A lifelong horse lover, Kay Hargrove didn’t think any vacation could top the time her husband took her to watch the Kentucky Derby.
Until she got to hang out with the horses.
Hargrove was among the first visitors to set foot behind the scenes of some of the nation’s most prestigious Kentucky thoroughbred horse farms, many of them previously off limits to anyone other than employees, through a new nonprofit called Horse Country set up to bolster interest in the horseracing industry.
She talked with grooms and trainers, fed some horses peppermints, and got up close with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Saratoga and Belmont veteran War Front, whose stud fee is $150,000.
“I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him,” Hargrove said of War Front. “We got to pet I don’t know how many different horses. Where else can you go where you can touch something that valuable? You can’t touch a work of art.”
Not yet, anyway. But it may be only a matter of time.
Tourist destinations are inviting visitors to participate in VIP experiences they once could only imagine from behind the velvet rope: dinner at Hemingway’s table in the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West or at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater, private after-hours tours of the Sistine Chapel and the Louvre, grand prix racing in a Formula 1 car near Monte Carlo, glimpses of the insides of the fashion houses of Milan and Paris.
“It’s a trend that’s been a long time brewing,” said Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, whose guests can drink an ancient aperitif in the fifth-century house of a Roman senator from a recipe unearthed by archeologists, or take a private tango lessons with Hector and Elsa Marie Mayoral, stars of Tango Argentino, in their Buenos Aires mansion. “Sightseeing is an old term right now. The whole psychographic of what people are wanting has changed to become experiential.”
Otterson said he has watched this evolve through his career.
Once, he said, “People would just be so happy to look out the window and see the changing leaves of New England. Then they wanted to get off the coach and run in them and flop in them. Then they wanted to pick them up and understand the science of what makes them change colors. And now they want to go and see where Johnny Appleseed lived and sleep in his house.”
They can’t actually do that, as there is no known Johnny Appleseed house. But they can, through the Aria Hotel in Prague, take a private tour of the oldest Baroque palace in that city, led by a member of the noble family. The tour operator Tauck arranges private after-hours access to the Louvre and Versailles; Viking Cruises, to the Hermitage and its private vaults, otherwise closed to the public; and Gate 1 Travel, to the Hungarian Parliament and the library of the Strahov Monastery in Budapest.
Some guests of the travel companies Trafalgar, Collette, and Insight Vacations skip the typical two-hour wait and get special access to the Vatican museums, followed, with Trafalgar, by a three-course buffet in the courtyard or, with Insight, dinner in the Ethnological Museum. Adventures by Disney offers private after-hours viewings of the Sistine Chapel and the Vienna Zoo, and, on the other side of the cultural spectrum, visits to the otherwise off-limits Jim Henson Company Studios and Walt Disney’s private apartment upstairs from the Disneyland fire station.
Customers of Collette can book a private dinner at Hall’s Croft, the 400-year-old home that once belonged to William Shakespeare’s daughter, as costumed actors perform scenes from Shakespeare plays. Austin Adventures guests can watch Old Faithful before the crowds arrive, with a private showing from the roof of the Old Faithful Inn.
Though it can cost as little as $20 to visit one of those high-end Kentucky horse farms, tickets are strictly limited and quickly sell out, and access to some of these other rarefied encounters is decidedly for travelers not on a budget. Dinner at Hemingway’s house, for instance, is part of a package that costs $25,000 for two people and includes three nights at the local Waldorf-Astoria resort Casa Marina (now cleaned up and reopened since Hurricane Irma), a seaplane flight to Dry Tortugas, a fishing trip aboard a luxury yacht, and the dinner, featuring Hemingway-period dishes and — of course — cocktails. So exclusive is it that the house’s curator didn’t want to talk about it.
And that, said Drew Sir, marketing manager at the Casa Marina, is the point.
“It’s about the exclusivity,” Sir said. “It’s a totally different experience. Hemingway would have hosted other writers in his home for dinners and cocktails, and you have it all to yourself, with the cats roaming the yard. People want to spend their money on something exclusive — on the experiences in life instead of the things.”
Some Newport mansions quietly open themselves up for private visits. Laurie Stroll, owner of the destination management company Newport Hospitality, books the likes of Rough Point, the mansion of heiress and socialite Doris Duke, for gatherings of corporate executives and boards of directors.
“When you do a group tour, everybody sees the same thing,” Stroll said. “When you do something private or are lucky enough to do a private dinner in a mansion, you have more access. You’re not in line with other people, and you can spend more time.”
Offering behind-closed-doors events can also help historic houses and museums attract rich donors. It’s also true that these destinations must increasingly compete with virtual reality and other technology that makes conventional visits comparatively unexciting.
“What historic houses are challenged with these days is getting people across the threshold,” said Roy Young, cochair of the American Alliance of Museums’ Historic House Network and head of guest services at Mount Vernon after serving as director of operations of Fallingwater.
The conservancy that owns that Frank Lloyd Wright home invites a maximum of 12 guests, just twice a year, to live in cottages on the property for three days and have it to themselves, including over several meals and a sunset picnic. The next dates are May 1 to 3. When it was first offered, the program — called Insight/Onsite — drew so much interest that the website crashed, even at a price of $2,500 per person.
“It’s all about authenticity,” said Terry Dale, president of the US Tour Operators Association. “No longer is it acceptable to just sit and look down from the window of a bus.” Instead, he said, travelers want to be immersed in a place, “so you feel like you really get it.”
That’s why the Hotel Metropole Monte Carlo arranges for its guests to drive a Formula 1 race car at the nearby Circuit du Luc, general manager Serge Ethuin said: They might be able to watch the Grand Prix right outside their windows, “but you don’t necessarily get the experience. We thought, why don’t we give to that customer who’s sometimes slightly frustrated by viewing and not doing to do something similar,” Ethuin said — “to get into the car and be the star for a moment.”