How Digital Nomads Are Changing the Travel Industry
By AnnaMarie Houlis for TravelAge West | April 12, 2021
Now, more than ever, remote work is on the rise as professionals are increasingly working within the confines of their homes due to the COVID-19 crisis. With the flexibility to work remotely, it makes sense that digital nomadism is an increasingly enticing lifestyle — and the burgeoning trend is changing the travel industry and compelling travel advisors to shift their focus.
Digital Nomadism: A Growing Trend?
By 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely — an 87% increase from pre-pandemic numbers — according to Upwork’s “Future of Workforce Pulse Report.” In fact, managers believe that 26.7% of the workforce will still be fully remote in 2021. Remote job board Remote.co suggests that, while most remote jobs require people to live in specific geographic areas, work-from-anywhere jobs are cropping up for everyone from developers and designers to customer support professionals and marketing managers.
What do all these digital nomads have in common? They seek an independent lifestyle replete with adventure and reliable Wi-Fi access. For them, traveling is not vacationing; rather, traveling is a lifestyle.
Take, for example, the story of Diego Bejarano Gerke, cofounder of Wifi Tribe, a community of more than 800 members from 60-plus countries who live and work together around the world. Like many digital nomads, Gerke wanted to travel with like-minded people without forgoing his career.
So, he emailed about 100 friends, inviting them to cowork at his family’s home in Bolivia, a country he grew up visiting. About seven joined him at the time, though he didn’t know then that freelancing with friends in Bolivia would morph into his own business of bringing remote professionals together all over the world.
“To me, Wifi Tribe is a group of people that I can go through life with,” Gerke said.
While remote professionals are free to travel solo, many choose to plug themselves into local communities and hostels. However, constantly introducing yourself can burn out even the most extroverted travelers. Wifi Tribe is a consistent community where curious, open-minded professionals can seek adventure without sacrificing social stability. Moreover, Wifi Tribe gives these travelers the chance to explore places that don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to support digital nomads or where there aren’t already many like-minded professionals.
“A lot of people start with interest in Bali; Medellin, Colombia; or Playa del Carmen, Mexico,” he said. “But, as soon as people have been traveling like this for a while, they start looking at Oman or Japan — the kinds of places that aren’t typically on that digital nomad road.”
And, as this lifestyle becomes ever more doable with the advent of a remote workforce, Wifi Tribe has seen an uptick in interest. In the last quarter of 2020, applications to join the community exceeded pre-COVID-19 times, even though many people aren’t traveling yet.
“It’s really clear that [this lifestyle] has exploded,” Gerke said. “As soon as COVID-19 is over, we’re bracing ourselves. We’re getting ready for a change that we thought was going to happen in 10 years, but that’s now happening in a matter of a few months.”
Hotels Are Adapting Their Offerings to Digital Nomads
Current and prospective digital nomads are able to scratch off more of their maps as traditional travel businesses also adapt to accommodate them. Hotels, for example, are offering various packages to longer-term remote professionals.
One such company, Limelight Hotels, has properties located in premier ski and mountain destinations — including Aspen and Snowmass, Colo., and Sun Valley, Idaho — which are ideal basecamps for working with a splash of adventure.
“Many people dream of living in the mountains one day and waking up to the idyllic beauty of nature,” said Connie Power, director of sales for Limelight Hotels. “We want to help people realize that dream for a period and take advantage of the newfound flexibility that remote work has afforded so many.”
The Limelight Long Stay package offers reduced rates for longer-term guests who benefit from high-speed Wi-Fi access, free breakfast and food/beverage credit so they can jump right into work, as well as complimentary bike access to explore when the workday is done. Guests may also request the setup of printers, scanners and additional monitors in their rooms.
Meanwhile, Harmon Guest House, a luxury boutique hotel in Sonoma County, Calif., has gone so far as to partner with Altwork to provide guests in-suite, self-contained, ergonomic workstations. These are equipped with 32-inch screens that workers can use sitting, standing, lying down or even upside down. Harmon Guest House is one of many hotels to also offer day passes for professionals who need an office just for the day.
Mandarin Oriental’s new Working from M.O., for example, offers guests day access to select rooms with high-speed Wi-Fi access, printing facilities, dining credit and access to the fitness centers at all city-based properties. Likewise, the flexible Work Anywhere program from Marriott Bonvoy spans more than 2,000 participating hotels with working spaces and business facilities.
And Melia Hotels International (MHI) recently debuted remote day-stays and workcation options at select hotels. Global passport by citizenM, which also offers digital nomads a fixed-rate stay option at its 21 global properties, has even launched a corporate subscription program, offering similar benefits for companies with remote workforces.
It’s not just bigger hotel chains, either. Even off-the-beaten-path hotels — from Costa Rica’s Tierra Magnifica to Puerto Rico’s Hotel Melia, Solace & The Fox Ponce to Mexico’s Palmaia The House of Aia — are reducing rates for longer-term guests and offering up services from complimentary IT support to Wi-Fi access from the beach.
