Industry Interviews

David Prior
CEO of PRIOR

May 14, 2019

Formerly contributing international editor of Condé Nast Traveler and contributing editor at Vogue Living, David Prior recently launched and co-founded his own traveler’s club; PRIOR. The CEO has been named as ‘one to watch’ by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and is admired as a leading cultural expert and travel journalist. PRIOR is a subscription-only club, boasting a remarkable library of one-off experiences, journeys, events and parties across the globe. Members receive personalised planning and tailored itineraries according to their preferences as well as gain access to Club Journeys and Nomadic Clubhouses like PRIOR’s most recent weekend with Massimo Bottura in Modena. X-Files has an in-depth conversation to engaging Mr. Prior on his own favourite travel experiences, how his tastes matured in Italy and why Egypt, Japan and Sicily are the travel hot-spots to encounter.

Left: David Prior, image by The Australian. Right: Members of PRIOR experience one-of-a-kind destinations like this ancient fort city in India. Photography by Gentl and Hyers.

What was your first travel experience?

I would say Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, but I know that’s not what you’re angling for. When I was 10, my parents took me and my 3 siblings on a trip around Europe for 6 weeks. We travelled all over Europe in a minivan, staying in youth hostels along the way. I look back on that trip and think how extraordinary that was to do before the age of mobile phones, GPS, and other conveniences of modern travel. I can’t speak for my siblings, but for me it was also an incredible gift because it really opened up the world and all of its opportunities to my 10 year old self.

What was it that convinced you to pursue a career in the travel industry? 

I fell into travel – it’s the old adage: if you can turn your love into your work, you’re doing something right. I always wanted to be a magazine editor, but one particular beat – food, style, culture wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity. Travel, on the other hand, satisfies them all. You can write about design, history, food, culture; travel incorporates everything. It was relatively recently that I decided to turn that editorial point of view into creating experiences for others. It just seemed like a natural evolution; writing about these experiences and designing itineraries for a magazine created a natural path to what I do now with PRIOR. It was really a case of aligning my career with what I love.

How did you get your first break as a travel writer?

I used to work as an assistant stylist for magazines like Vogue Entertaining and Gourmet Traveler. While I was doing that, I won a scholarship to a university in northwest Italy. Once I arrived in Italy, I realized I had the opportunity to travel, but I needed to earn pocket money. I started to send articles to the editors back in Australia who had hired me to pack and unpack props on photoshoots. I wrote one story for Vogue, and they asked for another one. Momentum built from there, which led to me becoming an editor, then a contributor to the NYTimes, and ultimately International Editor of Conde Nast Traveler.

What are the three most important travel lessons you learnt during your experiences?
If somewhere or something has to tell you how good it is, it’s likely not. For example, who trusts a restaurant that has a sign on its door saying, “gourmet restaurant”? Similarly, if a hotel has to call itself “world class” is it really? And what about 6 star – well that’s like giving 11/10. Always be sceptical of people and places that shout their skills or quality. I find that is good advice not only in travel but also in life.

First things first – find the city’s market. Markets tend to be the beating heart of a place. The market will not only tell you what’s in season and therefore guide you what to order at restaurants, but it is also the place where you find the wares and crafts that are specific to wherever you may be. And above and beyond, it’s where you really get a true sense of daily life, as the market is where people are most open to interacting.

Don’t be afraid to kiss some frogs. You’ll often find gems, and in the process of making some mistakes, you’ll develop a finely honed intuition for finding the right alleyway to go down, the bolthole restaurant to try, the hotel un-locatable on booking.com. Sometimes the mistakes we make in travel can end up leading us to our greatest memories and moments of humour and joy.

What is the one destination that keeps pulling you back? Why?
Italy. So much of PRIOR’s expertise is based there because I lived there for a long period of time, as did other members of the team. It’s a country absurdly rich in beauty and culture. Choosing a favourite place is like trying to choose a favourite child, but because I really came of age in Italy, my heart remains there.

How can someone ensure they have an authentic experience of a place in an age of Instagram geotags, digital travel guides and bloggers? Do you have any tips for travelers looking to immerse themselves into a culture?

Firstly, join PRIOR. And turn off your phone. If you’re experiencing the world through a tiny window and you’re experiencing it for the sake of showing others, are you really experiencing it? It might sound a little existential, but I think we all need to be woken up. Connecting with people, not only being in places, is another way.

