Meet the World’s Most Extravagent Travel Agent
Written By: Matt Shea
Organising trips for the rich and famous sounds like the pits. But Steve Sims is no ordinary concierge, and his company, Bluefish, no ordinary travel agent.
Have a swimming pool of ducats lying about and a few dreams or fantasies you need fulfilled? Then Sims is your man. He can arrange anything. And by anything, we mean – yeah – pretty much anything. Not bad for a British bruiser who started his working life on a construction site.
Want to visit the Titanic? No problems. Fancy a trip to the international space station? Suit up, pal. As long as you have the liquidity, Sims has the ability. Just make sure your wish doesn’t outstrip either the laws of physics or the laws of the land, and you’re good to go.
But you also need the personality. Sims’s humble background means he’s imbued with an egalitarian streak, and he doesn’t take kindly to Richie Rich types looking to throw their weight around. If he can bump into you in the street and suggest a beer, he says, then you’re right for Bluefish.
Not that there are too many places left. This is a full concierge service, and Bluefish can only cater to so many clients. Sims has been winding down the intake and capping his client list at just under the four thousand mark. As of August last year, he only had room for fifty more – then the books would be closed until someone was “either kicked out, left or died.” But don’t be disheartened, because Bluefish have also recently launched Taste of Blue, where suckers like you and I can sample high life on the low dough. Aces.
This might all still be a bit hard to wrap your head around. So TheVine connected to Sims to get the run down on his background and what exactly it is that he does for clients such as Jesse James, Sarah Ferguson, Richard Branson and Michael Schumacher. Over Skype Sims was gregarious and self-deprecating, his can-do attitude infectious from as far away as Los Angeles – it’s easy to understand why his personal service is such a hit with clients.
I think the first question I have to ask: were you a fan of Fantasy Island as a kid?
Ha. Yes. Who wasn’t?! But yes (laughs).
You started out as a construction worker in your teens. At the time did you figure that’s what you’d be doing for the rest of your life?
My father owned a construction firm, and everyone one on the construction firm was basically a relative. And I don’t think there was much speculation that that was my path. And I remember vividly the day: I was on the building site, it was raining, it was cold, I’m on a line, and I’m looking next to me and there’s my granddad, my cousin, my father. All generations of my family in the bloody cold getting their hands ripped up, and I just thought, “There’s my future.” I was the youngest and I just thought, “I don’t want to be 75 and still be on the building site.” I must have quit just days later.
Because I think your role at Bluefish has a touch of the vocation about it – a live to work, rather than work to live aspect. Fair comment?
It’s that classic line: “If you find something you love you’ll never work a day in your life.” That was it. I suddenly discovered that. Even today, it’s raining here in Los Angeles and people can’t drive and I had two meetings in San Diego with two extraordinary, interesting clients who do become your friends, and that was my day. So I spent the day, even though it was raining, even though it wasn’t very nice traffic, having lunch and coffees with really cool people who’ve now arranged to do certain things that I’ve got to put in place. What a hell of a wonderful day. Even a bad day is brilliant.
You went from construction to working with American Express, and then stock broking. There’s the story of starting on a third of the wage of others because you weren’t a university graduate. Did that help give you the hunger to thrive in business?
Yes. I was employed and [American Express] got me mixed up with somebody else, and when they realised I wasn’t a graduate they gave me that carrot. Bear in mind that I’m a big lad, and I think the guys in the office thought that if they basically offered to give me no money that I’d bugger off. So when I stood there and said, “Alright, I’ll do it,” I think they were a little bit mystified. But I was very happy I did it that way; it gave me the growth and the focus to actually prove what I’m worth. And I still carry that today. Bear in mind that I get paid when a client actually gets to do something. I don’t get paid to attempt to get you an experience, or attempt to get you to hang out with someone or get access to something. I get paid when you achieve your goal.
Paid on delivery.
It’s interesting. You went from handling other people’s money to handling their dreams – is that a fair way to look at it? I’d imagine the second is far more satisfying.
It is. It is. And the funny thing is, when you’re handling other people’s money and it goes up four percent, you don’t instantly get a phone call from your client saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!” And yet, you are the devil when it goes down four percent. When you’re dealing with someone’s dreams, they can’t stop hugging you when it’s achieved, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. It’s an addiction! I’ve never thought of it before but I think you’ve just hit on something – it’s an addiction and it’s an incredible high when someone gets to do something they dreamt of our didn’t think was possible. It is a high.
What’s it like dealing with the rich or super-wealthy day-in, day-out? You just mentioned you’ve been enjoying some good company down in San Diego. Most would assume it gets tiring looking after rich people.
It’s not tiring. It’s exhilarating. And one of the strange things that people don’t realise is that my clients: yes, some of them could buy a country – I have some clients who own a country – but I also have clients that are the same as my roots. They work hard. They haven’t got private jets sitting in the garden, but they want to do something a bit special for their birthday or wonderful for their loved ones, or they want to celebrate an anniversary. So I get clients on a budget who will contact me and ask, “Hey, can we do this for ‘x’?” And what I want to hear first is the dream and how much of a reality that dream is that they want to be achieved, and whether or not they do [really want it achieved].
