Charter brokers are used to going above and beyond for their superyacht clients, but tell one about the experiences that Based on a True Story has arranged and even the most seasoned will be impressed. The company arranges individual experiences around the world that go far beyond the imaginations of their clients, and each one is completely different. “What we do is the antithesis of conventional travel,” explains founder and CEO Niel Fox. “Rather than offer a list of tried and tested activities in a place, we try to find what hasn’t been done. We want to get people into places they wouldn’t normally get to, places where others wouldn’t think of taking them because there would be no infrastructure to accommodate them.”
While the company can arrange typical superyacht and land-based itineraries (and Niel has procured several A-list musicians and celebrities to appear at his clients’ parties), the situations in which the company thrives are the unusual, unheard-of trips. By cultivating relationships with locals on the ground, Niel and his ten-strong team can create experiences no one else could. For example, this year one client’s brief was simple: keep the kids entertained. The team could have fulfilled it with a few easy-to-organise activities, but instead they fabricated a complex story: the client and his children were flown to Morocco and were led to discover an ancient artefact in the desert using a map. Using camels, a 4×4 and a hot-air balloon, they followed the map to a nomadic camp the company had set up, complete with hundreds of actors dressed as pirates swordfighting, plus astrologers and belly dancers to entertain the group. Every detail was planned out, down to the hand-made pirate costumes. The sheer scale of such experiences is impressive, but by no means rare: the company arranges up to 20 a year of a similar magnitude.
But while the company can arrange large-scale and highly complex events, that’s not quite their remit. It’s giving a client either exactly the experience he wants, or building relationships with a client so that, when he asks for something vague – a trip to Africa, say, or an experience that will show his children that there is more to life that wealth, the company can concoct and deliver. “We really try to understand the individual,” explains Niel. Someone from the company will be on each trip, but the team is trained to know when they are and aren’t needed. “First and foremost we are facilitators,” he says. “We don’t want the client to have to think or have to do anything, so we are constantly subtly noticing the nuances and adapting things slightly. Many clients are used to having a lot of people around them. We have some that like us to sit right next to them for the entire trip, even if it’s their honeymoon! In that situation I tried to encourage them to go off together and do their own thing.”
Of course, the clients the company works with, from royals to self-made billionaires, are accustomed to having things just so, and invariably some change their minds upon arrival. Sleeping in a custom-made luxury mud hut (complete with newly built shower, champagne on ice and Egyptian cotton sheets) might have sounded like a great experience a couple of months ago, but now the client simply wants indulgence. “Giving them scenarios that they can step into or walk away from is key,” he says. “We try to push them a little bit to try things but if they don’t like it that’s fine. For instance, we just had a trip in Japan where we were very keen for the royals to experience the traditional life in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with a public communal hot spring for bathing. We picked out a very authentic ryokan for them to spend the night in but if they didn’t want to or if it wasn’t quite what they expected, then we also had a presidential suite up our sleeve. It was very successful. Our clients talk about these experiences as being life-changing. We’ve always got a five-star alternative, but often what we’ve arranged is something incredible they will talk about forever.”
But experiences don’t have to be epic or life-changing: some arrangements are simpler, more akin to what charter brokers arrange. If a client wants a party with an A-list popstar to entertain guests, or a remote romantic picnic in a beautiful spot, no problem. What makes the company different from a typical concierge company, says Niel, is that the emphasis is always on what is new and hasn’t been discovered. He and his team will strive to find a beauty spot that no one has been to before, or add special touches on to what a client has requested.
It’s often here where superyachts enter the equation. Even if an experience isn’t water based, a superyacht will be involved, simply because it adds so much. “We have a very different approach to yachts,” he says. “We can do the glam side, setting up a yacht for a really fabulous party, but more often we’re utilising the yachts as best as possible and getting them into the most interesting scenarios. We ask ourselves: which parts of this area are going to be most interesting with a yacht?” It’s often overlooked, but one of the beauties of having a yacht to hand is the opportunity to see new places from that unique, sea-based perspective.
