The real White Lotus: what it’s like to cater to the every whim of the super-rich
The second series of The White Lotus, an acerbic satire about the holiday habits of the super-rich, starts in a similar way to the first.
“The hotel’s perfect, the staff is excellent… you’re gonna die [sic],” effuses Daphne Babcock (Meghann Fahy), a wealthy housewife with an impossibly bouncy blow-dry and a secret stash of cannabis edibles. She’s holidaying with her philandering husband (played by Theo James) and “new money” friends (Will Sharpe and Aubrey Plaza). “They’re gonna have to drag you out of here.” Spoiler alert: within the first few minutes of the first episode, body bags are being dragged from the beach.
This tragicomedy of manners takes place over a week and is set in an exclusive Sicilian resort. The cast is a gang of monied, miserable holidaymakers who have paid a premium for la dolce vita, and the long-suffering staff who must cater to their every whim. It’s the perfect vehicle for satire. But when it comes to how the ultra-wealthy holiday in real life, the truth is stranger than fiction.
“‘No’ is not really something we can say,” explains Peter Anderson, managing director of Knightsbridge Circle, a members-only concierge service that offers luxury travel services. “We will always go above and beyond to achieve what the client wants.”
Membership to the Knightsbridge Circle costs £25,000 per year and there can only be 50 members at a time. In the pandemic, they made headlines for flying their members to the UAE and India to skip the queue for Covid vaccines.
“We had a client who wanted to fit out his own personal train carriage, which would be hauled around the US for him… We’ve even quoted on a private jet for a pet parrot,” says Anderson.
The general manager of the Hawaiian White Lotus resort from the first series, Armond, tells Lani, a trainee member of staff, to make each new guest feel like the “special chosen baby child of the hotel.” If one thing is clear, it’s that these real-life well-heeled guests like to feel similarly special.
It goes without saying that Knightsbridge Circle members expect a “very high-touch, very personalised service,” says Anderson. A little black book of contacts across the globe ensures their members have access to the very best hotels, restaurants, and exclusive experiences, all tailored to the personal preferences of each guest. Anderson is alleged to have organised for Jennifer Lopez to entertain guests at dinner, and for the Pope himself to renew a client’s wedding vows.
A personal airport escort is included as standard: to handle the paperwork, make the journey as smooth as possible, and to serve as a buffer between ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) and the riff-raff queuing up at Stansted. While most opt for private jets – usage has boomed this year, up 56 per cent compared with 2020 – some travel on public airlines, “although we don’t have many clients flying Ryanair,” says Anderson. Go figure.
We love nothing more than to watch how the other half live, and if it comes with a dose of schadenfreude, that’s even better. TV shows that skewer the privileged lives of the 0.1 per cent have taken over our screens: Succession; Big Little Lies; and The White Lotus, in which a luxury resort starts to feel like a gilded prison.
“The bottom line is, hotels are aware that if they want their guests to come and spend money in their resorts, they do have to try and meet their every desire, as long as it’s legal,” says Emyr Thomas, founder of another luxury concierge service called Bon Vivant. “Sometimes, though, you do have to tell clients that [they’re asking for] something that’s just not possible – or literally doesn’t exist.”
Thomas is available to clients all hours of the day and says, enigmatically, that he sees “all human behaviours.”
“Invariably, the WhatsApps keep pinging day and night, and we have to receive requests and then contact the hotel to go back to the client – a client called me [in the UK] to tell me the light switch wasn’t working in his hotel room. I called the hotel, and they said, 'Why didn’t he just call reception?'"
Of course emergencies do happen, says Thomas, and he doesn’t hesitate to help clients out with travel issues or cancelled flights at any hour of the night and day. But sometimes the requests are more outlandish; for instance, the client who needed a Donald Trump impersonator, stat, to surprise his guests when they arrived at the hotel.
One of the new season’s plot points centres on Portia, the beleaguered personal assistant of Tanya McQuoid (played by Jennifer Coolidge). Portia has been brought on holiday only to be ordered to stay out of sight in her hotel room. In real life as on screen, travelling with an entourage of staff is par for the course.
“People travel with PAs, some people travel with their own therapists… whether that be physical or homoeopathic. Some people travel with their own drivers and, obviously, with their nannies. It does go to quite extreme lengths,” says Anderson.
“Lots of wealthy families bring their personal trainers along on holiday – they can be paid €10,000 a month for two hours of work a day,” a source tells me. He spent three years working behind the scenes on holidays for the rich (and sometimes famous).
He’s collected enough anecdotes of diva behaviour to fill a Bombardier Challenger, including being ordered to pay off tourists to abandon their sun loungers to the tune of €2,500 (the clients wanted an empty beach), working for an ultra-wealthy businessman who had a study stocked with 10 copies of his own book and nothing else, and one memorable client who wouldn’t swim without multiple bodyguards jumping in with him.
Mike White, The White Lotus’s creator, was bang on the money in selecting Sicily as the set for the second season. It was filmed at the Sicilian Four Seasons Taormina at San Domenico Palace, where a week’s accommodation starts from £5,000 for a room with a sea view – a drop in the ocean for the uber-wealthy.
While Sicily isn’t as popular among Knightsbridge Circle members as the Amalfi Coast and Como (of course), Italy is enjoying another year in the sun as the favoured European destination for wealthy travellers. This summer, it was so busy that “it was really challenging finding landing slots for private jets and accommodation at top hotels,” says Anderson.
White told the New Yorker he wanted to portray how wealth can “inform and pervert our most intimate relationships,” and explore the Faustian bargain of marrying into money. The first series also delves into the class divide between the hotel’s wealthy guests and its native Hawaiian staff.
In contrast, the second probes the gap between “old” and “new money” and the angst that accompanies inter-generational wealth. Cameron Babcock and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy) are a masterclass in entitlement, and tensions arise as they holiday with the newly monied Harper and Ethan Spiller (Plaza and Sharpe), who consider themselves more down-to-earth.
The new cast of holidaymakers also includes the Di Grasso family. There is a leery elderly grandfather (played by F. Murray Abraham) who makes comments like, “the women I desire remain young”; a father (Sopranos star Michael Imperioli) who brings young women into the hotel and pays them for sex; and a college-age son who feels he must atone for their sins (Adam DiMarco). “You can’t just buy people off, Dad,” he says.
The White Lotus’s portrayal of the wealthy elite as entitled and morally vacuous is only half the story, Thomas insists. “Of course there’s the odd person who’s like that but, in general, people are polite and appreciative,” he says. “I think people think if you throw a hissy fit you’re going to get better service, but in reality, it’s the opposite.
“Sometimes people do lose themselves because they’re used to having someone do everything for [them]. You can easily fall into the ridiculous. But the show is amplifying the most extreme cases, which makes for better viewing.”
The White Lotus is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV