V is for Very, Very VIP: These experiences aren't for everyone, and that's the point
A to Z: The Ultimate Luxury Lifestyles List is duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay‘s annual compendium of the best our region has to offer. Each year we choose a different set of categories and then select businesses that are top-of-the-line in each category. This year: Art to Zinfandel (and everything luxurious in between).
You’ve probably heard: We’re living in a world where experiences matter more than stuff. Social scientists say that this is especially true of Millennials, but it’s rubbing off on Boomers and Gen-Xers, too. A last-minute trip to see the Lightning play in Vancouver has more value than another upgrade to your SurroundSound system.
Tampa Bay has no shortage of terrific experiences to offer, some more special than others. And then there’s the next level, stuff a lot of us haven’t even heard about. If you’re willing to put down some plastic, you too can enter the rarefied air of ultra-VIP experiences. Here are a few we like — and were new to us.
Friends with benefits
The music buffs among us have all fantasized about witnessing a performance by one of our favorite bands along with just a couple hundred of our closest friends. What if you could be a guest at an intimate concert where, say, Counting Crows or Maroon 5 or Sheryl Crow or Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band were performing right there in front of you, almost touchable, and instead of rows and rows of seats, there’s a dance floor? What if, along with the show, there were terrific eats, an open bar, pageantry — all adding up to one splendid party?
That fantasy has been a reality in Clearwater since 2010. Ruth Eckerd Hall’s Friends of Music Appreciation Concerts are exclusive events held three times a year and open to donors only. Proceeds go toward the $1 million a year that Ruth Eckerd spends on its expansive education program, the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts.
These events far exceed mere VIP access to a concert. The Ruth Eckerd staff goes all out to turn them into spectacles. Each show is themed. For Earth, Wind & Fire, which closed the 2018-19 season on May 4, the Hall was decked out in a Studio 54 motif. The Ringo Starr show was held in an “Octopus’s Garden.” In March 2017, Toby Keith played an outdoor showat a lakeside estate (pictured above), followed by fireworks. The Blues Traveler concert at the Capitol Theater in 2016 had a Blues Brothers theme, complete with donut truck. That attracted frontman John Popper, who stopped by to partake and hung around to kibbitz with fans for about an hour.
For Bruce Bicknell, a former touring musician (and the creative director for duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay), the Friends of Music Appreciation Concerts are one way he and his wife, Nikki, choose to spend their charitable dollars. “It doesn’t take a crapload of money for us to do this,” he says. “This is what’s important to us. You pick your own seat, stand in front of the stage, hit the dance floor. All the ones we’ve attended have been unforgettable experiences.”
The program has five levels, starting with Silver Circle ($3,000 donation) that provides access for two to a single Appreciation show. For the go-big-or-go-home crowd, there’s the top tier, Superstars. A $24,000 donation grants entry to all the concerts, plus access to VIP perks like meet-and-greets with the acts, photo opportunities, Q&A sessions and lots more.
What makes the Friends of Music Concert program all the more exclusive is that it’s one of a kind. “The idea of a private concert club is pretty sexy, and a lot of venues have tried it,” says Laura LeBlanc, the venue’s membership director. “But we’re the only ones that I know of that have been able to sustain it.”
According to Suzanne Delaney, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s chief development officer/vice president of development, the donor club had, at last count, 187 members. She’s looking to expand that number — but not too much.
“We don’t have an official cap on membership,” Delaney says. “But we want to keep the numbers low, to maintain the intimate part that makes it so special.”
Earlier this year, a small braintrust at Innisbrook Golf Resort noticed an opportunity to set their property apart from the country’s premier golf destinations. “There are so many out there — Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Kohler — and we want Innisbrook to be mentioned in that same great company,” says Mike Williams, the club’s managing director. “We noticed that none of them had an ultra VIP package. By and large, they were all similar — three days, two nights, how many holes, how many meals.”
The group set about concocting a golf-cation for people for whom “money is no object.” They swung into action, chipped in ideas for a list of experiences and swag — with no price tag in mind. They came up with a doozy of a package, and introduced the Innisbrook Ultra VIP Club in June.