RV Appeal Remains Strong
But not everyone who is traveling these days is interested in staying in hotels. In fact, many people are choosing a recreational vehicle (RV), which promises a more socially isolated experience. A survey by Thor Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of RVs, finds that 79% of respondents are interested in RVs. RVshare, a rental platform, shows that nearly 61% of people agree that RVs make good workspaces.
“After people realized that RVs were a safe way to travel after the COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020, our company has grown exponentially,” said Joel Holland, CEO and founder of Harvest Hosts.
Harvest Hosts offers RVers access to more than 1,850 wineries, farms, breweries, museums and other places to park overnight with a yearly subscription. The company saw a 522% increase in membership sign-ups between April and May of 2020 and doubled the number of members between May and the end of September last year. In the latter half of 2020, it also added more than 100 new host locations.
“We have seen an increase in interest among the younger, remote-working generation,” Holland said. “I anticipate this trend increasing as more companies allow fully remote work even after the pandemic.”
How Travel Advisors Can Appeal to Digital Nomads
So how can travel advisors shift focus to jump on this trend?
Logistics. It’s just that the logistics for digital nomads are a bit different than the logistics for usual clients, such as vacationers and business travelers.
“More advisors can help out remote professionals or digital nomads who want to live this kind of lifestyle and just want someone to take care of the logistics,” Wifi Tribe’s Gerke said.
Organizations such as Wifi Tribe create the community, but that doesn’t mean that advisors can’t still offer a hand in booking flights, navigating pandemic-related restrictions, choosing global health and travel insurances and more.
“[Digital nomads] are not the people who need help but, rather, the people who would prefer to pay somebody to help them out if that saves them time,” Gerke said. “This audience cares more about comfort and saving time than saving money.”
According to Gerke, who’s already tapped into this demographic, there are some key questions advisors should be asking a client who identifies as a digital nomad: How fast do they need their internet connection to be? What type of productive environment do they prefer (i.e. nearby coworking offices, nomad communities, etc.)? How much do they care about being surrounded by other expats and remote professionals or, on the contrary, how much do they care about being immersed in the local community?
Travel advisors may also help digital nomads with recommendations on mobile Wi-Fi devices, local sim cards, travel credit cards, lounge access and travel hacks that could save them time and money.
Some travel advisors are already doing just that. Nico Bergengruen, for example, co-founded Jubel, a platform for planning workcations, in 2016.
His team of seasoned travel advisors works with digital nomads to bring their ideal trips to fruition. With more than 15 years of experience, Jubel’s travel advisors represent 10 nationalities and have, themselves, lived and worked in 28 countries and traveled to more than 80.
“Spending, on average, 140 hours and visiting 30 different websites to plan a multi-destination trip yourself is daunting,” he said, noting that luxury travel advisors can be an expensive alternative. “We thought there should be a middle ground. Jubel makes it easy to plan and book a tailor-made experience that maximizes your budget and ensures you have everything you need to mix remote work with the rewards of a leisure vacation.”
In other words: Jubel’s advisors leverage their extensive knowledge on everything from destination activities to internet reliability across the globe.
“Jubel offers digital nomads a way to design their dream lifestyle and plug in somewhere new, while staying productive,” Bergengruen said. “The logistics and heavy lifting are all taken care of by our experts, leaving only the fun ‘dreaming’ part to nomads.”
How to Market to Digital Nomads
How are these agencies reaching digital nomads? Jubel is actively reaching out to potential clients and sharing some of the benefits of this change in lifestyle.
“Painting the picture of what a ‘workcation’ — with all safety measures considered, of course — can do for you in terms of improving your well-being, adopting a new hobby or getting to know a local culture more deeply is what we are focused on at the moment from a marketing perspective,” Bergengruen said.
According to Gerke, however, traditional marketing measures and overly saturated social media strategies may not take all advisors very far. That’s why he recommends finding out where the people who are willing to trade money for more time already are.
“Figure out where these people are, where these people are already spending money, and plug yourself into that,” he suggests, recommending partnerships with communities such as Wifi Tribe and Nomad List, which boasts tens of thousands of members. Hostel chains such as Selina, which provides coworking offices, are also businesses that attract digital nomads.
“Selina offers flexible spaces, high-speed Wi-Fi access, a bar, restaurants and many activities,” said Matt Kiefer of HostelGeeks.com, noting that Selina has locations across the Americas and Europe.
“This is what most digital nomads in our user group enjoy and are looking for.”
In whichever ways travel advisors connect with digital nomads, it’s obvious that this trend is creating immense, untapped potential to scale business. The rise of digital nomadism is already changing how people travel, and how many travel businesses operate in response. Now, advisors are well-poised to change the way they can facilitate these travels, as well.