What do billionaires want?


Billionaires are an enormously significant group in every respect, and one that many aspire to reach and understand. Often very discreet, little is known about them beyond their appearance in “rich lists” and occasional articles.

Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ) is part of a select group that has a trusted relationship with billionaires. In commissioning this report by Ledbury Research, a leading specialist agency on high net-worth Individuals, Airbus aims to further increase its understanding of billionaires and their lives and lifestyles, and to share many of the insights gained.

Using an innovative methodology, Ledbury provides hard-to-reach insights into billionaires in three high-growth regions – China, the Middle East and Russia – which together have more billionaires than in the USA. The research aims to be beneficial to billionaires themselves, as well as those that serve them, by bringing some depth, colour and personality to the one-dimensional view that often exists of them.

Looking beyond their wealth

Billionaires share many similarities, with any differences explained by several key factors.

“On first consideration the sense is that this group are very much individuals…. however, on further reflection, there are key factors which are fundamental to defining them,” stated one research interviewee.

Billionaire numbers are helpful, but lack insight. Traditionally, insights into billionaires have begun and ended with numbers. Below is one of the most common sets – the number of billionaires by location, with forecast growth. It shows the strong growth of wealth within all the studied areas, with the number of billionaires in China expected to be very similar to that in the USA by 2017.

While this is fascinating in its own right and underlines the importance of billionaires from China, the Middle East and Russia, it lacks insight into the nature, attitudes and behaviour of these individuals.

Billionaires are increasingly international but remain discreet

To provide a first of its kind, in-depth picture of billionaires beyond these headline numbers, the research probed much deeper using two different approaches.

The first involved individually researching 250 billionaires in China, the Middle East and Russia, using publicly available information. By studying observable elements, such as dress, behaviour, cultural and leisure activities, business interests and media engagement, it was possible to position each group of billionaires on a spectrum of personality traits.

The results of this analysis for the three regions are shown below. This analysis reveals some essential truths about billionaires:

• While the media likes to paint billionaires as exhibitionists, this is an inaccurate picture. Most are discreet individuals, although visible signs of wealth can be observed with some in Russia.

• Billionaires in Russia and China are much more traditional than those from the Middle East. This is a function of the countries being at an earlier stage of economic development.

• Billionaires are an increasingly international group of individuals, with billionaires from the Middle East leading their counterparts in Russia and China.

Billionaires are highly determined, invariably very smart and always service-orientated

Many personality traits are shared. Recognising that observation alone could only yield so much insight into billionaires, interviews were conducted with individuals that know this group intimately – trusted advisors and providers to them. These individuals worked for some of the world’s most prestigious brands, in a range of different sectors, including auction houses, banking, business jets, fashion, hotels, high-end stores, luxury cars, and super yachts.

These interviews enabled identification of further similarities that unite billionaires across the locations studied.

“They approach projects in a very different way. Whilst they absolutely care about cost, it is more about the service level, attention to detail and accessibility. Decision-making is based on a different set of criteria,” according to one research interviewee.

Highly determined: Billionaires have confidence in their own ideas and decision-making ability. They know what they want from the outset, which can make them easier to deal with than high net worth individuals, despite being inflexible. Where their ideas are more big picture or outcome-based, they are open to advice and persuasion.

Invariably very smart: Billionaires are invariably very intelligent and, to be successful, have generally had a unique idea or been associated with someone who has. They are also very focused on detail and can thus assimilate information very quickly and easily pick up on mistakes.

Always service-orientated: Billionaires look for a unique, tailored service. They want to feel that those delivering a service are going above and beyond for them.

Naturally, there are many differences among the studied billionaires but, by fully exploring the nature of these individuals through our interviewees, it was possible to identify and validate some defining characteristics that consistently explain many differences.

Age influences the nature of billionaires

Generally, younger billionaires spend, and older billionaires preserve. Older billionaires are more focused on wealth preservation. They have spent their lifetime building up their wealth and are concerned about passing it on. They want not only to preserve wealth but also their attitudes and values. This second element is particularly relevant in China. They are conscious that their children have grown up privileged, and may not share the same qualities which have driven them to succeed.

Younger billionaires are more focused on enjoying their wealth, as is often seen in Russia.

In the Middle East, where families are often hierarchical, high-value purchases often require approval of the patriarch.

Wealth stage as a key influence

Those new to wealth are generally more impulsive, but over time they become more discerning. The longer billionaires are exposed to wealth, the greater their sophistication and discernment. At the same time the need to impress their friends and associates begins to be replaced by more individual choices.

In the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Russia, boutique luxury brands are often preferred, underlining the increasing levels of confidence and maturity among this group. In the early stages of their wealth, 10-15 years ago, Russian billionaires spent a lot on yachts without always understanding the implications. Today, they are now much smarter buyers.

Chinese billionaires are more influenced by their peers, and will often make a statement in their brand choices.

