our global family. Certain members will get invitation privileges to invite their friends, others will not. We are focusing on quality over quantity.”
Heller won’t comment on the society’s celebrity members, although an ASW party in the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Gstaad this winter found the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Mulligan, Poppy Delevigne, Waris Ahluwalia (who has designed the new members cards) and Tali Lennox feasting on fondue and, presumably, swapping summer holiday ideas. (Heller tells me she’s a last-minute traveller, but this summer plans time at her weekend home in the Catskills in New York. “I’m also attending three weddings in London. As for a beach holiday, I’m thinking Turkey.”)
No longer on the list, according to media reports, are former members Lindsay Lohan and Tiger Woods.
“Our DNA is trust,” Heller emphasises. “With 80 million fake profiles on Facebook and so many popular Twitter handles being fake, trust is a huge problem in social media. ASW will soon become the only social network with verified profiles.”
For anyone who’s ever trawled through questionable reviews on Tripadvisor, the reasoning behind having only like-minded, trustworthy people recommending that hotel in Rio is understandable.
“Members from different continents that have never met can have a trusted interaction. As for our sense of openness; most other sites are centred and focused around the individual. ASW is the opposite — it is about the collective and the impact we can make together. It is an open community where it is normal to reach out to people you do not know.”
Although, she adds, members will be kicked out for inappropriate actions. “You should only connect to people you know personally or with whom you have reasonable and appropriate social context — just like in life.”
Heller is an experienced traveller with decades of flights, hotels and airport transfers under her belt, but some of it has been far from luxurious. “I’ve never had a terrible travel experience per se — I’ve had experiences that have been outlandish, crazy and stressful at the time but have made for great stories and memories later. One that comes to mind is a trip I took to Morocco as a twenty year old. It involved hitching a 24-hour ride to the desert, staying at a local family’s home for the night — quite unexpectedly, having to take an overnight train from Marrakesh to Tangiers without a seat, and then missing the boat back to Spain, which necessitated the bribing of immigration officials to let us get on the next ferry.”
Sabine Heller’s guide to India
Heller grew up in Mumbai and New Delhi, and shares her views on where to visit in India away from the usual Agra, Mumbai and Goa.
“Most of the beauty of India exists outside of those places. I recommend a trip through Madhya Pradesh to see the palaces and forts, in particular Ahilya Fort on the Narmada River and the ancient city of Mandu. For South India, a good alternative to Goa is Kerala, where you can rent boats and peacefully float through the backwaters. Nearby you can find Pondicherry, a magical little Portuguese fishing village, and the ancient city of Hampi. If hot and humid isn’t your speed, the hill-station towns in northern India are amazing. Darjeeling is especially charming.”
Not among the 250,000 to be invited to A Small World? Here are some of Sabine Heller’s insider hotspots.
Shop: Bungalow 8, the chic-est concept store in Mumbai
Eat: Omen in New York; it serves rustic Kyoto-style Japanese food.
Drink: Acme, which is also a restaurant in NY but is really fun to go to for a drink.
Relax: The Soho House Miami. It’s like no other place in Miami — total heaven.
Party: In my living room. I like house parties. I also like summer parties outdoors, on beaches, in gardens and such.
Romance: I love nature, so ultimately the most romantic places are places with waterfalls, beaches, cliffs.
“Waris is a long-time member,” says Heller of the Indian-American jewellery designer and sometime actor (he’s appeared in several films by Wes Anderson). “Equally at home in Paris, the Amazon, or the Kalahari of Botswana, Waris is a true international man of style. His aesthetic and approach to life reflects our passion for living in a bold and exploratory way.”