Mashpi Lodge is a cloud-forest reserve in Ecuador. // © 2017 Mashpi Lodge/National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World
Feature image (above): Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat in South Africa // © 2017 Bushmans Kloof/National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World
After climbing out of kayaks, our group trudged, single file, for a distance in Laguna Bacalar, Mexico. We weaved in and out of a sulfuric waterway until our guide, Giarado, motioned for us to stop.
“For five minutes, let’s be quiet and hear nature’s call,” he said.
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. I breathed inaudibly through my nose. And kneeling in the dense sludge that reached my shoulders, I listened.
At first everything was still, save for the soft whisper of an intermittent breeze and the ensuing rustle of mangroves. But then, it wasn’t. A high-pitched shriek filled the air, followed by the melodic cooing of hoo, hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo. And right when a hush fell again, a chorus of chirps, whistles and screeches broke the silence once more.
Giardo later described the members of this impressive orchestra: white-winged pigeons with their soft cooing and “400 voices” birds (northern mockingbirds) with their disdainful trill. A yellow-chested social flycatcher had chimed in with its sharp cry, too.
The guy knew his stuff. At Bacalar — also known as The Lake of Seven Colors — he led the way in kayaking, meditation, swimming and even a spa treatment, where we caked our faces with the lake’s mineral-rich mud. At lunchtime, fresh ceviche, guacamole and the like awaited us a few yards from the shore. A table somehow had appeared, set with real tableware and accompanied by a full bar.
Such is an ordinary day for guests at The Explorean Kohunlich, an all-inclusive Fiesta Americana property. The remote hotel is tucked away in the Maya jungle of Quintana Roo, Mexico; its closest airport is in Chetumal, about an hour’s drive away.
Lodging includes hammock-equipped bungalows and cabanas with private pools. Wicker baskets of pastries, coffee and orange juice are delivered to guests before breakfast, and a self-serve bar in the lobby means unlimited margaritas until 10 p.m. But there won’t be a television, much less Wi-Fi access, in any rooms — though a tiny frog may blink at you in the bathroom, as if you’ve rudely interrupted its privacy.
“Explorean is all about getting close to nature,” explained Daniel, another guide for the hotel.
I was back on my kayak, this time at the pitch-black Laguna de Chakanbakan. The sun had long set, and our headlamps illuminated the vertical-slit pupils of watchful Morelet’s crocodiles lingering nearby.
A howler monkey screeched in the distance.
“That’s why it’s different from other trips in Mexico,” he said.
Indeed, at the 40-room hotel, you won’t find sunbaked vacationers lolling poolside all day. Included in a stay is a daily adrenaline-packed activity, such as biking through the jungle to the Kohunlich archaeological site. With everything arranged to perfection by hotel staff, guests don’t pass up any opportunities for exploring the beauty of the destination.
“People are looking for experiences that allow them to truly connect with a place and its culture, yet are easy to coordinate and do not sacrifice quality,” said Mauricio Moncada, director of sales and marketing for The Explorean Kohunlich.
Experiential Travel Today
It’s a radical thought: a hotel, especially an all-inclusive one like The Explorean Kohunlich, that doesn’t want to keep guests confined to its property. In fact, it wants them to leave — or at least wander greater lengths — as long as they return to rest their weary heads upon fluffed pillows at night.
But Explorean isn’t alone in this shift in intention. Due to the prevailing rise of experiential travel, as well as the ever-present threat of the sharing economy, hotel brands have no choice but to meet consumers halfway. And by directly offering immersive experiences, they are helping themselves to a generous — and lucrative — pie that has historically belonged to tour operators. This can ease the vacation-planning process for travel agents, too, as outings tend to come vetted when associated with an excellent hotel.
However, a true experiential hotel is determined by more than its excursions. Authenticity of the locale is paramount, as well as environmental sustainability and collaboration with the local community. Access to remote destinations and adventures grander and more unique than ever before are also components, as travelers are keen to earn bragging rights on social media.
According to Kate Corey, founder of 6 Degrees, a Virtuoso agency, the vision and expectation of today’s modern traveler has changed as the world has become smaller, more accessible and more connected, largely because of social media. She says her savvy clients are increasingly seeking exclusivity over mass market and authenticity over thread count. To them, an experiential property should be more than a hotel — it should also be a concept.
