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Why do we travel? That was the central question I wanted to answer when I began researching a book about the travel business. Its title, The Escape Industry, may be something of a spoiler when it comes to my conclusion. But as with all journeys, I learned a lot of other stuff along the way.
For one thing, I discovered that early travelers—the very first tourists—were inspired by words rather than pictures. The man who brought travel to the toiling masses was one Thomas Cook, who put together the first package tours and, as a trained printer, promoted them via enticing brochures. His alluring copy offered a promise of escape—there’s that word again—to industrial age factory workers.
Later, of course, brochures came packed with glossy photos. These days, however, our travels are more likely to be driven by Instagram. Most travel brands have their own Instagram accounts, and the platform bristles with influencers posting envy-inducing snaps from around the world. To a certain extent, travel has always been about bragging rights.
Brochures may still have a certain tactile appeal if they’re done well, but travel brands have bought into the storytelling potential of online video in a big way. The travel news site Skift recently collected its favorite tourism videos.
And being based in Paris, I couldn’t help but notice the latest effort from Rosewood Hotels, which recently reopened the legendary Crillon here. The stylish series suggests that Rosewood caters to all types, from fashionistas to rockers. As long as they can afford to pay the bill, presumably.
Whether it’s researching hotels or apartments or booking flights, many of us spend almost as much time planning our vacations as we do experiencing them. But discerning travelers get someone else to do all that for them. I’m not talking about good old-fashioned travel agents—although those do still exist—but travel planners who curate personalized trips for their well-heeled customers.
One newish example is Essentialist, co-founded by former Travel + Leisure editor in chief Nancy Novogrod. A $1,400 annual fee gets you access to a travel planner, but the real innovation here is a site full of classy insider-tip travel writing. You can save your favorite clips and pass them on to your personal “travel designer,” who’ll use them to create your perfect break. It’s also an example of the way the borders between journalism, marketing and “content” are beginning to blur.
The success of Airbnb (you knew I’d get to them sooner or later) has had a major impact on the hospitality sector. Hotels are going out of their way to offer rooms that feel more like luxury apartments. That includes business hotels.
In my travels I came across a new concept called Zoku (a Japanese word meaning “tribe,” “family” or “clan”), the first of which opened its doors in Amsterdam last year. It comprises 133 loft-style spaces designed as homes away from home, with the added benefit of dry cleaning and housekeeping, as well as office supplies and, alongside the bar and communal areas, meeting and event spaces. There are even members of staff known as “sidekicks” who are a combination of concierge and personal assistant.
One of the reasons that an Airbnb apartment seems a little more human than a hotel room is that it has, one hopes, an authentically local feel. But hotels are now striving to become more connected with their surroundings, hanging work by neighborhood artists on their walls and serving local cuisine in their restaurants.
This is important even for business travelers, because one of the biggest causes of existential angst among road warriors is waking up in yet another cookie-cutter room. And they may not only be on business: Outgoing Airbnb marketing supremo Jonathan Mildenhall, characteristically crackling with energy when I spoke to him at the Cannes Lions—discussed the rise of “bleisure,” or business plus leisure, which he assured me was a travel trend despite being a horrible word.
The localization trend is also linked to the primacy of “experience.” Travelers don’t just want to go places, they want to feel a more intimate connection with them. Hence the emergence of sites such as VizEat, Meal Sharing and WithLocals, which enable you to dine or explore with locals.
Mildenhall told me: “Experiences, rather than possessions, have become the new markers of success. … [Today’s travelers] are much more about collecting experiences that are personal to them.”
Another idea that often crops up in travel marketing is that of “openness”: the concept of experiencing different cultures and becoming a more tolerant person. Back in the 1950s, Pan Am founder Juan Trippe spoke of the tourist “charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and goodwill, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races.”
I’ll let you decide how that worked out, but the message is still present in the form of Hyatt’s “For A World of Understanding” campaign from MullenLowe.
It would be great if travel always made us feel more human, but certain aspects of it are becoming even more dehumanized, particularly booking and after-sales service. Yes, chatbots are a big thing in travel, too, with Expedia, Kayak, Lufthansa and British Airways among those who’ve launched bots to help customers through the booking process and answering basic queries. Travel agents may soon end up being even less real than Ryan Gosling’s girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049.
Ironically, once we get to where we are going, among the first things many of us want to do is disconnect. The “no news, no shoes” concept was pioneered in the late ’90s by the Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives, but today the internet is full of advice about how and where to implement your digital detox. Indeed, Travel + Leisure just ran an entire article about the best places to fall off the grid.
What does it all amount to? Escape, naturally.