“Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind,” wrote Seneca, in one of his lighter moments, though living in 1st-century Rome, it is unlikely he had global real estate in mind.
Nevertheless, it is an aphorism that the growing legion of super-rich seems to have taken to heart. For the 63,000-strong elite who, according to Knight Frank’s 2012 Wealth Report, have assets of $100m or more, the desire for cultural, climatic and geographic diversity is manifested in multiple homes worldwide.
From Brazil, through the drift of emerging wealth, to China, a typical super-rich individual’s portfolio will consist of four or five properties. For lifestyle nomads, this will include established super-prime homes in London, southern Europe, the Alps, the US, and the Caribbean, with their migratory patterns driven by seasonal pursuits and filtered, here and there, by clannish bias.
With skiing, or après-ski, in mind, the new wealthy Brazilians join Americans on the slopes of Vail and Aspen, while Christmas sees the British and Europeans head for their chalets in the Alps, where old money has long graced the sophistication of Gstaad and Megève. Russians, on the other hand, currently among the most active players in the European super-prime market, have over the past 10 years been purchasing large slices of Courchevel 1850. “Super-prime destinations attract buyers from all around the world,” says David Forbes, head of Savills Private Office, which deals with the global requirements of the rich. “But Russians tend to go specifically where there are other Russians, often following in the wake of an oligarch.”
On this basis, if the Caribbean is the sunseekers’ refuge of choice for the months of November till March, Russians will congregate on St Barts – long popular among the French but more recently brought to prominence by the lavish parties of Roman Abramovich, who purchased a 70-acre estate on the island in 2009 for a reported £59m. Mustique, with its royal connections, the Bahamas and Barbados are also among the powder-sand perennials, with Barbados (where current off-market listings reach $50m) boasting the highest proportion of billionaires. This boast might soon be trumped, however, by Canouan, the new private island development of Dermot Desmond in the Grenadines, where plots of land are quietly selling for between $5m and $20m. The island will be distinguished by a championship golf course, a deep-water marina and, crucially, an airstrip long enough to accommodate Gulfstream G550s, permitting direct access from as far afield as Europe.
It’s not only the Caribbean that promises winter sun, however, and Indians and South Africans are increasingly joining the historic French presence in Mauritius. Forbes says: “British swallows also favour Cape Town, where they will spend the Christmas party season around Constantia, Clifton or Camps Bay. Then everyone returns home, only to repeat these migratory patterns during the February half-term break.”
Easter sees a scattergun global dispersal – whether to the waterfront mansions of Lake Como, whose proximity to the Swiss Alps offers a last chance to ski, or on a safari-hop from Cape Town, for the first migration of wildebeest, while recovering from a nip-and-tuck. It is a timely procedure as, in May, the spotlight turns to the sine qua non of any property portfolio: London, whose season launches with the annual Chelsea Flower Show.
London and, to a lesser extent, Paris and Manhattan, is a rara avis that satisfies the requirements of both lifestyle and investment purchasers, the latter most notably the discreet wealthy newcomers from India and the Asia-Pacific rim. Middle Eastern Arabs, whose first property spree followed the 1970s oil boom, arrive in London around this time to escape the heat of their own cities, stocking up at Harrods and attending Royal Ascot. For Qataris, who now own much of prime central London, as well as the Olympic Village, it is almost a homecoming.
The super-rich “are attracted to London for children’s education, personal safety, existing network of family and friends, relative economic and investment security, as well as cosmopolitan culture and shopping,” says Craig McWilliam of Grosvenor Developments, whose Grosvenor Crescent “historic residences” have recently achieved £4,500 per sq ft.
For David Macdonald, a director of Air Partners, the oldest private jet company in Europe, it is London’s centrality that is key. He says it’s “just eight hours from both New York and Dubai, and an easy commute to the south of France”.
The Côte d’Azur is, of course, where the wealthy are reunited with their yachts, the demand for 80m-plus models exceeding supply, particularly among Russian, American and Arab clients. When not at sea, they are to be found aestivating among old money Europeans and year-round autochtones in Cap Ferrat, and “billionaires’ bay” in Cap d’Antibes, whose property prices have been rising steadily over the past 100 years, and regularly top €30m. The whirr of helicopters overhead, meantime, signals the transport of the fun-loving younger generation to the vibrant party scene of Saint-Tropez – long a repository of French wealth – leaving the super-charged apartments of Monaco, down the road, for those with more pressing fiscal concerns.
Except for Americans heading for homes in Miami and Hawaii, and Australians bound for Bali, high summer heralds a general exodus to the Mediterranean. Greek shipowners sail serenely through their turbulent economic waters to family homes on the northern Aegean and Cycladic islands, and to Porto Heli in the Peloponnese (where, despite the country’s woes, Scandinavians and western Europeans are buying Adrian Zecha’s new Amanzoe residential villas for between €3m and €20m), leaving the balance of the hedonistic rich to the pleasure spots of France, Italy and the residential golf estates of southern Spain.