How do you combat jet lag? Any industry secrets? 

I don’t find that there’s one sure-fire cure for jet lag, but I do know that drinking alcohol makes it worse, not better. There are the cures that everyone knows: sunlight as soon as you arrive, and hydration. Ironically, I think Sydney has the greatest jet lag cure of all and that’s driving straight from Kingsford Smith to any number of rock pools in the eastern suburbs.

What are the top 3 locations trending for 2019? Why? 

Egypt – the Arab Spring and nervousness around Egypt removed for years a perennial destination that had rarely left the travelers itinerary for centuries. The aftermath of the Arab Spring saw a freeze in inbound travel to Egypt. Traveler’s fears have since ceased, and now is the time to head back to this ancient land. For the first timers, a sail down the Nile is a wonderful introduction to Egypt, but for the more adventurous amongst us, my hot tip is to travel further over the border into Sudan (not South Sudan, which is still perilous) to the land of the “black pharaohs,” where curiously the highest concentration of pyramids and entirely intact artefacts can be found.

In anticipation of 2020 Olympics, Japan is another destination that everyone seemingly wants to go at the moment, whether for food, design, tradition, incredible hotel openings, various different regions opening up. A trip to Japan is no longer Tokyo and Kyoto. Now, other destinations and regions within the country are increasingly being explored. Kanazawa is the new Kyoto. Naoshima, the art island, is as much of a fixture as the two great cities. Ise-Shima National Park, where the incredible Amanemu opened in 2016, Hokkaido for skiing; all corners of Japan have an amazing diversity of offerings for travelers.

Southeast Sicily – Those who make the regular pilgrimage to Italy have steadily been heading south for the last several years. Sicily is by no means a new destination, but it’s being reconsidered by the chicest travelers, particularly the Southeast corner with crumbling baroque cities like Noto and Boudica and coastal gem of Syracuse. This region has been a secret for chic Milanese and Romans who shun the glitz of the more popular vacation spots. They come here to rent a house secluded in the countryside, for benefits of lighter way of life, the sea, and of course, for the incredible food.

Members of PRIOR in Maheshwar Ahiyla Fort, central India. Photography by Gentl and Hyers.

Your passion is food. Name five of the best food experiences you’ve had during your travelling adventures.

Food is not my singular passion, but it was the gateway into falling in love with travel. They say that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through stomach. It’s also pathway to the mind, as I believe food is the best way to get into a culture and to embrace it entirely. (check creamy chicken ramen broth) – First meal that I’ll have in Japan is invariably a bowl of ramen. It’s easy, it’s restorative and it’s perfect for jet lagged bodies because you can have it at 5pm or 2am. Creamy chicken ramen in basement of a neon lit nondescript mall in central Tokyo. You place your order through a vending machine, and I love to play a little Japanese roulette by pressing any button and eating whatever appears for me at the counter. It just so happened that my most recent round of roulette landed me with this delicious creamy chicken ramen called tori paitan, which is not quite as well-known as miso or tonkotsu ramen. This ramen had chicken, noodles and a fistful of green scallions.

I lived in Piemonte in northwest Italy for close to 4 years. It would be impossible to pick just one meal from that time, but I do keep coming back to the signature pasta of that region, ravioli del plin which is a meat filled ravioli. Piemonte is land of chocolate, white truffles, Barolo and Nebbiolo wine, and egg pasta rather than that of flour and water. It is impossible to choose just one pasta dish (every region and town in Italy has its own), but ravioli del plin is a sentimental favourite. A plate of ravioli del plin at a family run osteria in Piemonte’s fog enveloped hills is something that I crave.

The Sunday night buffet at Ballymaloe – My friends, the Allen family, have been running the restaurant at Ballymaloe for over five decades. One of the great gastronomic experiences is to stay at Ballymaloe on a Sunday to see the extraordinary spread they put out. It’s said to be their night off since the kitchen doesn’t deliver a la carte, but instead creates a buffet with entire legs of ham, breasts of wild birds, new potatoes with spring garlic flowers, sea urchins, Irish oysters, pâtés; it’s kind of a retro, extraordinary feast and it’s something that everyone should experience. If you are lucky enough to be staying the night, Ballymaloe also delivers an unbeatable hotel breakfast.

