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.

"If you have a crowd of friends who have taken serious hits," he said, "it would be very tacky to talk about the expensive vacations and things you're buying when your friends are worried about how they're going to pay their mortgage and keep their kids in school."

Billions to Spend

There's no doubt that a sizeable contingent of people are surviving the slumping economy with their fortunes largely in tact. In last fall's Forbes 400 survey, which is an annual ranking of the country's richest people by Forbes magazine, the least wealthy people on the list were still worth at least $1.3 billion, the same as the year before. The total net worth of 400 actually grew in comparison to 2007; it increased 2 percent to $1.57 trillion.

It's not just the billionaires who still have money to spend. Quintessentially's Hamid said that the company's clients include those with incomes around $350,000, as well as multi-millionaires. They pay the company $1,800 to $45,000 a year for to arrange a slew of hard-to-get services, ranging from reservations to exclusive restaurants to private consultations with clothing designers.

Under the Sun and Under the Radar

Quintessentially, which has 45 offices around the world, caps its number of "VIP" clients, or those who pay $5,000 a year for the services of a personal concierge, to 5,000 per city. In London, Hamid said, demand has been so high that the company established a waiting list.

The company, he said, is growing even as some of its clients are becoming more conscious about how they're spending their money.

"If they're spending money at all, they want to do something different, something new, something out of the ordinary," he said. "They want it to be an experience."

That experience, he said, might include landing at a tiny airport overlooking a field of children playing soccer and taking dirt roads on your way to a private villa, like some of Quintessentially's clients have done on trips to Bocas del Toros, a tropical archipelago off the coast of Panama.

It's not a cheap vacation by any means and can, in fact, rival some of the spending clients might do at a place like St. Barts. But unlike St. Barts, Bocas del Toros doesn't have a reputation for festive excess and when you're there, Hamid said, "you're under the radar."

Some Quintessentially clients are cracking down on flashy forays in other ways. Instead of dining at famously pricey restaurants like Manhattan's Per Se, they're choosing local, lesser-known places. Dining in neighborhood restaurants, Hamid said, makes them appear more "monetarily savvy" even if the final bill isn't any cheaper.

"They're spending the same money in restaurants but they're changing their image," he said.

For the super-rich, conforming to the recession's new spending aesthetic may also mean spending less on themselves and more on others.

While various non-profit groups report seeing serious declines in contribution as the recession progresses, Randy Lynch said that his clients are taking a greater interest in charitable donations.

Lynch, who runs Kipling & Clark, a Chicago-based luxury travel company specializing in tours of East Asia, said couples and families using his company can expect to spend at least $1,500 dollars per day during a trip.

Thinking of Others

Lynch said that his business is up but the nature of the business is changing. His clients, he said, are still taking expensive vacations to Laos and Cambodia but they're also interested in engaging in some philanthropy along the way. So the company arranges for clients to visit and make donations to orphanages during their tours.

"They feel like at least they're doing something positive on the trip other than satisfying their own pleasure," Lynch said.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, some high-profile social events are taking a similar tenor. Bragman of Fifteen Minutes PR says more Hollywood parties are focusing on social causes and charitable giving.

"It's not going to be 'How lavish how can we make it?'" he said. "It's 'How can we have a good time and think of others that aren't as fortunate right now.'"