The 'Meaningful experiential holiday' trend not only presents business opportunities to hotels, but also offers tremendous benefits to destinations and local communities.
Experience-led getaways that are more than just a break in the sun were named a top industry trend in the 2022 edition of RLA Global's Wellness Real Estate Report. This shouldn't come as a surprise as demand for experiential holidays climbed to unprecedented levels in 2022 after two years of Covid-related restrictions. Even before the pandemic, experiential travel was the third-largest market in tourism - topped only by transport and accommodation. In 2019, this segment had one million operators, that is those creating tours and activities at a destination, which generated $254 billion of income in total, according to Douglas Quinby, CEO of Arival.travel, an online hub for in-destination operators.
But what exactly is experiential travel and why is it so successful? Based on my experience as RLA Global’s strategic health & wellness consultant, I'd define it as an immersive experience that creates unforgettable memories through a facilitated, yet authentic event. It’s a form of vacation experience in which travellers immerse themselves in the local culture or perhaps engage in activities that bring them close to nature. You may have heard it called immersive travel or soft adventure. As marketing agency Razorfish put it in a recent study, "deckchairs by the pool are being forsaken for immersive experiences that give travellers a real sense of where they’ve been". Customers want to have stories to tell when they come home.
Add social media to the mix and the pressure to tell those great stories is even greater. Influencers inspire people to travel with tales of what they’ve done where and when. Previously unknown destinations are becoming places to go. The industry is stepping up to meet this demand: most operators and experiential travel service providers are now online and improving their use of booking systems. They’re offering an authentic image, an insight and the beginning of an understanding and appreciation of the destination, rather than purely providing an Instagram shot that every other visitor has posted on social media.
Curiously, current economic difficulties seem to be supporting the popularity of experiential travel. Rising energy prices mean more expensive flights and hotels, resulting in people travelling less often and expecting far more when they do. At RLA Global, we are seeing increased demand for quality experiences. People want to travel better, and they want to connect with the culture on a deeper emotional and personal level - whether it’s learning to cook in Thailand, picking and pressing grapes in France or going on a sand safari in Dubai. Bleisure travellers are also tagging on time to business trips, which is sometimes only enough for a short experience that gives them a sense of where they’ve been beyond a tick-the-box exercise.
Embracing the rise of meaningful experiential travel has benefits for both experience providers and hotel operators. Traditional accommodation business models expand to create greater synergy with business owners, community groups and local populations. The community benefits from income channeled through the additional employment of local operators and guides. Young people who may have left in search of work can now find work back at home. In sharing local skills, knowledge and traditions, they are further embedded in the community. Travellers come to learn and value the 'teaching' and the 'teachers'. The recognition and protection of a destination, cultural landmark or ecosystem become an investment in the future.
Ultimately, it all comes back to wanting a story to tell: the emotions travellers connect with their stay are relayed to their friends and family and even more widely on social media, becoming a driving force to the destination and a pull to the property and the location. Everybody wins.
About the author: Simon Lee Saunders, RLA Global, VP of Strategic Health & Wellness
Simon Lee Saunders serves as RLA Global’s VP of Strategic Health & Wellness. His multi-decade experience has been finely crafted through both professional and personal wellbeing experiences that distinguish his ability to connect with the most diverse projects.