I worked at Chez Panisse rest for 4 years under tutelage of Alice Waters. She had this incredible gift and has been able to refine the restaurant’s rhythm with the seasons. At any given moment they’re able to find a fruit or vegetable in at its peak; the most strawberry tasting strawberry, the most mulberry tasting mulberry. The mulberry ice cream at Chez Panisse was made with fruit too fragile to sell commercially. Alice knew best mulberries came from this decade old tree that was propped up by support and they’d bring it in, and the ice cream would taste like pure mulberry. around bastille day. one of my first jobs at the rest was standing out and scooping free ice cream to passers-by on bastille day. incidentally, that’s where I met Danielle Alvarez of Fred’s. we worked together there for a number of years. Ciya Sofrasi in Asian side of the bazaar in Istanbul. It’s this incredible little canteen rest in the middle of the market where they do traditional Turkish recipes.

What are your three favourite hotels in the world? Why? 

It’s impossible to give just three absolute favourites, but I’ll mention three that I’ve loved in particular for the past little while:

Hotel Signum, Salina. Tucked into a nook of Salina, the greenest and gentlest of the Aeolian Islands, Hotel Signum is a fragrant, little oasis in the unassuming town of Malfa. A collection of houses seemingly woven together by magenta bougainvillea, night-flowering jasmine, and the island’s signature caper bushes, Signum is one of Southern Italy’s most delightful and distinct hotels. Full of charm and the perfect jumping-off point to explore Italy’s most bewitching islands, the elegant sufficiency of Signum sees an-in-the-know-Italophile and bohemian-bourgeoisie crowd making it a place they cannot but resist to return to.

Ett Hem, Stockholm. Ett Hem literally means at home. In this Ilse Crawford-designed cosy Swedish house in the country’s capital, you can’t help feeling but that. The rooms are beautifully appointed, and the communal space is incredibly cosy, intimate and welcoming. It’s just how a modern hotel should be. They get every detail right, and it’s that hospitality that makes you feel at home.

Upper House Hong Kong It’s not just Upper House’s skyscraper location perched above the twinkling cityscape of Hong Kong, the gigantic (by urban standards) suites with that famous corner bathtub, or the sheer sexiness of this hotel. It’s that the service at the Upper House is astonishing. Here, they truly redefine the levels of concierge service; every restaurant choice is pitch perfect, every recommendation is nuanced and insightful, and they help to make every logistic detail be completely seamless. This is a brilliantly run hotel.

What are your 5 travel bag essentials? 

Invest in noise cancelling headphones. A few sheet masks are also a necessity: one before plane, after you get off the plane, and, if you really have no shame (and don’t mind looking like a serial killer) do one while you’re on the plane. NB – Where skin is concerned, I have no shame. A proper cashmere throw is not only a great little blanket for flights, but I also find it comes incredibly handy for unexpected weather changes if you’re not familiar with your destination. I never travel without one. I usually take a different coloured Moleskine notebook on every trip. I write notes, make drawings and maps, and note contact details on my book. Being a travel writer and editor, if I write something down, I tend to remember it. iPhone backup charger.

Why did you launch Prior? 

I launched PRIOR as a culmination of my career as a travel writer and for my love for sharing those experiences that I have with people. In 2017, I brought 15 close friends – photographers, editors, and old friends from all over the world on a trip to India for 3 weeks. During these three weeks, I gave myself the idea that I’d try to create cover worthy moments every day. we took over an 18th century Fort, launched a thousand candles down the river, erecting a tent with peacocks strutting by on lawn of maharaja’s palace. This trip was a precursor for what PRIOR would become; a way to attempt to redefine luxury by creating experiences that are of their place and truly one-off rather than rather than focusing simply on the infinity pool, a thread-count or number of stars held by a hotel or restaurant.

What do you hope to offer members? 

My hope with PRIOR is to give members a sense of a culture and place through specific experiences, whether it is a studio visit of a Japanese lacquerware artisan or an after-hours tour of the Louvre. I want our members to connect with the people and places they travel to. Our mission is to celebrate the diverse beauty of the world, including its cultures, traditions, crafts, and natural environments, while safeguarding what makes them unique.

By now we imagine you sure are impressed. Follow @davidprior on Instagram, or see more of PRIOR’s beautiful imagery and curated services by visiting their website and Instagram.

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