Newer wealth-generations are more international

Newer generations are progressively more international. Subsequent generations of wealth are more affected by international/western influences. This has a profound impact on their attitude towards spending, luxury goods, and their lifestyle in general.

In the Middle East, many billionaires are very westernised, and like to enjoy leisure activities and pastimes that are only available in a limited way, or not at all, in their home countries.

In Russia, attempts to drive the repatriation of assets, have prompted some billionaires to break ties so as to continue to hold assets offshore.

Chinese billionaires are the least international, and global citizenship is less relevant in China currently, although this may change in the future. Historically, barriers have made it difficult to do business and travel internationally. As these regulations are relaxed, global-citizen status will become more possible in China.

Many wealthy second-generation Chinese have also experienced an international education and have grown up in the USA and UK. Inevitably this has influenced their attitudes and lifestyles.

More internationally minded billionaires tend to be less formal, preferring seating arrangements around a coffee table, rather than a boardroom style.

“Their mind-set is increasingly global and is not restricted to a single market. What they are looking for is trust, discretion, ease of access. They really want serious hand holding which may not be taking up a lot of their time, but it is being available from the beginning to the end of the project,” stated a research interviewee.

Billionaire Travel needs

Billionaires have several identifiable travel preferences. “When billionaires travel they want to retain the ability to have whatever they want, as they do at home. They are used to living in a certain way and they want to continue to do that wherever they are,” according to a research interviewee.

The four needs of billionaire travellers

Billionaires want privacy, flexibility, familiarity and tailored experiences. Larger entourages of a billionaire’s staff means that there is a need to transport and house larger groups.

Flexibility: Billionaires can be very spontaneous in their travel plans, with destinations and travel dates changing frequently. To establish and maintain an ongoing relationship, being flexible is key. Failure to do this may result in the billionaire moving to another provider. This is especially true for Middle Eastern billionaires.

Privacy: Billionaires’ desire for privacy is seen in their choice of private residences as well as a growing trend to stay in private villas attached to hotels. This allows them to enjoy the amenities of the hotel, while being able to retreat to a private space. This desire for privacy is in part driven by the swelling numbers of wealthy individuals now enjoying benefits usually reserved for the most wealthy. The need for privacy is a key driver of private jet use.


Many billionaires will require their own personal staff to wait on them throughout the trip. In addition to a nanny or butler, some will bring other household staff to look after them on the flight and in their private residences. Maintaining an unbroken lifestyle with their trusted entourage helps them to relax and enjoy themselves and saves them time – both of which are really valued (see next section). Some may even choose to re-decorate temporary residences they are renting in a style more similar to their own homes.

Tailored experiences

Billionaires want experiences to surprise and delight them, and to be adapted to their personalities, lifestyles and needs. Partly, this is about recognising cultural nuances in service, such as the importance of hierarchy in the Middle East. Individuals also want their peculiarities to be recognised and catered for – for example to have food arranged from their favourite restaurants.

“When you reach that level of wealth, in China the Middle East and Russia there is much more of a service culture. So when they travel they want to have whatever they want as they do in their home country, they are used to living in a certain way and expect this to continue,” said a research interviewee.

Classic locations are important in travel plans

Many of the most popular billionaire destinations are just four or five hours away by air.

North America: A secondary location for Chinese billionaires, with Las Vegas a gambling destination. A prominent business location for Middle Eastern billionaires particularly older ones.

Mediterranean: Significant focus on the classic luxury locations: Sardinia, South of France and the Western Mediterranean. Wealthy Russians increasingly look towards Croatia and Montenegro as markets more aligned to their own. Middle Eastern billionaires favour the Mediterranean.

Caribbean: For those holidaying in the Mediterranean in the summer, the focus is on the Caribbean in the winter months. Russians tend to spend the post-Christmas period in this region.

Macau/Singapore: Travel locations for Chinese billionaires tend to be closer to home for both business and pleasure. Singapore and Hong Kong are preferred for gambling and entertainment.

Different factors for private jets and yachts

As Chinese travel regulations are eased, and as second generation, internationally-educated billionaires come to the fore, the role and importance of the private jet market is likely to rise.

Private jets

Considerations prior to purchase are practical and generally very centred around the needs and preferences of the individual. The selection has less to do with showing off, since jets are seen as “by invitation only”.

Middle Eastern billionaires are the most likely to have status in mind when buying a private jet. Chinese billionaires tend to fly internationally less frequently today.

When it comes to travelling by private jet, billionaires want to be completely comfortable – reflecting their need for privacy, familiar surroundings and tailored experiences. Some will want to have their own staff on the flight as cabin attendants, or at least to have access to the same staff that they are used to.

There is a propensity among billionaires chartering private jets in the Middle East to be more impulsive in their travel plans.


While there are always personal considerations in the purchase of a yacht, there is an inherent degree of visible wealth, associated with ownership, given that they are on public view.

In the Middle East and Russia, yachts are well-established in the billionaire community and are primarily seen as vehicles of leisure.

