The new travellers | Financial Times
A craving for community
Loneliness is a modern epidemic — and something to which unmarried, social media-shaped twenty-somethings living in volatile rental properties seem particularly prone. In a recent YouGov poll, nearly a third of millennials reported “always” or “often” feel lonely, a figure far higher than older demographics.
And so a growing number travel not to escape but to connect, to seek a sense of community abroad that evades them at home. Take the rise of retreats such as Lodged Out, a US start-up that runs summer camps for young adults.
Its founder, Bobbilee Hartmann, a software engineer who recently turned 30, explains: “The busier we get and the more time we invest in social media, the more we’re separated from the world around us and the smaller our real-life circles become. I think my age group is craving the chance to meet new people in an authentic way.”
At Hartmann’s retreats, this means staying in shared accommodation such as historic summer camps in remote locations without mobile reception or WiFi. Guests join workshops such as learning about photography and foraging herbs, participate in activities such as kayaking or archery, and enjoy conversations around the campfire. The retreats sell out within hours from a single post on Hartmann’s social-media channels, a sure sign of the times.
Villa Lena, a Tuscan farmhouse with a revolving cast of artists in residence, offers a similar if less prescribed community experience and, according to owner Lena Evstafieva, its clientele is getting younger. While guests can book private rooms, they are encouraged to mingle by helping out on the organic farm, dining at communal tables and through creative activities such as writing workshops.
While these experiences last several days, other forms of community-based travelling work to different timeframes. Norn, an international members club, taps into the craving for community by arranging 60-90-minute conversations between carefully matched strangers at its modish spaces in Berlin, London and San Francisco. “It gives members a way to understand the local zeitgeist in a more meaningful way and create authentic connections with people they’ve met 100 per cent offline,” says founder Travis Hollingsworth.
Average age of a traveller with US outfit For the Love of Travel
Group tour operators such as Much Better Adventures have recognised the trend, with specially designed packages for like-minded twentysomethings.
Intrepid Travel recently launched a collection of itineraries for 18-29 year-olds that focus on sustainability, “a way for customers to connect with people their own age who share the same values,” according to chief growth officer Michael Edwards. The trips have been so successful they are inaugurating 15 new tours in 2020. US company For The Love of Travel says the social aspect is a key element to their trips, with groups split evenly between male and female travellers. The average age is 28, and 60 per cent say they are single and looking to meet people.
With an audience hungry for new connections as well as novel experiences, it’s no surprise the travel industry is putting its friendliest foot forward.
The blurring of work and play
A coffee machine stutters into action as a group of entrepreneurs on communal benches raise their voices above the din, gesticulating at a MacBook. Meanwhile, ambient house ripples through speakers and a baseball-capped skater grinds down a mini ramp. This could be the newest co-working space in New York or London, but in fact the Verse Collective sits on a beach fringed by coconut trees in remote Hiriketiya, Sri Lanka. Opened in 2017, it is one of a new breed of co-working spaces in remote locations that offer the chance to combine superfast broadband with a super-slow pace of life, and so are blurring the lines between work and holiday.
“In one generation, the internet has totally changed the game,” says Verse’s South African co-founder Jeremy Klynsmith. “Now there are so many ways to earn a living while being location independent. Companies are saving money not having to lease offices and freelancers can network with people from all over the world.”
One of the first on the scene was CocoVivo, started 18 years ago by Ulrich Gall on Isla Cristóbal in Panama’s Bocas del Toro. “Co-working didn’t exist at that time — not even as a word,” Gall says, over a high-speed fibre connection that links the island to the outside world. “Then about 10 years ago, internet access got better and the gig economy started to boom. Young people realised they could move to somewhere like Chiang Mai or Bocas del Toro, run their online business, and still have money left over.”
Nevertheless, the island setting and lack of infrastructure can still present challenges. “We have two internet providers now in case a sloth chews through a cable somewhere,” says Gall.
Remote co-working is also proving a beneficial lifeline for rural communities that have previously seen a brain drain. The village of Thingeyri (population 260) sits beside the sea in Iceland’s Westfjords, the distant region that only about 7 per cent of tourists to the country ever reach. Nevertheless, it is home to Blabankinn, a remote start-up incubator set up by Arnar Sigurdsson in 2017 that has had visits from Japanese app developers and entrepreneurs from Brooklyn.
“There’s definitely an opportunity for small remote communities to revitalise and attract young, creative people, partially thanks to the increase in remote work,” says Sigurdsson.
One major player in the sector is Selina, founded in Panama by Rafi Museri and Daniel Rudasevski. Since its launch in 2015, the company has expanded to 54 properties in 13 countries, and has plans to open in 400-plus locations by 2023. Selina combines co-working spaces with accommodation, also offering memberships that allow travellers to stay in the group’s properties worldwide for a fixed monthly rate. And they’ve got their sights set on Generation Z — “a new generation of two billion consumers who are entering the marketplace during a time of digital dominance,” according to Museri.