“The property has to have values and provide something other than room keys,” she said. “And these values need to be shared with guests and instilled in day-to-day practices.”
Deb Friedman, vice president of independent and specialty travel for National Geographic Partners, agrees. She says the industry has evolved, and the foundation of experiential travel now consists of cultures, communities and thriving ecosystems.
“Responsible operators and informed travelers know that tourism has a powerful impact — one that can be positive or negative,” Freidman said. “Maximizing our positive impact is essential to ensuring the places we love are around for generations to come.”
With mounting global temperatures, shrinking ice sheets, rising sea levels and more, the Earth is changing at an alarming pace. Those passionate about experiential travel recognize this looming peril — one that threatens to devastate cherished destinations all over — and strive to impart sustainable thinking when offering or taking trips.
“Whether travelers want to be actively educated on the effect of travel on the land and local communities or choose a hotel that operates responsibly, all of this is now becoming more mainstream rather than the exception,” said Filip Boyen, CEO of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH).
Many hotels are already fighting the good fight.
For properties to qualify as a member of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, they must demonstrate sustainable tourism best practices, including a commitment to conservation, green operations and more.
One example is Mashpi Lodge in Ecuador, a former logging concession turned cloud-forest reserve that invites guests on a research outing. It’s championed by a resident wildlife biologist, who works diligently to protect the local environment. Gaya Island Resort, an SLH property on Borneo, has a similar program led by a resident naturalist in collaboration with Sabah Parks and Sabah Wildlife Department. It aims to preserve longtime island residents, such as endangered proboscis monkeys.
Joss Kent, CEO for AndBeyond, says that experiential travel isn’t merely a buzzword, a PR stunt or the latest fad.
“It’s vital to protecting the planet we live on today,” he said. “It involves active participation, involvement and immersion.”
To underline this mindset, AndBeyond’s sustainability team has put measures into place that minimize the company’s physical footprint. AndBeyond Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp in Botswana, for instance, is powered by solar energy (via a photovoltaic power plant) and a Tesla Powerpack battery storage system. The first of its kind in Botswana and the second in Africa, the approach reduces generator runtime from 24 hours to five hours, as well as offsets a harmful reliance on fossil fuel.
However, a hotel’s sustainability efforts should encompass more than just initiatives for protecting the surrounding environment. Involving members of the local community is also crucial.
Jessica Ourisman, a travel advisor at Brownell Travel, a Virtuoso agency, recommends that hotels incorporate inspiration from their own staff into activities and amenities offered to guests.
“That way it’s not about the generalized region; it’s about the people who are right on property,” Ourisman said. “Clients will understand that their stay is supporting the community.”
Singita, she notes, is a prime example of a brand that adheres to such procedures. With 12 lodges and camps across Africa, Singita is renowned for its sustainable conservation, including empowerment of local communities through partnerships. Among them is the Singita School of Cooking, based in South Africa, which annually selects eight to 10 students from nearby areas to participate in a challenging 18-month course. Graduates end up working for various lodges throughout the region, not just those under the Singita umbrella. Guests of Singita Lebombo Lodge and Singita Sweni Lodge can visit the school and see firsthand the positive impact of tourism upon the population.
Off the shore of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, is Fogo Island Inn, whose mere existence is based on social enterprise. It’s owned by the Shorefast Foundation, and all surplus profits are reinvested in the cultural and economic well-being of Fogo Island and its rural communities.
“Fogo Island Inn is built from the very fabric of the island,” said innkeeper Zita Cobb. “The reason for creating the inn was to capture, reflect and fortify the culture of this centuries-old fishing community.”
The luxury hotel offers a slew of activities, from geology hikes and rowing in a traditional wooden punt (boat) to outdoor boil-ups (winter picnics) and ice fishing. Guests can also be matched with a community host. Though not official employees of the hotel, hosts facilitate and accompany guests on visits with the island’s populace, such as a tour of a local artist’s studio. Cobb says this has led to genuine friendships that last long after check-out.
“We describe hospitality as ‘the love of a stranger,’” Cobb said. “That’s what guests receive when they stay with us: our love, care and sharing of ourselves and our land.”
Clearly, experiential travel and luxury travel go hand in hand, as incredible, memorable experiential travel often comes at a premium.