In China, where there is less interest in the outdoors and water-based sports, yachts have a more indoor focus. As a result, specific rooms are built to accommodate preferred pastimes, such as Mah Jong and karaoke. There are also larger spaces for business meetings and entertaining.

Older and first-generation Middle Eastern billionaires tend to place more importance on a more traditional layout of a yacht or jet, such as by having the traditional Arab meeting room, or Majlis.

Exploring buying patterns

‘Luxury’ has a particular meaning for billionaires. “A company’s willingness to tailor is very important. If something is more tailored for them, they will be willing to pay more for it. Being attentive to what they want and being flexible is very important,” said one research interviewee.

Intangible elements are central to a billionaires’ idea of ‘luxury’. Billionaires value time, enjoyment, loved-ones and health. For individuals who can afford almost anything, does the concept of ‘luxury’ lose its lustre and just become the everyday? Is luxury meaningless for billionaires or does it evolve to something new and different?

“These billionaires have learnt to enjoy themselves, and set aside time for family compared to five years ago. Nowadays, they are better at setting aside weekends to enjoy a game of golf with friends, as well as to go on trips with family,” explained an interviewee.

This unique research has established that ‘luxury’ is still used and valued in the minds of billionaires, but that their idea of it is very different to the norm. For billionaires, what they think of as ‘luxury’ is less about tangible things and more about making their lives easier and better. More specifically, it is associated with three particular elements:

More free time: The demands of business and wealth mean they have little free-time to enjoy themselves. What time they do have is often considered a luxury, and they value ways in which they can get more time, as well as great service that allows them to enjoy it more.

Enjoying life: There is also an increasing trend in the billionaire community to mix business and pleasure – as they try to enjoy themselves more. Increasing importance is given to the idea of enjoying life and the opportunities that wealth can deliver.

Moments with loved-ones and good health: There is a recognition of the importance of things that money cannot buy: moments spent with loved-ones and good health. This is particularly in evidence among Russian and Middle Eastern billionaires. Among Chinese, these elements have always been important and are culturally ingrained.

Billionaires look for unique products and personalised service

“When they start buying luxury it is with goods that identify them as having a certain status, with logos or heavily branded possessions. Then they move through the luxury cycle and develop their own point of view on what it means to them and their tastes become more discreet, that certainly happens on an individual level,” according to a research interviewee.

When billionaires go shopping for more traditional luxury, they are looking for something different both in terms of product and service. They want unique, one-off pieces, and exceptional service. In this respect, they are at the pinnacle of the buying ladder. After the interior design of a yacht, billionaires would expect the supplier to be available, spontaneously, years after this to check that everything is in order. Often because it will have been used so infrequently.

As a brand, it is crucial to deliver this differentiation in order to retain the loyalty and interest of this billionaire group.

While the idea of unique products is easy to understand, if not deliver, what exactly are billionaires looking for in terms of service?

In essence, billionaires believe people should go above and beyond what they would normally do for other clients.

Service must be tailored to their needs and continuing. There is an expectation that, from the outset of the project, service has to remain consistent, as does access to the individuals delivering it.

Billionaires rely heavily on individuals they trust

While dealing with billionaires directly may be preferable for providers, so as to understand their needs, their time-poor nature means that this is rarely possible. Instead, it is the network of trusted individuals who are dealt with most often. Depending on the location, this group will vary in size.

These trusted people have a dual role: First, to offload tasks and decision-making responsibilities from the billionaire; and secondly, depending on the length of time for which the billionaire has been wealthy and the confidence that they enjoy, as sounding boards for ideas.

The number and position of favoured individuals tends to be closely correlated to the wealth stage. In the Middle East, where advisors know billionaires’ tastes when it comes to yachts and private jets, they may have a lot of influence when it comes to placing new orders. In the Middle East where wealth has been established for longer, these individuals are more entrenched in their day-to-day lives, and tend to deal with multiple family members.

While not as established as the Middle East, a smaller, close-knit network of these individuals do exist in Russia. China is the most nascent of the three markets in terms of networks. Billionaires tend to be more focused on their peer groups and have a less established network of advisers. Those relationships which do exist are transient in nature, making it rare to deal with the same individual regularly.


Ledbury Research made use of three main research inputs in the most insightful and in-depth study of these emerging market billionaires ever conducted

• Review of existing insights and information on the target audience.

• Extensive secondary research into 250 billionaires in China, the Middle East and Russia, gathering demographic information such as gender, age, source of wealth, change in wealth and sectors of wealth creation, and assessing their lifestyle, interests, passions and hobbies.

• A total of 25 one-to-one interviews with trusted advisors and providers to billionaires. These individuals came from 10 sectors, including auction houses, banking, business jets, fashion, hotels, high-end stores, and yachts. The interviews with them investigated billionaires’ personality traits and entourage, definition of luxury and buying behaviours, lifestyle and travel.

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