Glint speaks to the man who ran 80 parties worldwide in one night and whose new venture, Charitable Bookings, allows people to give just by booking a restaurant table or a hotel room
“I rang up the Orient Express and said ‘Can I have your train please?’” It was 2011 and, having lined up 80 simultaneous parties around the world, David Johnstone realised he needed the iconic departure vehicle of Phileas Fogg to kick-start proceedings. “Their reply was: ‘With the greatest respect David, we never have, and never will, rent the train exclusively to anybody – and certainly not for free!’ However, very kindly, they did end up giving me the train – we left Victoria with 240 VIP guests.”
That departure launched a series of global celebrations that raised £2 million for charities worldwide. “I worked out that if I could get 80 venues to give me their space, alcohol, entertainment, PR, brand and guest list – which was quite an ask – we could create a really powerful global entity. Each venue would find a local charity which would receive net funds: they got the venue, the proceeds and the exposure for free.”
Johnstone speaks about taming such a logistical leviathan in a matter of fact way, albeit with a slight smirk his face. He is a brazen ‘doer’ who gets all the justification he needs from naysayers: “Most people asked ‘how the hell are you going to organise 80 parties across the planet!?’ So, I did it.”
And these were not just any parties. They took place in 73 cities, from Melbourne to Oslo, from Marrakech to Buenos Aires, in venues including the Taj Mahal Palace and the Marbella Club. Even delivering the invites was a serious mission: they weighed a total of 140 tonnes says Johnstone. Each one was three kilos and he sent out 45,000 to the venues to pass onto the world’s richest and most generous hedonists, hoping to give them the party/philanthropic opportunity of a lifetime. The invite itself contained two books and two key rings, giving the bearer lifetime access to some of the most exclusive concierge services available. Those receiving such tomes could attend any of the global parties taking place. Perhaps the most exclusive though, was the tautological testament to excess: The Global Party Launch Party, held at the Natural History Museum for 2,000 guests, Brian Ferry and a dinosaur.
This was in 2011 and although many high-net-worth guests were not required to pay the initial £3,000 ticket price, they still managed to raise just over £2 million. “We wanted to raise a lot more,” says Johnstone, who, by establishing the scope of the event, organised repeat events in 2013 and 2014, for beneficiaries including his business partner Lord Stanley Fink’s Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), Tusk Trust, Sentebale, and the Blue Marine Foundation.
Johnstone is a standard-bearer for synergy: “It has to be win-win. Everybody must win. It is absolutely imperative.” As well as the charities benefitting from fundraising and exposure, The Global Party also allowed him to put his own firm’s ‘Key2 Luxury’ keyrings into 90,000 of the most bejewelled hands around the world. “There should always be an ulterior motive,” he says. “Along as you’re open about it people don’t mind.” His plan was to raise money for charity, throw the world’s best party and get the world’s best clients. “That’s why the invite was so big. It had to be that heavy so the venues would pay to send it out, that meant they only sent it to their best clients.”
So the party’s the thing when it comes to business bandwagons? “Depends whether you’ve got the balls to do it or not. This party was a win-win because I created a sense that no one was paying. The minute money is mentioned the whole thing disintegrates. If people are doing it for free they’re PRing it; if they’re PRing it, journalists don’t like to mention one angle, they like to mention multiple brands which means other brands will win; the charities won because they got exposure for free and money for free; the venues picked up the phone to local sponsors so they got product for free. Then there is a virtuous circle. As with all things in life, the more you put in, the more you’re going to get out.”
After a moment of reflection, the irreverent smile returns to his face: “After all the businesses I’ve been involved in over the years it was the first time someone turned around to me and said to me ‘you don’t have to justify yourself’. It was really nice thing to say because up until then, you’re [just] the guy with the ideas.”
The concept grew to involve over 260 cities in the next edition and by the third Global Party, in 2014, the brand had its own momentum. Johnstone though, perhaps conscious the air of exclusiveness, and therefore the challenge, had gone, decided to move on. He’s now developing Charitable Bookings, a restaurant table booking service that donates small amounts per cover booked. The idea was forged over coffee with the benevolent “godfather” of London’s best restaurants: Jeremy King. “I said ‘there’s this restaurant booking service called ‘X’. I know you pay them £2 for every person they send you. I would like to do exactly the same thing except I want to pass on one of those £2 per person to a charity of the booker’s choice.’ He said ‘I love it’. I remember thinking ‘if the one restaurant in the UK that doesn’t need another booking [The Wolseley] is happy to do this, there has to be something in it’.”
During our own coffee Johnstone admits he came up with the idea on the spot. Regardless, it caught and an intense development process followed, like The Global Party he again worked with hedge fund manager Lord Fink and again was clear it was a business venture. “Lord Fink is a huge philanthropist. My belief is, if we can invest money into businesses that are self-perpetuating for charity, using business brains to do a philanthropic thing, then that’s a wonderful position. We’re very much a business, we’re not a charity. We now have 8,500 restaurants on the platform and 7,500 charities.”
It’s not only the business model that is innovative. Johnstone mentions how loose change for donations is a rarity as payments become increasingly digital. Charitable Bookings works because not only is it easy to give through the app or online, but free because the donation is made as part of the booking fee. To complement the concept Johnstone put together a cook book with the 365 favourite recipes of the best chefs whose restaurants Charitable Bookings serve. Signature Dish retails at £40, £5 of which goes to charity.
The set-up has had established success in two ways: It is currently donating roughly £1,400 a day to charity and the concept has proven adaptable and scalable to the extent that Johnstone will be adding 250,000 global hotels to the platform in 2018. He’s also just complemented the app with a ‘secret tips’ function which gives users the inside knowledge in restaurants – where to sit, what to order – as well as recipes from top chefs, downloadable for a donation for those wanting to cook at home.
With admirable but unsurprising ambition, his next step is to crack America. Users will be able to download 100 recipes from America’s top chefs with the app, and for $8 more will receive another 900. Additionally they can buy the four volume American culinary encyclopedia Johnstone has curated, containing all 1,000 recipes. Twenty-five percent of those purchases will go to a charity of the user’s choice. With over 700,000 restaurants across 50 states, Johnstone is targeting 10 million US clients. “This is me being speculative but I believe they’d download a free app, get those recipes, tips and options for free and like the fact that every time they book $1 per person is going to go to a charity of their choice – and then where does that end?” He suggests an answer by pointing to train and plane tickets.
So, the party that is “good” business, blending technology, recreation and charity, looks set to continue. Indeed, good business equals good charity says Johnstone. “People say charities aren’t businesses. Of course they are. If they’re not profitable, they’re dead. You need business people to run charities. That’s why I approve of salaried CEO’s running big charities, the decisions they make is the difference between one and ten million. You want someone who is at their desk at 7am, not a retired trustee on the golf course, running a charity.”
So if Johnstone had his own career ‘signature dish’, what would be the recipe? One part business, one part charity is one he wants to give to the world: “I’m not a huge philanthropist but it is rather lovely thinking every time you create an idea, that 50% net of that idea, goes to charity.” Making that concept part of the next generation’s DNA so they can make businesses that give back is key he says, “but they must give back clean”. The other rules: “The only luxury in life is exclusivity, because it is limited. Anything is else is just a name.” And the secret to a good party? “Never run out of alcohol! That’s rule number one.”
Alex Matchett is editor of Glint
Sign up to get the latest Glint news
Receive the GLINT newsletter with the most popular content, platform updates and software guides.