“There’s an evolution away from a focus merely on material goods toward feelings that can be engendered within travelers,” said Chris Walker, senior vice president of sales for the Americas for The Leading Hotels of the World. “There will always be demand for a comfortable bed in a well-appointed guestroom with helpful staff; however, that won’t be enough if there isn’t more emotion brought along with it.”
Lisa Holladay, global brand leader and vice president for The Ritz-Carlton, says that, in some ways, Ritz-Carlton Reserve is a direct response to the evolution of today’s luxury traveler.
Currently, the brand has three resorts around the world, and four are in the pipeline. Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico has an archeological site on property. Also, in partnership with prominent French explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, the resort uses the beach as a natural classroom. Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Bali takes guests to the ancient relics of Gunung Kawi and the rice fields of Ceking Village, and its mode of transportation is a classic Volkswagen 181 convertible.
“While luxury was once prescribed, today it is what you want it to be,” Holladay said. “So we have evolved our offerings with more personalized and anticipatory services and innovative amenities.”
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts also has followed suit with its Extraordinary Experiences collection. Through Colorado’s Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail, for example, guests can join a two-day hike of a “fourteener” (a mountain peak that exceeds more than 14,000 feet). Llamas carry all the gear and food, and an overnight stay at 11,000 feet features a gourmet meal, awe-inspiring views and the brand’s signature high-quality service.
“With everything at guests’ fingertips, I think they yearn for something unique and authentic,” said Brent Martin, general manager of the property. “What opens their eyes to new understanding? Provides inspiration? Or seeks to leverage their spontaneity?”
Nestled in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry Farm has a similar approach, inviting travelers to explore the resort’s sprawling 4,200 acres without abandon. Here, guests can fly-fish in a private stream one day, then sample rare whiskeys in an underground tunnel the next. And though Blackberry Farm may be a Relais & Chateaux resort — featuring cottages and three- to five- bedroom houses with a private chef — it also lives up to its name as an actual working farm. Clients can take gardening lessons and work with the livestock team.
“These programs not only give the chance to enjoy the beauty of the property, but also offer a glimpse into the history of how people have enjoyed these mountains and creek bottoms for decades,” said Alex Quick, activities director for the resort.
Another resort well-versed in experiential travel is The Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg, Mont. The all-inclusive luxury ranch is the world’s only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star guest ranch, and its 6,600 acres is a playground for adults and kids alike. Accommodations include canvas glamping cabins, ritzy log homes and a historic converted horse barn, while an award-winning spa offers everything from private yoga classes to half-day retreats. With the assistance of a Ranch Ambassador, guests also craft their own bespoke itineraries of twice-daily complimentary activities, which might include fly-fishing or geocaching.
“When you arrive at The Ranch at Rock Creek, you feel the history of the legendary West around every corner,” said Heather Rue, director of marketing at the resort. “It was inspired and built on the value and enrichment of experiential travel.”
Ultimately, hotels have evolved into more than just a gateway to a destination. They are now playing a weightier role in immersing travelers deeper into a destination.
Jamo Ladd, an advisor for Avenue Two Travel, a Virtuoso agency, says that these are his favorite kind of trips.
“When all the criteria for an experiential hotel is met, it’s hard not to leave with a yearning to return and a sense of gratitude to have been lucky enough to visit,” he said.
7 MORE NOTEWORTHY HOTEL EXPERIENCES
AndBeyond Phinda in South Africa
Assist in elephant collaring, monitoring and tracking as part of the lodge’s elephant conservation project.
Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia, Canada
Seek enlightenment through forest bathing, which can last up to four hours.
Majestic Hotel & Spa Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain
Burn off those tapas with a jogging tour of the city that’s led by a hotel employee.
Chable Resort & Spa in Yucatan, Mexico
A Mayan shaman adorns those on a quest for wellness with herbal preparations, traditional remedies and floral elixirs.
Blanket Bay Boutique Hotel in Queenstown, New Zealand
After seeing glaciers up close, dig into a heli-picnic by a remote fjord.
Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat in South Africa
Dine in a natural sandstone amphitheater that’s lit up by hundreds of candles, lanterns and a fire.
Seal River Heritage Lodge in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Guests can snorkel in the Canadian arctic alongside friendly beluga whales.