For the new super rich, life is much more than a beach

Millions of millionaires
Millions of millionaires   

Jean Pigozzi, the venture capitalist and art collector, was lounging by the pool at his villa in Cap d'Antibes early this month, enjoying a rare break from what he calls "the circuit."

After attending the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, he flew to the TED ideas conference in Vancouver, mingling with the likes of Yuri Milner, the tech investor, and Larry Page of Google at the "billionaires' dinner." Next came the art auctions in New York and the Cannes Film Festival, where he threw a pool party attended by Woody Allen, Uma Thurman and the billionaire Paul Allen.

In the next few weeks, after the Art Basel fair, he will be off to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and "the Mediterranean milk run" — the summer megayacht procession leading from St.-Tropez to Portofino and Capri.

"We go all around the world to see some of the same people," Mr. Pigozzi said. "It's a circuit. There are a lot of parties, sure. But you'd be surprised at how much business gets done."

The new rich have developed their own annual migration pattern. While the wealthy of the past traveled mainly for leisure and climate — the ocean breezes of New England in the summer and the sunny golf greens of Palm Beach in winter — today's rich crisscross the globe almost monthly in search of access, entertainment and intellectual status. Traveling in flocks of private G5 and Citation jets, they have created a new social calendar of economic conferences, entertainment events, exclusive parties and art auctions. And in the separate nation of the rich, citizens no longer speak in terms of countries. They simply say, "We'll see you at Art Basel."

An analysis using data from NetJets, the private-jet company, and studies from Wealth-X, the wealth research firm, offers a look at the annual flight path of this elite traveling circus. It starts in January in St. Bart's, with the New Year's Eve party thrown by the oil billionaire Roman Abramovich on his 70-acre estate, with top celebrities and business and media titans in attendance, and performances by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After that, it's on to the World Economic Forum in Davos, then the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, where this year politicians like Tony Blair and Wesley Clark, along with billionaire hedge fund and private equity chiefs like Ken Griffin and Leon Black, chatted about the global economy.

The art auctions in New York in May kick off the spring. Then it's back to Europe for the Cannes International Film Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, Art Basel and the Royal Ascot horse race in Britain. In the summer, the wealthy disperse to the Hamptons, Nantucket, the South of France and other resorts. A conga line of megayachts rolls through the Mediterranean from France to Italy, including David Geffen's 453-foot Rising Sun and the vodka magnate Yuri Shefler's 436-foot Serene.

In late August, the car-loving rich head to Pebble Beach for the Concours d'Elegance auto show and auctions, where last year a vintage Ferrari sold for $38 million. Then it's back to New York for the Clinton Global Initiative for philanthropy mixed with hobnobbing, with swings back and forth across the Atlantic for the Frieze London art fair, the fall auctions in New York and Art Basel Miami Beach.

David Friedman, the president of Wealth-X, said that many of today's rich were self-made entrepreneurs who prize business connections and making deals over spending time on the beach. Being able to say you chatted about self-driving cars over drinks in Sun Valley with Sergey Brin of Google conveys far more status than a winter tan from skiing in Gstaad.

Just as they want a return on their investment and philanthropy, rich people now want a return on their leisure time. "When they travel or socialize, there has to be some redeeming business value," Mr. Friedman said. "They want a transaction, even from their social calendar."

The calendar is a closed loop of access because the rich want to be seen, he said, but only by one another. With outrage over inequality driving more wealth underground, flashy spending and public hedonism have become less fashionable in very wealthy circles. Yet the competition for status among newly minted billionaires has never been stronger.

"They can be a schizophrenic group," Mr. Friedman said. "They want to be private and they don't want to be public targets. But they want a community. These selective events over the course of the year give them that community of like-minded people, without having to deal with the public."

Granted, some of the super rich attend only one or two events on the calendar. And the circuit has offshoots depending on interests. Art collectors will be heavy on the art fairs and auctions but may attend little else. The equestrian crowd flocks to the Kentucky Derby in the spring and the Keeneland yearling auction in September; media titans go to the Allen & Company conference in Sun Valley in July, while fashion devotees go to Fashion Week in New York and the couture shows in Paris. The foodies head to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June and to Italy in white-truffle season.

As Asia creates vast new wealth, events like the Hong Kong wine auctions and Art Stage Singapore will become bigger offshoots of the circuit. Yet for now, many of the super rich from China and other emerging markets are joining their fellow elites at events in Europe and the United States.

Major entertainment and sporting events are crucial dates for the rich. NetJets says the Super Bowl was one of its biggest flight events in the last year; 250 of its jets descended on Phoenix for the game, and weeks later, 250 to 300 of them departed for the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. So many private jets arrived in Las Vegas last month for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight that some were redirected to nearby airports.

NetJets' other big events are the Cannes Film Festival, with over 200 flights, and Art Basel, with 200 to 250 flights. Each spring, more than 100 NetJets planes head to Warren Buffett's annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders' meeting, known as the "Woodstock for Capitalists," in Omaha. (NetJets is owned by Berkshire.)

"It's the 'birds of a feather' phenomenon," said Patrick Gallagher, head of sales for NetJets. "These events give them a sense of security and of belonging. It's people of similar tastes and similar interests."

In fact, so many rich people have been joining the circuit that Mr. Pigozzi said a new "supercircuit" is emerging, one that has V.I.P. events within the V.I.P. events. At the TED conference, the aptly named "billionaires' dinner" held nearby has become the most sought-after ticket. And true media moguls now attend the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, a few weeks after the Cannes Film Festival.

"Lions is now the important one," he said. Cannes has become too mainstream."