And you’re pretty choosy about who you deal with.
Yeah. I had an attitude many, many years ago that I only wanted to deal with people I liked. And that is probably the most stupid idea in business and one that will have you go broke really fast. And I think my luck is that I’ve spent most of my life being stupid and that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that this was a stupid idea. So while there were times in my life when I should’ve sold myself out to earn money, I never did. And so if I didn’t like a guy, I didn’t care about how much money he had, I wasn’t going to deal with him. And now I’m in the position where I can tell you that I have amazing people as clients and can continue that way.
You’ve talked about being able to pick the real rich people as the ones who are dressed down rather than up. What about when people meet you? You’re a big, burly guy – a former construction worker – are people surprised when they meet you?
They are if they don’t know me. The classic one is where someone will be at an event or a party, and there’s a client who knows what I’m capable of. And they will turn around and make an introduction to me, and you’ll see the other person physically alter their positioning, wondering who the hell is this bald fella, what is he doing. And half the time they will disbelieve everything I do. I’ve been called a scammer to my face. People have literally listened to me and they’ve walked away saying, “That’s a scam. That ain’t possible.” To the people that do work with me and do know me, they expect that I’m always in a black t-shirt and jeans and a pair of Cons or Vans. I’m always that person, and I treat people as I want to be treated. But you will find that there are a lot of naysayers out there who don’t believe we can send someone into space. “You can’t send people into space!” They just naturally want to believe that it can’t be done.
I think the biggest question I have is, how do you grow a business like this? Because you couldn’t start with all the connections you needed. At what point could you say, as you like to, “I can get you into anything”?
That’s where the stupidity comes in (laughs). I never thought this was going to be a job for me. I never, ever thought this was going to be a real life. I used to go to these events and parties that I organise now just as a bit of fun. And I never, ever thought it could be a career. Who coming out of school would’ve been asked, “Do you want to be Mr Roarke? Do you want to be the fantasy maker?” No one would have ever believed that was possible.
I wanted to be a banker and I was terrible, I was appalling. So all the time I had my focus on that and could treat Bluefish with the fun and curiosity I wanted it to be and not rely on it to pay my wages. And if you have to do something for a living, your attitude changes. If you don’t have to earn any money doing something tomorrow, what would you do? It’s a completely different mindset, and that question explains how I came into it. Because I didn’t have to make money with Bluefish my attitude was completely different: if a guy was an arsehole, I didn’t want to deal with him. I never cared. It didn’t tickle me, it didn’t engage me, and if I wasn’t engaged I wasn’t doing it.
When someone approaches you for an experience, what are they looking for typically?
Half the time people don’t know what they’re after, which I find amazing. We’re taught as children to settle, to get used to things not working. Life treats you a certain way and you can’t always get what you want. You take what you’re given and you don’t get upset. We’re taught that as children. So when it comes to your fantasies or dreams, you look at something on TV, you look at a movie, you already know that half of it is superimposed. When you think about actually doing something yourself, you’ve got so much scepticism, cynicism and expectations of not meeting your requirements, that when people come to me, they actually dilute that dream.
There’s the story of the guy who sang on stage with Journey. That guy came to me and wanted to meet them. His dream had become so diluted. The first thing I did was interview him and he told me about how he used to be in a Journey tribute band and he loved this and wanted that and so on. And I asked him why he didn’t want to sing with them. You know what his words were? “You can’t do that.” So straight away he was bringing up these obstacles. The second I heard him on the phone tell me that we couldn’t do it, that’s what I knew we had to do.
So much of this is about making an ordinary person experience something spectacular, but I’m wondering how much of it is making a celebrity’s life normal. I enjoyed the story of arranging a drink at a pub for Matt Damon. How often do you have to do that sort of thing?
It is funny. We do get celebrity clients – and then there are others who think they’re celebrities (laughs) – but these people want to experience things without being bothered. And they’ve gotten to a position now where they want to go somewhere and they want to enjoy it. Most of the time this is because they have family involved, so we have to step in and handle it and make sure they do have the protection.
The world’s been in a funk economically since ‘07. Has that affected business much?
Yeah, and I think anyone who says it hasn’t is lying. When your financial ability hasn’t been affected, your psychology has. For example, of all the people who could afford a Rolls Royce five years ago, most of those people still can today. However, a lot of people don’t want to buy a car like that now and drive it down the road in the knowledge that people are losing their homes. So there was a psychological feedback that came back in. That being said, the rich have always been rich and the smart will always stay rich. We found that probably pre-2004 maybe five percent of our business came from outside of the US, and that in 2007 probably about 60 percent of our business was outside the US. I would say that 70-80 percent of my clients are based in the UK and US, but internationally my revenue is probably 60 percent outside of the US.
Have the type of events people are organising changed? Are people being more discreet than they used to be?
