Good P.R. or Guilt? Rich Get Discreet

In a recession that has spared no one, the super-rich are taking a hit -- if not always in their wallets, then in their lifestyles.

Out are private jets, glitzy high-profile parties and see-and-be-seen vacations to hot spots such as St. Barts. In are flying first-class, tasteful low-profile affairs and getaways to more remote resorts in the likes of Laos and Panama.

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The world's rich are still paying a premium for goods and services that elude the average consumer; they're just not flaunting it.

"They're still spending money, it's just in a different way," said Akbar Hamid, a spokesman for Quintessentially, a luxury concierge company. "They're being more discreet."

Jet-setters have little choice but to be discreet in today's economy, said public relations expert Howard Bragman, who works with wealthy clients ranging from celebrities to corporate moguls.

"Conspicuous consumption has just turned into inconspicuous consumption," said Bragman, the founder of Fifteen Minutes PR and author of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?"

"Nobody wants to be seen as unsympathetic to what's going on in the world right now," he said. "Nobody wants to be made the bad example."

There have, of course, been some glaringly bad examples, including the automaker CEOs who flew private jets from Detroit to Washington, D.C., on a quest for federal bailout money and, more recently, former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who spent $1.2 million redecorating his office while his ailing firm prepared to lay off thousands.

But generally, smart, successful people are going the low-key route, Bragman said.

The recession, he said, "may not truly affect their life. It certainly affects their heads."

Sometimes toning down lavish spending is simply a matter of conscience, said Roy Lubit, a psychiatrist and organizational consultant whose clients include top-level executives.

"There are people who have a sense of the inequalities and who are concerned and feel, 'How can I be living this sort of lifestyle when there are people in my company who are being laid off,'" Lubit said.

From Riches to Rags

To be sure, there are plenty of wealthy or formerly wealthy people who are tightening their belts not because of public relations concerns or reasons of conscience, but because staggering stock market declines or layoffs have left them no choice.

The decline in purchases among them has put a noticeable squeeze on the luxury goods market, which was once thought to be immune to economic downturns. In recent months, high-end businesses ranging from carmaker BMW to jewelry icon Tiffany's to Neiman Marcus Inc., the parent company of department stores Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, all reported sales declines.

For those who still have cash to burn, seeing their peers struggle is reason enough to be discreet.

One New York City woman, who described herself as "just in between" upper-middle class and wealthy, said that these days, she's extra careful not to talk about shopping trips with friends.

"When money, the economy is the number one issue on everyone's mind, it's just embarrassing," the woman, who declined to give her name, said as she left a Bergdorf Goodman store recently, shopping bag in hand. "I'm not going to be talking about buying a new table cloth or a new sweater. It just doesn't seem right."

Lubit agreed.

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