On a recent Friday downtown, the new Departure Lounge at Fifth and Guadalupe Streets is mellow, except for founder Keith Waldon, who is talking very quickly as we sit on black, leather, armless chairs that — to my surprise — tilt backward as you settle into them. Concentrating on staying upright as I pour hot tea from an elaborate, oversized bronze teapot designed like a vintage airplane, I’m distracted by the flat-screen TVs surrounding me, depicting “travel” images. Grinning Caribbean children in Carnaval colors and miles of white beaches fill up the Anguilla screen, while another monitor broadcasts huge orange sunsets and friendly looking large lions to promote an upcoming event at the lounge: "A Taste of Africa with Condé Nast Traveler Specialist Ryan Hilton."
The Departure Lounge — a luxury travel agency that doubles as a coffee and wine bar — would be a strange concept anywhere, but it seems like an especially strange one here in Austin. It’s hard to imagine a luxury travel agency and chi-chi wine bar concept fitting into the identity of our quirky, DIY, local-centric and not necessarily one-percenter-friendly city. It seems like it might be a more coastal fit — perfect for, say, New York or Los Angeles. Or at least neighboring, wealth-driven Dallas?
The Departure Lounge — a luxury travel agency that doubles as a coffee and wine bar — seems like an especially strange concept in Austin.
But Waldon did his research, and he insists that Austinites need a place like the Departure Lounge — and not because he’s trying to "Dallas Our Austin." Waldon — who has been in the luxury travel field for more than 25 years — conducted a full market study and found 85,000 Austin households that fit his specific target income market and were also frequent luxury travelers. Surveying about 220 Austinites who are active and avid travelers, Waldon asked them what they would want from a travel company.
“'It needs to be upscale, but not Dallas' — probably 80 percent of the people I interviewed said almost those exact words,” said Waldon, who took that to mean they didn't want something stuffy. “But they also told me they wanted upscale, which told me they were missing that,” Waldon explained.
The Internet may have made a brick-and-mortar travel agency seems like a relic, but Waldon says that not having "some way for the community locally to engage with the subject of travel bothered me,” and a bar setting seemed like a logical place for that. His follow-up question for the Austinites he surveyed was “Where are you when you’re talking about travel?” Answers varied — from friends’ houses to bars to cocktail parties — but the answer almost “always involved some form of drinking.”
There’s a business advantage in Waldon’s blended concept, too: while the travel advisory business typically has a low profit margin, using the space as a restaurant allows him to afford the high rent at the location; he also rents out the space for private events, especially during SXSW.
“'It needs to be upscale, but not Dallas' — probably 80 percent of the people I interviewed said almost those exact words.” — Departure Lounge founder Keith Waldon
Waldon estimates that about 60 percent of the people who have used the Departure Lounge’s travel services have just wandered in, for coffee or a glass of wine, and have been convinced — by servers who are trained to “subtly engage” guests on the travel services offered — to book through the Departure Lounge. Many clients come from the W residencies and other downtown residential buildings nearby. While the majority of Waldon’s clients are in their 40s to 60s, they have also catered to plenty of young, well-off twentysomethings planning "guys' getaways" or honeymoons — many coming from nearby tech office buildings, such as Facebook’s headquarters across the street.
When I was sitting in the lounge and leafing through the hotel look book Waldon offered me — an awe-inspiring spread on the world’s five-star hotels — the Departure Lounge felt like a novelty for my twentysomething, freelancing self; it was a place to experience wanderlust and fantasize — sort of like reading Condé Nast's travel magazine. I’m probably not going to any of the places any time soon, but I’d like to think I will some day.
The coffee, “boutique” wine selection and truffles — designed to evoke sense of other cities (Eiffel Tower-shaped chocolate with Champagne-flavored filling being a prime example) — are not out of the ordinary for our foodie city. Though the sorts of people who are frequent “luxury travelers” might not fit the mold of a typical Austinite, if Waldon’s early success is any marker, there are plenty of Austinites looking to travel well, and often, and be advised about it over wine.
Downtown — and our city — might be changing, and the Departure Lounge might not be a typical Austin scene on the surface. But Waldon seized on a target market and, focusing on technology and design, created a new way of doing local business that’s like nowhere else in the world. That’s about as Austin as it gets.