We all have that one friend who's always either coming or going, whose calendar (and Instagram feed) is filled with trips to the most enviable, far-flung destinations, and who can always be counted on to give you the best insider tips and recommendations when it comes to booking your next much-needed getaway.
And if you don't have that one friend? You do now.
Meet Brandon Berkson, professional jet-setter, hotel aficionado, and your new favorite travel guru. He's the founder of Hotels Above Par, a curated directory of boutique hotels around the world, and now, HAP Concierge, a customized service that'll have you reimagining everything you thought you knew about travel agencies.
As "your hip new travel agent" HAP Concierge provides personalized itineraries, exclusive perks, and elevated stays, ensuring the coolest, most unique experiences wherever you land. Whether you're already a glamorous globetrotter or hope to be on your way to becoming one, Brandon is most certainly the guy to know.
Read on for everything you need to know about the cool kids' new favorite concierge service and Brandon's secrets to fabulous travel.
You first launched Hotels Above Par at the beginning of the pandemic. What inspired the idea at a time when travel was being put on hold?
Since I was a kid, hotels have always fascinated me. I was sure I wanted to work in hospitality when growing up. My career trajectory starts from front desk associate and bellboy at a San Francisco boutique hotel; then living in Paris, London, and New York City, working in Travel PR, representing brands such as Nobu Hotels and W Hotels; and now, an entrepreneur at the helm of a boutique travel guide and new-age travel agency. I'm super fortunate for all my past experiences—I wouldn't be where I am today without them.
When the world erupted in March 2020, just like so many, I was furloughed from the NYC Travel PR firm where I was working. In addition to being devastated about my job, I was deeply saddened by the pandemic's merciless decimation of the travel industry. I knew some way, somehow, I wanted to support hotels during this time when they needed love most.
My solution? To talk about these hotels and keep them relevant. People needed a sense of wanderlust, something to keep them going, a reminder that we will travel one day again. What started as an Instagram page highlighting design-centric, boutique-oriented hotels worldwide, eventually blossomed into a full-on travel guide covering destinations, restaurants, bars, attractions, design, and culture.
Now you've expanded with HAP Concierge. Did that appear as a natural next step?
With restrictions easing and people traveling more and more every coming month, we started receiving a bevy of inquiries from our boutique travel enthusiast community. People were asking questions about where they should travel next, many of them requesting that we plan their trip. So, with that demand rising, HAP Concierge seemed like a natural next step with the world reopening.
What was your goal in making HAP Concierge stand out from other travel planning services?
My goal in making HAP Concierge stand out from other travel planning services was to position us as a leader in booking boutique-oriented travel, itineraries aligned with the hotels, restaurants, bars, attractions, and destination guides we feature on Hotels Above Par. The HAP Concierge traveler is looking to connect to the heart of a destination through booking something that is or feels boutique—with this in mind, we stray away from planning itinerary items that are overly commercial or mega-resort-like.
Hotels Above Par and HAP Concierge's main clientele are Gen Xs and Millennials. We want to be their "hip new travel agent" and influence a new outlook on trip planning, one that debunks younger populations' widespread beliefs that travel agencies are a "frumpy thing of the '90s" or "something their grandparents use." Our client seeks to visit the trendiest spots in a destination—and our team of travel savants make that happen through their expertise on what & where is cool around the world.
What makes staying at a boutique hotel a special experience over larger chains?
Boutique-style hotels connect you to the heart of a destination. They exude sense of place: collaborations with local brands, a blueprint sporting design elements redolent of that specific locale, as well as a rooted uniqueness that proves "no two stays are the same" are a few examples of how.
Hyper-commercialized mega-resorts don't feel authentic, with many seeming just like another corporate franchise—and there's nothing wrong with that; it just isn't our thing.
Have you found that people's wanderlust has increased after our year of lockdown? Are clients becoming more adventurous in their trips?
Absolutely—after a year and a half of not traveling, people are hungry to see the world. There is a ton of pent-up demand as travelers want to make up for lost time. As a result of the pandemic, people have learned now to not take travel for granted: Americans want to make that bucket-list trip they've been talking about taking for years a reality, or they want to capitalize on being able to travel with their new remote working situation. The wanderlust is there—and, in this post-pandemic world, people are making moves.
Have you had any especially over-the-top or memorable client requests that you can share?
I love when people request over-the-top trip experiences—it allows us at HAP Concierge to be creative. We have so much fun planning them. One of our members loves the Amazing Race, so we planned a scavenger hunt for them and their partner on their Venice trip (think receiving clues on gondola rides and at famous landmarks).
What are some of your favorite perks HAP Concierge offers?
We have fortified relations with different boutique hotels around the world. At many of these hotels, our members receive VIP perks & privileges, which range from complimentary cocktails at check-in to free room upgrades.
Oh, and for $999 a year (the total price for five people), the unlimited custom trip itineraries and planning, plus 24/7 access to one of our travel experts, you get with HAP Concierge membership—the list of perks goes on and on, all for an approachable price.
Obviously, you're a seasoned travel pro. What are some of your go-to tips to making the most of a trip?
Be present. And this says a lot because a large part of my business involves social media: When you're on a trip and experiencing something new, don't be on Instagram posting real-time stories every second. Take a few pictures, keep them for later, and put your phone away—post them on the platform when you get back to your room. I can't tell you how much this has changed my life: I'm normally so consumed with social media when traveling—my decision to save Instagram for later and focus on being my most mindful self while on a trip made me realize how much I was missing around me when glued to my phone.
How about an airport secret most people don't know about?
Yes—purchase CLEAR. For only $179 a year, the service allows you to skip the security line.
If you could move into one hotel you've visited anywhere in the world, which would it be?
Casa Angelina, hands down. Located on Italy's Amalfi Coast, it's one of my favorite hotels: White-washed contemporary design, luxe Italian flair, a nourishing spa, and breathtaking views of the piercing blue Tyrrhenian Sea are just a few hyper-attractive attributes among many others. My ideal situation would be living in their Eudesea Suites during the summer: Old fishermen cabins that have been repurposed into high-end accommodations, down the hill from the main part of the hotel, right next to La Gavitella Beach—one of the only swimmable spots on the area's rocky coast.
Any exciting personal trips on the horizon?
Yes, there are lots of exciting personal trips on the horizon—domestically, I plan to check out Espacio Waikiki in Hawaii; the new Downtown LA Proper Hotel (Kelly Wearstler, who decorated the place, is one of my favorite interior designers); and The Chloe in New Orleans.
Internationally, on the books, I've got Casa Hoyos in Mexico's San Miguel de Allende (aka my favorite country to visit), Moskito Island in the British Virgin Islands, Pulitzer Amsterdam in Amsterdam, as well as Chile and the deep-in-the-desert Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa. Oh, and the Greek Isles, specifically Parilio on the island of Paros.
[Photos via Unsplash and courtesy Brandon Berkson/HAP Concierge]