Party App CEO Defends Luxury ‘Private Island’ Getaway With Teen TikTok Influencers
Nicholas Duro unveiled the party app Private Island amid the pandemic, whisking a group of teen influencers and actors to Hawaii for a launch bash. Then came the backlash.
Four days before Thanksgiving, as the U.S. braced for a second wave of the illness that has killed over 270,000 people and forced most of the world into isolation, CEO Nicholas Duro launched his app for upscale live events and group travel. He called it “Private Island.”
To celebrate the debut, Duro flew 19 people—including 12 TikTok influencers and a Nickelodeon star—to Hawaii for a nine-day “Friendsgiving” of “luxury hotel accommodations, fine foods, and loads of activities meant to get the blood pumping.” The guest list included Colie Nuanez, India Good, Carson Paw, Mishka Silva, Fuller House actor Isaak Presley, and at least eight others. “Anyone up for skydiving, jet skis, and motocross under the warm tropical sun?” the press release for the launch asked. “It sure beats a zoom meeting in my pajamas.”
“Social media influencers want to show that their lives are fun,” Duro told The Daily Beast. “This is how they’ve attracted such following—is by showing the world that they have the kind of secrets to a happy lifestyle, to a lot of fun, to adventure.”
The self-funded app promised to maintain “respect for pandemic regulations.” But just three days before departure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement announcing that more than one million cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the U.S. that week alone. “As cases continue to increase rapidly across the United States,” the CDC cautioned, “the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to celebrate at home with the people you live with.” But Duro maintained that Hawaii had the lowest case numbers of any state. After an initial pre-flight test, the trip went ahead as planned.
In their announcement of the trip, Private Island conceded that the attendees had “received a lot of hate already for this decision,” but argued that “travel and social interactions” could be done safely. Their evidence: “The group has been spotted by a number of sources driving around the island of Maui this week in their 4 Cadillac Escalades, but only from their villa to the adventure destinations with no exposure to the outside world.”
The app, which went live officially in early November, bills itself as the “Instagram of Adventure”—a scrolling feed of parties and extravagant trips for users to join or share, alongside fairly literal island imagery. The general user, Duro said, starts out as “an island with just yourself.” But as you start to “sell tickets or let people join your island, which can be free or can have a cost, the island starts to grow and you see people enter the island.” (Currently, the whole island involves about 15,500 users).
In effect, the app operates more like the celebrity-driven dating app Raya, privileging exclusivity and requiring hosts to approve guests and vice-versa. “Private Island,” as Duro put it, “represents somebody who’s putting together an exclusive group and curating a fantastic experience for that group.” The former event planner—who last founded the artisanal Ice Cream company (“we always capitalize it,” their website reads) Honeymoon—saw it as a salve to an age-old problem.
“I thought that we would kind of tackle a problem that we were seeing when hosting events,” Duro said. “If we wanted to charge people to come to our events, we had to make the event public on Eventbrite or on Ticketmaster, and we ended up getting a whole lot of random people involved in our supposedly exclusive events.”
On Private Island, you could make money and keep the public out. At least, that was the plan before March. “Before the pandemic, we were much more focused on doing things like concerts, doing big parties,” Duro said. After eight months of recalibrating, the CEO decided to launch at Thanksgiving. The app added a way to specify social distancing measures and make guest lists more transparent. They also claim they have implemented ways to require and verify COVID-19 tests, though they did not explain to us how, and testing is not mandatory to host or attend events. They also planned to target smaller groups.
On the “Friendsgiving” trip, participants did not quarantine upon arrival—Hawaii lifted this requirement, pending a negative pre-flight test (though as of Dec. 2, one island has reinstated it.) Once on Maui, the influencers were allegedly divided into two separate groups, which avoided contact with one another. “We spoke to legal medical advisors who basically said that this is the best way you can execute this,” Duro said. (The CDC has repeatedly advised against group travel over the holidays).
Duro declined to comment on the trip’s cost, but many attendees came as part of a sponsorship agreement. When influencers plugged the trip, however, the feedback was polarized. “I don’t think there’s one person that didn’t get some backlash,” Duro said, “in terms of people reaching out and saying that this is not right. This should or should not be happening during the time of a pandemic.”
None of the guests responded to multiple requests for comment. When asked to connect The Daily Beast with some of the guests, a spokesperson for Private Island wrote:
Unfortunately, the personal manger [sic] responsible for the influencers has concerns about the general direction which Daily Beast tends to focus on negative factors. While we worked tirelessly to ensure we were in line with Hawaii law and recommended best practice, the intention of the author of our story is going to hold the power of communicating the reality of our intentions or conversely rolling us into the category of what are not; rule breakers, disrespectful of health or safety. I would like you to speak with the entire team, share content with you and discuss our future plans. In order to do so I would need to verify that your work accurately reflects our circumstance, in a positive or neutral light.
The company said they did not know whether any attendees contracted COVID-19 after the trip. One of the influencers tested positive prior to her flight, Duro claimed, and did not come. As of Dec. 4, the Hawaii Department of Health had identified six recent COVID-19 clusters on Maui. According to Maui Mayor Mike Victorino, the investigations have confirmed 22 cases so far, 14 of which came from a “social gathering.” At least two cases came from a gym; three of the clusters were linked to bars or nightclubs.
As of now, Duro said the app had no formal plans to follow up with participants. Instead, Private Island is planning future events. “There are multiple trips over this winter,” Duro said. “We have Lake Tahoe that’s planned for late December. We’re going to do Costa Rica. That’s happening in January… We’re in talks with the Ritz Carlton right now.”