With domestic travel being the easiest and safest bet for summer 2021, I set out for a trip I’ve been wanting to take for some time now: an Appalachian adventure. These mountains have popped up on my Instagram radar every now and then, tempting me with their majestic beauty. So, when it came time to book our first post-COVID trip, I knew exactly where we could go.
Going into this, I knew that hospitality would still be struggling with staffing and not every business would be operating at its pre-pandemic functionality. But I hope to use this recent trip to demonstrate some important guest experience concepts that we can all benefit from as we strive to rebuild a better hospitality world.
I usually stay away from big properties with hundreds of rooms because I hate feeling like just a room number. I love the intimacy and support that I get at a smaller property, but we (my husband and I) chose this property for its stellar reputation, history, and location (closer to the mountains, away from the city). To start off with some praise, we were blown away by the character and beauty of the property and adored its nostalgic vibe. It was stunning, to say the least.
The hotel programming on the other hand, left much to be desired. It revolved around physical activity (tennis, yoga, golf) but since we spent every morning out hiking and exploring the local trails, we had little energy for those sorts of activities when we returned. Not to mention, we can do these activities at home, so we had very little interest in it.
I felt there was a big, missed opportunity for more cultural and intellectual programming. Often hotels try to cater to this by offering a history tour or a similar one-off experience, but these often lack true guest engagement. There are more immersive ways to speak to travelers’ curiosity and thirst for cultural fascination.
Keep in mind, the world has spent the last year and a half stuck inside where they could spend their days learning about whatever they wanted. At any point in time, we can log into social media and see something amazing. Our society clearly values seeing beautiful things, witnessing something cool and unique. But to see something is passive participation, and an experience is so much more valuable when we move guests into active participation.
What we see is often the spark for something greater… a desire to DO something. There is so much value in engaging more than just someone's sense of sight, immersing them into a multi-sensory experience, and actually inviting them to become a part of it.
For example, we oooo’d and ahhhh’d at the Bonsai exhibit at the North Carolina Arboretum. It was a rare treat for the eyes, seeing so many expertly crafted Bonsai trees in one place. It was delightful, but left us wanting more. Is this a craft I could get into at home? I found myself wishing that there was someone there who I could learn from in that moment, and perhaps get my hands on something, even if it was just a small aspect of the craft. Doing (versus consuming) is how we learn best! Every experience can be made more interactive, more hands on, and in turn, more valuable.
If you think about it, most of a vacation falls in the passive participation category. In the Experience Economy model above, we see entertainment and aesthetics on the passive side of the scale. When a trip falls heavily on this side, it becomes imbalanced. It stirs up a desire to not just sit and watch, but to do. Where’s the play? The interaction? The kinesthetic learning? The moments of flow?
Flow is an important aspect of engagement, one of the 5 pillars of the PERMA wellbeing model that I cover in this free online workshop. Because wellbeing is so much more than a spa treatment! During this recent trip, I tried every day to make a spa appointment, but it was always booked up. Thankfully on the last day, I was able to get a massage. But for the hundreds of other guests that couldn’t, what wellness and wellbeing options are there when you can’t get into the spa? Even the most sophisticated hotels that prioritize "wellness" often don’t have a plan for this. As covered in the workshop, wellbeing should be infused into many moments across the visitor journey. And you don't need a spa to make sure your guests' wellbeing is being catered to.
If you were to plot your activities, experiences, and program offerings on this chart, would they fall mostly on the left or right side? The sweet spot is in the center, where one experience has a mix of entertainment, sensory appeal, education, and escape. As the world begins to open up, start asking yourself: Are we giving travelers more of what they already do at home, or we immersing them into something new and novel?
One experience at the hotel we stayed at that strikes the perfect balance was a collaboration with a local foraging company. You would meet at the hotel for a foraging tour, learn about the local edible herbs and flowers around the property, and then enjoy a meal with wild foods that were seen on the tour. Collaborations like this are a terrific way to expand experience offerings!
To sum up, we had a wonderful trip, but I imagine we could have spent a lot more time & money at the property had it offered us more thoughtful programming. There were many times we would get home from lunch after our morning of adventures, wishing there was something we could do on site in those few hours before dinner (rather than just sit on the veranda with a cocktail). With 3,000+ miles of free, public hiking trails in the area, there’s plenty of outdoor adventure for people to get into. The hotel is missing an opportunity to engage people on a non-physical level, with cultural and wellbeing programming.