|Grant Thatcher, the creator of the Luxe City Guides, is just as verbally flamboyant in real life as his minute tomes of insider travel info. So much so, that carrying a Luxe guide around with you is almost like going traveling with the irrepressible actor, turned voice-over artist, turned publishing editor, himself. |
Sitting outside Byte for an alfresco lunch in the middle of the still-being-built Cyberport, he soaked up the sun and dished the goss on the hows, whens, wheres and whys of Luxe.
It all started when Thatcher was living in Bangkok. Determined to upgrade the temporary décor in his flat he set to work researching outlets for stylish furniture, textiles, ceramics etc. Writing it all down in list form, and adding some F&B info for good measure, he emailed it around to his friends. Later, during a trip to Singapore, he mentioned to a complete stranger at a party that he was going back to Bangkok and she insisted he take the best list of places ever, which she produced with a flourish from her handbag. Voila, he came face to face with his own creation. “Suddenly I realised that people liked this kind of information, and that it would make a useful little book. And so Luxe was born.”
The PR speak says sexy, sassy, snappy, but just how much fun can listings of places to go be? It is clear that Luxe follows a completely different format to most guide books when Thatcher says, “I wanted to write something that would make people laugh, and read from cover to cover,” he smiles, adding, “which with Luxe would only take about thirty minutes anyway.”
He seems to have pulled off, if not the impossible, then definitely the never-done-before. Picking up the Hong Kong guide, advice and listings such as "Rugby Sevens: March, tiny-shorted totty, yum yum rugger lad's bum" and "The Peninsula: Hong Kong's glammy old dolly is seventy-five, smart as a carrot and sweet as a nut" have you laughing out loud and before you realise it you have read Hong Kong and are on to Macau. “I was so bored with other guides. When did you last sit down and enjoy reading a guide? Never. The most important thing with Luxe is that we get the info over in a fun and entertaining way.” Pure Thatcherisms like "well, who's your daddy... go on sugar lips, take a big bite" also feature and you are left with a raging curiosity to see the places he deems unmissable.
While many entries take the high road, like Dragon-I "heaving with young styley bods" and Kee Club "chic, demure, prive", there are also some tips for little out of the way places. “Luxe is all about style.” He says. “It is for people who have money and can spend it. What would Mrs. Style-Pants who is coming to town want to do? But she is also looking for great value. It can be a dollar or a thousand dollars, but it must be the best.”
At the end of the day it is Thatcher who decides which lucky venues make it into the cult-like pages, but only after a huge number of locally based contributors have bared their style souls to him and shed light on the nooks and crannies of each city. “Our contributors are people who would be readers of Luxe,” explains Thatcher. “It’s a grass roots thing. They tell us their favourite joint, and why. It is purely enjoyment and best value.”
From a master guide of around 800 entries he goes and visits every one. “If eight to ten of our readers recommend a restaurant it is almost certain that it will be featured, If only one or two do, we are more cautious.” The final count consolidates all that insider info into just 250 entries. Recommended by Thatcher’s trusted contributors and seconded by himself, the final result is the crème de la crème of advice. “It is meant to be the word of mouth companion, whispering in your ear, don’t go there, go here instead. The insiders’ guide, as so many say. How inside is inside? I like to go really inside!”
More of a stiff pamphlet than a book, the little concertina-style guide is easy to negotiate and notable for what it leaves out as much as what it packs inside. “In Asia people think nothing of zipping off to Singapore for two days,” says Thatcher. “I didn’t need all that information on topography and demographics. I just want a fab hotel, a spa and a gorgeous restaurant... And a bit of culture,” he concedes. “And then zip home.”
The size was specifically chosen for its back pocket or handbaggability. No more struggling along the street with a book the size of a brick and post-it notes flying out at every turn. “I wanted it to be the only real pocket guide,” says Thatcher. “Lots of guides claim this – if you have a pocket the size of a bucket maybe!”
“With its tiny size it wrote its own style,” he continues. “Two lines for each entry, so you’re down to adjectives, not full blown sentences. You’re lucky if you can get a sentence in there.”
With Hong Kong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Min, Bali, and Bangkok in the stable so far, Thatcher has a 'conquer Asia' plan ahead of him with Singapore newly out, Sri Lanka in the pipeline, and Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo for later in the year.
“Sri Lanka is the new island destination,” he smiles. “Wonderful villas, boutique spas… and only six hours from Europe. Beijing and Shanghai are clearly missing from our stable. In fact we are waiting for Three on the Bund to be up and running. And then Tokyo will complete the major hubs.”
The popularity of the guides is growing fast, and he has had requests for mini bibles on the rest of the world’s cities too. “Plans are afoot, definitely,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time. Try fitting New York or London into Luxe Guide! But where there’s a will there’s a way.”
To some this may sound like the perfect job. Flitting between Asian cities, testing cocktails and deserts, ambiance and service, but Thatcher assures me, it’s a tough job. “Setting it up is complex. Writing it is fun. What is great fun is launching. You see people’s reactions, a brief window of joy, and then its back to setting up the next one.”
In such a fickle world as style and fashion, Thatcher is determined to put the hours in and keep up with what’s going on in each city. “A lot of guides are already out of date when they hit the book shops. We update every 6 months. We can produce the guide very quickly, no generic pictures of rice bowls, just info, pure and simple. Two times a year you can throw it away and get another for HK$60. You can’t get a vodka cranberry in Hong Kong for that price!”