Here’s the rundown:
A foursome gets four days of golf — 18 holes on any of Innisbrook’s four championship courses, including Copperhead, daily, if they choose; a personal caddie for each player; a lesson with the director of golf or director of instruction; and a private area on the Copperhead range with a nameplate.
For accommodations and indulgences, Ultra VIP-ers get three nights in a three-bedroom luxury suite that overlooks the 18th hole at Copperhead; a dinner in the suite prepared by the resort’s executive chef, plus a dinner for four at Packard’s Steakhouse with a custom menu, plus all other meals; a daily massage or other spa service, at the resort spa or in the suite; an exotic rental car for the entire stay plus a luxury car service; a pair of custom Footjoy golf shoes, a personalized Scotty Cameron putter, a dozen personalized Titleist ProV1 golf balls, plus several other upscale touches.
“Then it was, ‘OK, get the calculator out,’” Williams says with a chuckle.
The total: $29,999. (And up. The resort is happy to add stuff.)
Remember to divide by four, Williams suggests.
“Clearly, the Ultra VIP Club is for high-wealth individuals,” he adds. “My guess is it’ll appeal to corporate people who can afford to spend seven to ten thousand on a weekend. They know each other well. Perhaps they make an annual trek to one of the great golf resort destinations. We want Innisbrook to be included in that rotation.”
Membership has its privileges
The Mahaffey Theater offers an array of elevated concert experiences, some of which benefit the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, an affiliate organization that raises money for children’s arts programs and subsidizes the fine arts performances at the venue.
The topper thus far was last November’s Christina Aguilera Experience, which included four seats in a box, a steak-and-lobster dinner, a meet-and-greet with the artist for 20 people, framed memorabilia and other perks. The tab: $15,000.
According to Amy Miller, the new president of The Edwards Foundation, the Mahaffey presents these types of events about three times a year. Unlike Ruth Eckerd Hall, the St. Pete venue does not set a yearly lineup, and the VIP deals can be purchased à la carte.
Donor/members of the Edwards Foundation got first dibs on the Aguilera gala, and they get first crack at all red-carpet opportunities. Memberships currently run from $500 to $25,000. Premier members ($10,000-$25,000) can pre-buy up to 14 elite seats, and the entire group can indulge in the VIP Member Lounge, enjoy select meet-and-greets with artists, complimentary VIP valet parking, plus other goodies.
Finally, certain shows co-promoted by the Mahaffey and Live Nation offer VIP packages. Two are coming up: funkmaster George Clinton on August 29 and The Doobie Brothers on November 15. Both include a seat in the first five rows, VIP early entry to the venue, an exclusive meet-and-greet (including a photo op) with the artist, and other swag items and collectibles. The Clinton package costs $225 per, the Doobie Brothers run $375 (front row) and $325 (rows 2-4).
The Mahaffey: 727-892-5716; Bill Edwards Foundation: 727-300-2000; themahaffey.com.
A suite trip
Tampa Bay Buccaneers luxury suites offer panoramic views of the action throughout Raymond James Stadium, air-conditioned comfort, privately catered food and drinks, new HD TVs that show all NFL games, open-floor plans, open-air seating …
That’s all good, Bucs, but what else ya got?
As it happens, there’s more. The bonus experience that stands out to us is the Annual Fly-Away, where a suite member and a guest travel by chartered jet for a trip to a Bucs road game — an all-expenses-paid, first-class weekend jaunt that includes a stay at a four-star hotel, meals, a tour of the host city, and, best of all, prime seats for the game. They may not be quite as nice as the ones back in the home suite, but they’ll more than do. The Buccaneers are keeping this year’s destination under wraps for the time being, but the big reveal is due any time. The Fly-Away experience is open to all suiteholders, whether you lease one for eight, 16 or 36 of your closest friends, family and business associates.
Wait, there’s more. Bucs suite members can also participate in an array of other experiences that include VIP Training Camp Day, interactions with players and staff, a tour of One Buc Place, exclusive Suite Tasting events, pre-game sideline passes, and the opportunity to take part in the annual Bucs-themed poker tournament.
Membership has its privileges, indeed, but we think the sexiest privilege of all is the Annual Fly-Away.