The story of LUXE City Guides
His “piece of folded card” has now sold over a million copies; the man behind the sassy and saucy LUXE City Guides explains why no other travel companion comes close
By Grant Thatcher
Two and a half years after arriving in Hong Kong in 1996, and having travelled all over Asia grumbling about how cruddy, boring and unstylish all the available travel guides were, I moved to Bangkok.
I had swiftly come to realise that not only were these guidebooks not written for me, they were written by people with completely different lifestyles, values, needs and interests. Moreover, they were predominantly written by people who didn’t actually live in the city at all, but who were paid to visit and record their thoughts, then edited by someone in a foreign city who had probably never travelled to that destination.
To me, this just seemed all wrong, on every level. To understand and ‘know’ a city I think you must live there, full stop.
Today, Bangkok can seem a bewildering and challenging city to the first-time visitor, but in 1999 you couldn’t even buy unsliced bread or emulsion paint in any colour other than white. To stop the endless requests from friends for “where can I get yadda yadda” or “what’s the best place to blah blah,” I started putting together a list of the best craftspeople who would make and design bespoke goods, where you could have your silk woven to order or where you could find the elusive blue Vanda orchid.
The list got embellished with hotel recs and favourite tucked-away restaurants and things to do, and I used to send it out to anyone that asked. It got longer and longer and saucier, and saucier and it was great fun adding and subtracting and keeping tabs on what was fab and what was drab. I didn’t think anymore of it.
By 2001, I was back in Hong Kong. Visiting Singapore for a party one weekend, I got talking to a swish looking gal to whom I mentioned I was going to zap to Bangkok soon. She gasped, shouted “wait”, snatched up her bag and grappled out a huge sheaf of email-printout A4s with hundreds of CC’s on it. Thrusting it at me she said, “If you’re going to Bangkok, you HAVE to take this – it’s all you’ll ever need, believe me. The guy that wrote it lives there.”
I guess you could say it was one of those lightbulb moments. It was pleasing, if somewhat shocking, that something I’d written had been handed from person to person and emailed all over the world. And it came to pass that on Nov 1, 2002 the very first printed Bangkok LUXE City Guide was released upon a totally unsuspecting public.
The genesis from A4 list to finished product was the stuff of classic kitchen-table legend with necessity as the mother of invention. I needed a format that was quick and easy to print (the guides were updated every six months), they needed to be discreet and stylish, and small enough to fit in a shirt pocket for portability, so the concertina format developed.
Space was hyper-tight, so the size of the guide not only dictated the signature LUXE ‘voice’ – snappy, short and sweet (why write 50 words when five will do?), but also meant each entry had to earn its place. There was to be no padding, no faff, no dumb graphics or pictures of gals with conical hats, or ubiquitous market stalls stacked with mangosteens and chillies – you want to see that stuff, go to the city and take your own photograph.
The LUXE reader is time poor so the last thing they wanted was to read a bunch of blah about mean average rainfall. By aggressively editing and honing the number of entries, the “Best of the Best” credo became the deciding factor for entries. Other guides tried desperately to please as wide a demographic as possible, to be as comprehensive as possible, whereas LUXE sought the diametric opposite, to simply supply the cities’ finest options regardless of cost and let the reader choose from a superlative list of personally selected options. The LUXE reader was solvent, able to splash out if they wanted, but also able to appreciate the best bowl of pho at only a dollar a shot. ‘Smart stuff for busy people’ became our tagline, and it still is, nine years later.
To this day, LUXE City Guides only have resident city editors, and we fly our staff editors from Hong Kong to each new destination to check all the shortlisted entries. No other guidebook on the planet does this and I know this is why we have such an authoritative and unique voice in the market. We are resolutely different and defiantly incomprehensive. Our entries are chosen out of passion – do we love something? Will our readers love this? Simple, but crucial.
Becoming a publisher literally overnight and with precisely zero retail experience other than working on a garage forecourt selling petrol as a teenager, was not without challenges. I literally walked door to door in the rain with samples selling into shops all over Hong Kong. I was repeatedly told, “This won’t sell”, “There are no pictures”, “It’s just a piece of folded card”. Trying to explain to bookshop managers that the information contained within was unique and unlike any other guide was like stuffing Simon Cowell through the eye of a needle.
But little by little, people travelled with LUXE, word of mouth did its work, sales took off and I spent every day humping stock to stores and orders to the post office. For every disappointment there was a learning curve, and for every success an infuriating setback, but if ever a business grew organically it was ours. I designed websites (five to date), POS stands and marketing brochures, learnt printing, scale, discount and warehousing, and blasted into the publishing business from zero to full speed all the while literally on the run. For the first two years I was a one-man band, excepting the resident city editors. It was a ride and a half, but boy do you learn quick when your butt is on the line and your name is in the newspaper.
Now, with well over one million copies sold, 33 titles, 20 mobile apps, an ultra-swish online store at luxecityguides.com, a hotel and villa booking site, and feisty LUXEtasy.com blog, we’re still growing and changing, and as opinionated and saucy as ever.
I’ve always said LUXE City Guides are works in progress; like the cities they cover, they change all the time. The most important thing to remember, I think, is that the business of smart travel should always be enjoyable. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t LUXE. TTFN.