The Next Travel Boom
While the travel and hospitality industry has been globally decimated, its savior may be an entirely new breed of travelers. As companies embrace permanent work from home (WFH) policies for their white collar staff, those workers will no longer be tied to their homes either. Instead of only traveling during their few vacation weeks per year, workers can travel year round.
Professionals of all levels of seniority will be free to explore the world, so long as they complete the requisite number of work hours per week or work tasks and dial into work video conferences when needed along the way. This new breed of digital nomads will likely create demand for all quality levels of travel in the future - wherever there is excellent internet connection.
There are around 1.25 billion global information workers who use a smartphone, PC, or tablet for work an hour more per day in a typical week. If just 1% become digital nomads, traveling the world 365 days a year, not just 15 days of work vacation, that’s 4.2 billion extra nights in accommodation per annum. That’s equal to the global pre-COVID demand for hotels.
This may be harder for workers with school aged kids, except for those who are willing to homeschool their kids from the road. COVID-19 lockdowns have likely shown parents whether they love or hate homeschooling.
Digital nomads used to be characterized by 20-somethings moving to Thailand or another cheap tropical paradise where selling apps or becoming an Instagram influencer could fund their inexpensive lifestyles. That’s about to change, as countries reopen for travel, but particularly once travel becomes safer again.
The Accidental Prototype
My husband and I have been pioneers of the emerging type of digital nomad for the last 3 years. I am a company CEO with large company clients all over the world. I got tired of going back to home base between business trips, so prefer to explore new places in between. My husband is a senior commercial arbitrator who tends to preside over large complex cases that require months of reading and weeks of writing his decision. It has been easy to head back to America for the in-person hearings in cities across the country. If we didn’t travel together, we would hardly see each other, so we instead chose the almost 24/7 togetherness of working from the road.
We officially started this lifestyle 3 years ago when we were already traveling for 6 weeks and questioning why we were paying a mortgage on our empty home. We received an offer to rent our furnished apartment for 7 months at a significant premium to our mortgage. My husband marvels that I said yes in a nanosecond, but he wasn’t far behind. Movers stored our personal belongings from the apartment and mailed us some extra clothes. Hey presto, we were free to roam.
We were partly subsidized by our renter, plus expensing our business trips. Work benefitted from my willingness to travel to clients more than most people would be willing to consider.
We actually saved money compared to when living at home, while living in pretty luxurious hotels and Airbnbs. We splurged in some places and less while transiting, plus there was a huge variety in costs of living between different locations. The rewards points from our hotels and living costs usually resulted in free flights using points - often in Business or First Class.
Dragging one large checked luggage and one cabin bag each was made easier by the service in luxury travel. Having the same small choice of clothes all the time or the wrong mix for the change of season or hemisphere meant we would occasionally buy some new clothes. We would mail back home the ones we couldn’t stand the sight of yet again, or found we were not really using.
We got into a great routine of making sure we were putting in the work hours, while exploring our destination in between. For instance, 14 hour work days on Mondays when museums are often closed would free up other parts of the week to play tourist.
While we have been happily grounded in a short term furnished rental in my hometown Sydney since March because of COVID-19, one day I believe we will be digital nomads again. The flexibility of nomadic life certainly enabled us to choose a safer place than our former homes, New York and Los Angeles, to hunker down.
How Travel Companies Should Pivot
Our experience has taught us so much about how travel companies should pivot to attract professional digital nomads. Spotlessly reliable Wifi is the most crucial. Hotels should reconfigure their room layouts so that guests can angle their laptops to have a professional-looking background during video conferences. I purposefully choose my hotel rooms based on not seeing the bed in the video background.
Hotels should reconfigure their room layouts so that guests can angle their laptops to have a professional-looking background during video conferences.
We often book suites with doors between the rooms, not out of overspending, but so that we can each do calls without disturbing the other. Working globally means often needing to do calls overnight to fit the timezone.
Hotels would do well to plan out spaces where workers can take a video call while their partner sleeps - again where there is a desk with a nice backdrop, instead of the worker trying to look good sitting on a sofa while perching their laptop on their knee and trying not to look like they have multiple chins. That also means turning off piped music overnight and maybe having some water, coffee and a little snack available to those trying to keep themselves alert at those times. Those inexpensive little touches really leave a great impression for digital nomads like me.
Hotels would also be smart to keep more details on guest preferences for frequent travelers - preferably a system across all hotel brands, but at the least within the same hotel groups. I wish I could recoup all the hours wasted over the past 3 years dealing with hotel staff and concierges to enable a pleasant stay and decent sleep, because we have to start from scratch with every new hotel staff member. When living on the road, things you could ignore for a few days on holiday become more important to fix.
There may be room in the market for travel agencies to specialize in helping professional digital nomads, incorporating lessons from global clubs, co-working and co-living companies. However, the digital tools already available for travel planning are already advanced enough to give a great customer experience. A sense of shared community and networking in destinations can already be accessed through various existing membership groups.
In my view, travel companies would best redirect their efforts into marketing campaigns to inspire white collar workers to take the plunge into this lifestyle, plus make the adaptations mentioned above.
Four billion extra hotel night stays per annum from this new breed of traveler may just save and grow the entire industry.