Yeah, they are. There was a time when all the big banks and all the big money houses around the world would throw a big party and it wasn’t a good party unless everyone knew about it. They are still throwing the parties, but they’re making sure that they keep it quiet. They don’t want people to think that they’re wasting money, they don’t want to draw unnecessary attention or disapproval. People would look at you and comment, even though it’s your money and you earned it.
I look at what you do and often it’s pretty gnarly stuff – trips to the Titanic or jet fighter rides or demolition derbies. Does that ever create difficulties? Do you ever have someone bitching about the sailor food on the Akedemik Keldysh, for example?
Here’s a funny thing – and the next Titanic dive has been postponed to 2014 – but I had a client who’s doing the trip contact me saying, “I’m incredibly busy. Is there internet access on the Keldysh?” And I said, “No. There’s no internet access on there.” He went, “Fantastic, I’ll take two.” We notice this when we book travel, but it’s very hard to be somewhere in the world where you can’t be contacted.
So when you go on holiday with your family, with your wife, you get off the plane and all of a sudden you’re on the beach and you’re cold turkey. Our clients can literally freak out because they’re sitting there and suddenly they’re thinking, “I’ve got no way of communicating. Is the office going well? Is the office going to plan? Now I’m panicking.” So when we plan trips for our clients we work them in. The first three days are going to be cooking courses, discovery, maybe offshore fishing – something so that they land, they wake up, and they’re doing something. So that their mind gets to reset on something different from what the desk and wallpaper look like back at home.
So, what is the craziest thing you’ve ever organised for a client? And what’s your favourite?
I’m not quite sure it’s the craziest, but almost weird to the point of funny. And it came recently and we spoke about it at lunchtime today. I have a very, very affluent family who are travelling over here from another country, and they contacted me on Friday: they need a squirrel in a cage, delivered for a birthday party this coming Sunday in Miami. It needs to have a rotating wheel made out of gold. I asked them – because English is not their first language – I asked them, “Do you mean a hamster?” I thought they must have had it wrong. Who wants a squirrel? But they came back at me and said, “No, a squirrel.” So that’s one we’re doing this week.
But I think one of the coolest ones: we’ve been doing a lot more business in Australia and I love that – I want to do more down there and I want to open up a big office – but we had this client who was on an adrenaline rush and we shoved him in a bunch of cars that he drove: five supercars in Nevada, each one of them to 200 miles an hour before he was allowed to get out and jump in the next one. Then, the following day, he gets in an L-39 fighter jet and flies it over the Nevada desert. And this doesn’t stop: because then he goes to the south of France where we’ve arranged for him to drive a current Lotus Formula 1 car around the Paul Ricard circuit. And then, finally, he went to Silverstone in the UK and [former Grand Prix motorcycle racer] Randy Momola drives him around the racetrack while he’s pinion passenger on a specially converted Moto GP bike. And they actually went over the start-finish line on the front wheel. It was just insane. My client was a big guy – maybe six feet two? – and Randy Momola is quite small. So this guy is hunched behind a tiny jockey of a fella and then the guy actually goes over the front line on one wheel. It’s insane. In terms of adrenaline junky stuff, that was it.
In terms of other whacky stuff, I’ve delivered a Ferrari edition Segway to Miami, I delivered sixteen Birkin handbags, which all had a four year wait list – sixteen in four weeks to the middle east – I had a lovely couple who contacted me and said, “It’s about time we did the mile high club.” So I had to organise that and make sure the pilot and everybody was aware of the diplomacy needed. My life is interesting, that’s for sure.
One of the things that’s interesting to note is how direct involvement you have with the business. I think I checked that you had two thousand employees, yet you’re taking this call, not a marketing representative. You haven’t dealt with me through a PA. Turning that to your clients, is it important to be open to direct communication like that?
Well when you apply to be a member of Bluefish, you have to complete an application form that’s on our website and then one of our representatives will contact you. I can tell you that I have made 98 percent of those phone calls personally. So I’m very much into it.
And that casual, familiar attitude at Bluefish – that ‘have-a-beer’ theory, as you like to call it – how much is that a part of its success?
I didn’t realise it was, but I felt like we built up a sub-culture and a family feel, and I think it’s a single element that has made Bluefish what it is.
And what are the plans for 2013 and 2014?
We’ve always known that the problem for Bluefish – and it is a problem – is that there’s a ceiling on how many people we can give this bespoke service to, and there are people out there who just want a little piece of it. Maybe they want to do something a little quirky and a little bit fun that’s maybe $200 or $2000. So we launched a company called Taste of Blue, and that’s Bluefish-approved experiences and itineraries from the seventeen years of relationships we’ve built up. At the moment I think there’s about three hundred things on there, ranging from driving a tank over a car to New York Fashion Week and a whole host of other things – flying a military jet, hanging out with Mick Fleetwood backstage. There’s a whole host of different things on there. Over the next four months we’ll be busy having one thousand current itineraries and we’re going to be focussing globally, and you’re going to be able to select whatever country you’re in or whatever country you’re going to and see those experiences as a priority.