Rob Hersov, a Johannesburg-born entrepreneur who is, inter alia, chairman of Vistajet, is paradigmatic of this rarefied existence. Living in London (Belgravia) for the past 20 years, he also has homes in St Moritz, Cape Town (Clifton), and is considering buying into Canouan. “As a base,” he says, “London has it all. Then it’s Christmas in Cape Town, skiing in St Moritz, Easter in St Barts, and summer with friends in Saint-Tropez. It’s about enjoying life, and sport – I’ll travel the world to play golf. There are, of course, those who buy homes for tax reasons but life is too short to count days.”
“One has to be seen in the right places,” says Jelena Cvjetkovic of Savills International. Arguably, the only rival to the French Riviera in the glamour stakes is Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda. While Portofino has jealously remained a hermetic and exclusive Italian enclave, Costa Smeralda has been courting both local luminaries and an international who’s who ever since the Aga Khan lent his cachet to the area in the 1960s. Private jets fly into Olbia, yachts sail into Porto Cervo, while James Bond motored ashore in an amphibious vehicle in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
Into this classic gold-rimmed Mediterranean circuit comes a hopeful newcomer: the swish marina village and residential development of Porto Montenegro, in which Lord Rothschild is a main investor. At half the price of comparable properties in the south of France, with superb yachting facilities, and underpinned by Rothschild prestige and connections, the scheme is already attracting an international clientele dominated by Britons and east Europeans.
Yet Montenegro is not entirely a parvenu. In its 1960s heyday, when part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro's Sveti Stefan served as the showcase of communism, as well as a haunt of royalty, Hollywood stars and the European intellectual elite in search of a discreet playground. The names of Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren are among those scratched in the Libro d'Oro. Montenegro has form.
Where international real estate is predicated on the four Ss of sun, snow, sport and society, it is, barring the odd ripple, a case of plus ça change ...
The staff who smooth life’s creases for super-rich homeowners
It is a lament no less true for being infrequently voiced in our egalitarian age that “Good staff is so hard to find.” There are issues of trust, security and training. Butlers, much in demand, are thin on the ground. Multiple homes demand a battalion of staff when their owners are in residence, and even when they are absent staff is needed to sort out everything from security to maintenance. Fortunately for those cash-rich, time-poor individuals who lack private offices to deal with such problems, help is at hand.
Hotel villas – from the Four Seasons and Aman chains to one-offs such as the Trisara in Phuket – are a neat turnkey option, offering all the advantages of a private home with the benefits of five-star facilities, full service, security and even a lettings management service if required.
Capitalising on this trend, and on the growing dependency of the helplessly rich on concierge companies to smooth life’s little creases, is the resident “house manager”. Often with a background as a hotel concierge, these unflappable factotums inhabit the new super-prime residential developments, such as Walpole Mayfair, whose penthouse recently sold for £4,542 per sq ft. With just five “state apartments” in the building, the house manager – a more glamorous reincarnation of the humble porter – tailors his service to the requirements of each individual homeowner, providing everything from domestic staff to opera tickets, 24 hours a day. The cost of his services is subsumed into the not-inconsiderable service charges.
For multi-homeowner Rob Hersov, a private house manager – which he employs for each of his properties – is the answer. “They check that everything is in order while I am away. And I will call to let them know when I am coming, so they can stock up, prepare the house and hire any staff we require on a temporary basis,” he explains.
It is a modest arrangement when viewed against properties permanently staffed with some 20 employees, which are used for just one week a year. “Too many people doing too little is a dysfunctional arrangement,” says Philip Eddell, director of management and consultancy services for high-level homeowners at Savills. “We will interview and recruit potential employees, downsize to a skeleton permanent staff if necessary, then upsize with temps as circumstance dictates. We take financial control of the estate, make regular visits to ensure everything is running smoothly, and build a long-term relationship with our clients.”
Unlike domestic staffing agencies – such as the upmarket, bespoke service provided by Jane Urquhart Ltd to clients all over the world – which typically take a commission on a placement, Savills charges a flat fee for its service, based on time.
Finally, there are those – Middle Easterners in particular – who like to travel from home to home with a core of trusted retainers, moving from one continent to the next with a retinue that might also include former Gurkhas as security guards. If personal security is a concern, specialist companies provide 360-degree solutions: the clients of Salamanca Risk Management, for example, range from chief executives and celebrities to royalty.
Whether permanent onsite, temporary or travelling staff is required, discreetly domestic or more visibly muscular, there are many sophisticated alternatives to an advertisement in The Lady.