There has long been a functional link between luxurious hotels and fine transportation. Back in the late 19th century, when train tracks were being laid to link up America’s manifest destinations, the railway companies would often build posh accommodations near the stations at which their locomotives stopped. In order to ferry passengers from one to another, they often maintained a fleet of horse-drawn vehicles — vehicles that came to be known as “station wagons.”
Once the automobile came to prominence in the 20th century, hotels advanced as well. Factory-built station wagons, often with hardwood frames and bodies, became the norm in shuttle transport, with Ford dominating the market with its Model A Wagon.
Cadillac has continued this tradition into the modern day, recently renewing its partnership with the Broadmoor, as well as engaging in exclusive vehicle contracts with the Trump resorts, the Deer Valley resorts, and American Express’ Inspirato group—the Black Card of luxury timeshares. BMW has engaged in an exclusive contract to provide chauffeur-driven 7-Series sedans for guests at the five-star SLS hotel chain. And, with their BMW i electric sub-brand, they will perform a similar but self-driving function for guests at the private-club franchise, Soho House.
Now, the Waldorf-Astoria chain of ultra-luxe resorts has gotten into the contemporary station wagon game, in its own unique way. Its new $999 “Driving Experience” program — which just launched at six of its properties in California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana — puts guests behind the wheel of three incredible supercars for a three-hour blast through the local landscape. But this program is not directly affiliated with a manufacturer, and thus isn’t about selling cars. It’s about the high-end hospitality industry’s latest quest: dispensing experiential exclusivity.
“The Waldorf Astoria experience in one word is, unforgettable,” says Stuart Foster, vice president of marketing, luxury brands, for Hilton Worldwide, which owns the Waldorf-Astoria chain. “With this experience you get to drive three incredible cars in truly inspiring destinations. That’s unforgettable.”To that end, for the launch of this program, Waldorf chose the Ferrari 458 Italia Spider, McLaren MP4, and Porsche 911 Turbo. Cars that are, according to Foster, “signature models within iconic brands known for quality and performance, and those that exude luxury.”
To help select the vehicles and routes, Waldorf enlisted the assistance of Didier Theys. The Belgian motorsports driver and Ferrari’s racing coach runs DXL, a company that owns fleets of supercars and providesopportunities for civilians to get behind the wheel. “You can’t just walk into a dealership and test drive a Ferrari,” Theys tells us, as we sip iced tea at the Boulders Resort and Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. “This is something unique—to drive the top of the world’s exotic cars at a place that is at the top of the luxury hotel business.”
The quest for uniqueness is not a simple one. The Boulders already offers guests once in a lifetime adventures like Grand Canyon helicopter tours, desert fly-fishing, moonlit mountain biking, 5,000-year-old East Indian Ayurvedic massages, and onsite hot-air balloon rides. In order to achieve the unforgettable, Theys will arrive at a Waldorf resort up to two months in advance to scout out the perfect route: one that will showcase the local scenery and topography, provide a safe yet challenging sense of adventure, and give driers the opportunity to truly enjoy the cars.
This is no simple process. He scours the countryside, consults maps, scans Google Earth, and trawls online motorcycle forums (“Those guys know the best roads.”) Since the pathway is more important than the destination, he has an advantage over other location scouts. “I look for a great road that doesn’t go anywhere,” he tells us. “If you find a road that has no destination attached, chances are there won’t be other people on it.”
He gives the same attention to the cars he selects. In the interest of rounding out drivers’ experiences, he intentionally selects vehicles that are both “extremely capable, and a good mixture of different automotive cultures—a very charismatic Italian Ferrari, a perfectionist British McLaren, and the everyday precision of the German Porsche.”
We are fortunate enough to have driven all of his chosen vehicles numerous times in the past. But even given our jaded background, we’d never had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of all three of them, serially, on spectacular roads and with a champion racecar driver as our escort. This was a once in a lifetime experience, and truly showcased and enunciated the different ways in which each of these vehicles go about making clear their particular proficiencies.
Didier has designed the Waldorf-Astoria program with the goal of returning everyone to the resort “safe, confident, and with a big smile on their face.” (Mission accomplished, in our case.) Of course, he also wants all of the vehicles to arrive back in the same condition in which they left. He’s been lucky so far. “But I always worry,” he says, “that one day, someone might ignore the route and turn left instead of going right, and leave with the car.” He smiles. “He better be a very good driver. Otherwise, I will definitely catch him.”