And what place doesn’t look at its best approached by water? The team at Based On are keen to remind yacht charterers and owners about this discovery aspect of yachting. “If we’re running a trip in French Polynesia, I don’t want to show clients the Bora Bora St Regis on approach. I want locals to come paddling out in canoes, so a client’s first sight is as Cook would have experienced. That’s what’s in my mind when I think of French Polynesia, not being moored off polishing your ego in front of some resort. We have to get people on the ocean, because to see a place from that aspect is the way to really feel it.” Current destinations for trips in development include Venezuela, Croatia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea: places where Niel says it would be pointless to go to without including an ocean-based aspect.
And a single group can have very different itineraries on one trip, he says. A trip recently included three helicopters, one with a group of guys on an adventure trip, one with their wives and children who wanted to relax as families, and one of further friends who wanted a more conventional holiday, sipping gin and tonic and having massages. “The interesting thing on that trip was there wasn’t one conventional hotel on the entire agenda: every single bit of it we found or built and made five-star, from fishermen’s huts to an old house, all along this coastline. It was loads of fun and they could all do it in their own style.”
The group came together for celebratory dinners every evening. Perfectionism is clearly a quality that needs to be ever present for the company to succeed, and this isn’t something Niel shies away from. So concerned is he that clients who call him get the most incredible experiences that he turns down business if he doesn’t feel his team has the time or resources to produce the results. “We never take anything that we have less than a couple of months to prepare,” he says. “We can be choosy because we want to do things really well. If we can’t deliver the standard we’ve been delivering for a few years, there’s no point.” It takes confidence to be so sure of your brand, and he adds that he knows what he does wouldn’t suit everyone.
That doesn’t mean things never go wrong; when all experiences are never-repeated first-time events, unexpected snags from external sources pop up on a daily basis. One of the trickiest incidents the company has encountered happened a few years ago in Sabah, northern Borneo. Niel had met three shamans who, in return for $2,000, would put themselves through a near-death experience to guarantee clement weather. When the client looked through the costings, he struck this off, so Niel cancelled the shamans. As the yacht was about to depart for Sabah a month later, three cyclones hit without warning. Conditions were worse than they’d ever been before and all the islands were evacuated; a beach house that the company had renovated for the client was destroyed. In the event, the trip was rerouted and the client was none the wiser. “But who knows if it would have gone differently if we’d gone ahead with the shamans!” he says.
Most of his business comes from repeat clients with whom he has built close relationships. It’s easy to see why: these clients trust him to invest their budgets into trips they will love. Since many only take a week or two off work a year, they need the right person to make sure those weeks are exactly what they want and need.
He is clearly proud of a trip he’s just undertaken to Burma. He managed to speak to the head monk of an ancient monastery and his group became, he says, the first people to fly privately in the troubled country since the 1950s, and the first to use a monastery for a private event. They set up temples, flew furniture 1,000 miles and asked the monks to prepare a fortune for every guest, carved into bone tablets and written on papyrus. They built pagodas filled with local artefacts that would never be displayed in museums. It is not only the clients who benefit. The company donates to communities, either with money or necessities. In Burma, they worked with the almost-extinct Moken tribe and donated materials for the tribe to build boats. They also recruit locally wherever they can: indeed, authenticity is key so dancers, chefs and musicians are locals.
There is enjoyment for local people, too: a recent trip had the clients entertained by maharajas in India. “These maharajas don’t get the opportunity to showcase their might the way they used to, but with us they could bring this culture to life. They played elephant polo against the clients! In Africa, we introduce clients to amazing people who’ve been there for generations. They start talking around that fire and… I get goose pimples just talking about it! These are indigenous people who don’t live a life that’s got anything to do with passing around coins and notes. Regardless of race or creed or wealth, these are just really interesting individuals.” Heartwarming, yes, but surely some tribes react less than warmly to a group of tourists encroaching on their territory for entertainment? “Yes, completely, but we will try to find a better solution to offer, or settle for something else then build it back up,” he says.
Indeed, in a job where ‘no’ is not an option, nothing is impossible. As Niel says: “If you can think it, you can probably do it.”