Gone are the days of VIP. Today, a VIP ticket often implies a chained-off corner with Instagram models and only-slightly cleaner bathrooms. A concert meet-and-greet, often referred to by industry folk as a “cattle call,” allows a quick handshake with your favorite artist before you’re herded away.
For Matt Ampolsky, Lee Barkalow and Simon David, founders of bespoke talent experience company XM, these cookie-cutter packages have tainted the meaning of exclusive. Thanks to a well-vetted black book of talent, celebrity, and hospitality contacts, XM believes the new currency of the wealthy elite is not a ticket upgrade but a one-of-a-kind experience.
Want a guitar lesson from your favorite musician? Want to walk the field before the Super Bowl with your favorite football player? Go shopping with a supermodel or fly private while drinking champagne with your celebrity crush? These are no longer fantasies; these are experiences up for sale—for the right price of course.
XM received a call from a movie buff who wanted to score some one-on-one time with director, James Cameron. No agents, no managers, no red tape, XM arranged for their client to have coffee with the Hollywood icon and talk all things film. From a Disneyland adventure with boy band Big Time Rush, to an afternoon with Miley Cyrus, backstage with Victoria Secret models, experiences are the new collector item for the wealthy.
“For our affluent clients, owning material items only goes so far,” Barkalow explains. “Experiences are more valuable.” It’s an incredibly lucrative business; XM’s clients have paid as much as a million dollars for curated memories that are generally inaccessible to the public, knowing that for these once-in-a-lifetime memories, there’s no price tag too high. The sky really is the limit. In celebration of his daughter’s 16th birthday, an XM client requested an in-person meeting between his daughter and One Direction superstar, Harry Styles. XM coordinated the two to take a stroll beachside in Malibu, far from the quick shot photo most teens would kill for.
Like a well-oiled celebrity deal machine, XM has refined the process of executing these steadily growing requests by whittling down turnaround time and cutting out unnecessary red tape. Skilled at securing superstars for ultra-private events and meetings, they’ve also been able to provide other elite opportunities for their high-net-worth patrons. “In past years, we’ve given clients privileged access to the Kentucky Derby,” Barkalow said. That includes seats at the Fillies & Lilies Party’s most coveted tables and spots inside the Derby’s most exclusive box, often brimming with A-listers. “Since they’re engaging with all these amazing celebrities, many of our clients use this as a business opportunity,” he explains. “Whether that leads to something down the road for them professionally or personally is on them, but we’ve leveraged our position to fulfill their dream.”
Ampolsky mentions how a client who owned an apparel line asked for a meeting with Ed Sheeran. “He took a photo of Ed holding up one of his branded t-shirts, posted it, and received so many requests that his company’s website shut down. We’ve realized the value of connecting these dots and making it work for everyone.” In other words, clients are purchasing experiences in addition to social currency for their kids (imagine how many likes, reposts, and new followers an Instagram photo with Justin Bieber might attract) and connections for themselves.
“Each experience is its own unique fingerprint, tailored to the needs and wants of individual patrons,” Barkalow said. The team oversees transportation, manages any last-minute crises, and even preps clients on how to act. “We had someone who wanted to meet Miley Cyrus, but because Miley’s dog had passed away a couple days earlier, we asked the client not to bring it up,” he explains. “We managed to avoid a major gaffe since she’d actually wanted to bring a gift for Miley’s dog.” David, who heads XM’s New York office, adds that all his customers have his personal cell phone number. “We’re deeply involved every step of the way,” he says. “There’s a red carpet for the client as much as for the celebrity. We handle everything on such a personal level.”
Though their bread and butter is in the United States, the partners hope to expand their international presence—Russia, China, and South America, in particular, boast a wealth of potential customers. But although the possibilities are nearly limitless, a few limitations do exist. “If someone wants to have dinner with Barack Obama on the night of the inauguration, we’re going to tell them that’s not possible—or at least pick another day of the week,” Ampolsky laughs.