Using tech to connect with locals
Tourists have always cherished the fantasy of “living like a local”, if only for a few days. Now, though, technology is helping the next generation of travellers live out those ambitions in far more meaningful ways.
Trippin, for example, began as a closed Facebook group where friends shared travel tips and has expanded into a series of online city guides written by young locals. “Travellers my age are seeking authenticity,” says co-founder Sam Blenkinsopp, 28. “We’re looking for places that provide genuine insights into the culture we’re visiting.”
Blenkinsopp believes there is a lack of trust between people in their twenties and established information providers such as tour operators, TripAdvisor and conventional travel magazines.
“If you don’t know who the source of information is, you don’t know if you align with their values or how real their experience has been. There is also a tendency to fetishise certain aspects of a culture in the travel industry. Content created by locals allows them to reclaim their narrative.”
A spate of other apps have emerged that match visitors with locals. French app EatWith connects travellers with hosts offering gastronomic experiences, such as dinner in an artist’s studio in Berlin. According to the company, 52 per cent of users are 18-34 years old. Similar apps include I Like Local, a social enterprise operating throughout Asia and Africa, which offers tours such as “a Delhi street walk with a former street kid”, and Showaround, which has locals in 212 countries. Nearly 40 per cent of those on Showaround don’t charge for their time, keen to simply connect with like-minded people and share their culture.
Airbnb got in on the act in 2016, launching its “Experiences” portal to allow accommodation owners to also offer tours and events, and this summer it added Adventures, a collection of multi-day trips led by locals. “Travellers, especially those in their twenties, are looking to experience a destination in an authentic way by unlocking a different side of communities,” says Joe Zadeh, head of Airbnb Experiences.
Factor in bike-sharing apps, and language apps such as Voice Translator and it seems that travel could be entering an egalitarian new age — for those tech savvy enough to access it, that is.
The rise of vegan travel
In the black-and-gold lobby of the Hilton London Bankside, I’m sitting in a chair that looks like leather but is in fact made from pineapple. I’m waiting to check into what the hotel chain bills as the “world’s first vegan suite”, an innovation unveiled earlier this year and one emblematic of a far wider trend in travel.
Holidaying as a vegan used to mean running the risk of eating salad and chips every night for a week, but the travel industry is finally grasping the size and potential of the vegan market — especially among Generation Z. In the UK, 600,000 people have declared themselves vegan according to the Vegan Society, a threefold increase on 2014. A YouGov/Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board survey found that the 18-34 age group make up 54 per cent of vegans in the UK. While a desire to avoid animal cruelty remains the key motivation, environmental concerns are of growing importance, and activists including Greta Thunberg, herself a vegan, have made travel an increasingly significant consideration.
The result has been tour operators going far beyond alternative menus. Ski Beat last year launched vegan ski weeks, for example, while German-based operator Vegan Travel offers vegan cruises worldwide and VegVoyages runs group tours in Asia.
Back at the Hilton, I enter the suite to find bright pineapple print cushions made from Piñatex (pineapple leather) that complement the muted green-and-brown colour scheme. It’s sleek and urban — not in the least hippyish — and, if not for the name, you wouldn’t know it was any different from the other rooms. In fact the floor is made from bamboo (sustainable, recyclable and pesticide- free), the carpet is from organic cotton (rather than wool or polyester) and the toiletries are all vegan-friendly. Pillows offer various alternatives to feathers — organic buckwheat hulls, kapok fibre or organic millet husks. The minibar offers protein powder, fruit and nut snacks and energy balls. Even the keycard is plant-based.
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Sitting down to dinner, we have our very own vegan dining table complete with Piñatex-clad chairs. I order the lightly spiced dhal, while the waiter lists the range of vegan drinks available, including wines made without animal-based fining agents.
The suite is unusual in its attention to detail but it isn’t unique. The UK’s first entirely vegan hotel opened in June in Pitlochry, Scotland: the Saorsa 1875 uses only cruelty-free eco products, even for cleaning; their electricity also comes from Ecotricity, a vegan-certified renewable energy company. Co-founder Jack McClaren-Stewart, 27, noticed a correlation between luxury experiences and the number of animal products used. “You see more leather, wool [and] silk gowns because for a long time that is what’s been synonymous with luxury,” he says. His aim was to redress that situation and challenge “the notion that compassion, comfort and style are mutually exclusive ideas”.
The morning after my night at the Hilton, I throw open the soyabean silk curtains and scribble some notes using the complimentary pencil (made with recycled paper and wood). Downstairs, I finish my stay with blueberry muffins, quinoa pancakes and an almond milk latte. It occurs to me that I may never have to endure a “chips and salad” vacation again.