Transformative travel experiences are attractive for many consumers today, and I talked with Benjamin Loomis about why this led him to start Amble Resorts.
"What inspired me to start Amble Resorts was planning a trip to Thailand back in 2007, and not being able to find the type of accommodations I wanted. I backpacked through Europe in college and got a feel for what it was like to stay in youth hostels and really get immersed in a culture. Now that I'm close to 40 years old and have a different level of expectations and income, my needs are different.
Many professionals like me only have a few weeks of vacation, and don't want to waste any of that time. I wanted to get close to the culture, and didn't feel I would get that if I stayed at a big, branded hotel. When I looked at smaller hotels, I couldn't quite tell just how good of an experience it would be – if it would have reasonable service levels.
There's an emerging market for people looking for that type of immersive experience that really gets you into the place you're at, but provides a high service level at the same time.Providing high immersion and high service is a difficult balance.How do you define an immersive travel experience?
It's about really
being in the place you're at.
Whether you're in Panama or Thailand, it's about entering into that culture, and engaging with the reality of where you're at. You're always going to be a tourist at some level, but you're at least feeling like you're getting the same access a local would.Why do you see immersive travel as important?
I think it's really important for a certain type of customer, but I think that type of customer is growing. Someone who has traveled quite a few times is a little more sophisticated, and is tired of mass-market tourism. It's a growing market. Especially among wealthy demographics.
It's like when people have been going to regular grocery store and had 5-10 choices of cheese – but that doesn't compete now with Whole Foods or farmers markets where you get every variety on the planet.
It's a similar level of sophistication in travel for the intellectually curious, professional type of person who's looking more than just being pampered and sitting on a beach all day.
They're going to expect experiences that stretch them. Seeking out this type of experience can really change perspective on things. It can open yourself up to experiencing new things.
You're in a foreign country, and it's all of a sudden just walking down an average street can take on meaning and importance that doesn't happen in your hometown. It's important to go out and seek those experiences that broaden your view of the world. Look for the differences and similarities in a new culture.
From a business standpoint you're going to be targeting a certain niche, but it's the affluent and growing niche.Can you give us some specifics on how to enable immersion in a limited timeframe? Can you accelerate an experience?
One of the main benefits we offer our guests is privileged access
That can mean being geographically close to something, but also having expert advice and tours and so on. Really the only way to accelerate travel is to have that privileged access. For example, at Isla Palenque we're located on a 400-acre private island, so 250 acres of private forest preserve behind the property is privileged access. You can wake up in the morning after breakfast, and then go for three-hour hike without having to get on a bus.
Privileged access is also about engaging with expert local tour guides that can reveal aspects of a region that you may not have known otherwise. I've spent a few months at each of our properties, so I've gotten pretty good at identifying certain species of monkeys and birds, but it's the kind of thing that's difficult the first time you're out, and I still miss 90% of what a real expert would see.So it's really about expert guidance and special proximity that can accelerate those special kinds of experiences.How you provide experiential travel through design?
We keep a lot of design in-house. We certainly hire locals and consultants where we need to, but our core design comes from people we have here in the Chicago office.
Which means it's able to be much more tightly controlled by the brand. Also my background is in architecture, so that enables me to direct that the way that other people would not be able to. It also comes from having our designers spend a lot of time on site, and really understanding what the site is about and what the special things are that it has to offer.
We focus on preserving key attributes and bringing them to the forefront. We work really hard to integrate nature into the buildings. Wrapping buildings around 200-year-old trees and things like that. It also means bringing the culture into the design. It's a fine line, because you don't want to become cheesy – I don't want to make it look like a tiki bar – but working with local craftsmen and local indigenous groups to produce some of the artwork, amenities, and even some of the furniture that's being used to bring some of the culture in from a design point of view.In the marketing material I've seen from you so far, you seem very focused on storytelling – publishing content about your travel philosophy and what to expect at the property.
We've had a blog going since we started development of the project, and we recently expanded that and are bringing more writers on board. Our goal with what we do with the blog is to tell both the story about the property itself and also about things going on around the property. (So people considering visiting can get a feel for what they can expect.)
Our stories about the brand are mostly written by people who have been on site. As the hotel opens, our goal is to involve a lot of the hotel employees in producing content and telling the story–what's going from a day-to-day point of view.
We want our guests to begin telling the stories well. While they're down there and excited about their experience, we want them producing content that their friends can see, and really engage them in that story so that it almost becomes a full circle thing.
Anyone learning about a property now is going to go online to research, and understand the experience from what others have written.
So we really want to engage with our guests online as they are on their trip. After they've experienced our property, we want to use social media to keep them engaged with the property.
For example, if our travel guides regularly publish about things they've seen on their tours, that's a great way to stay engaged with our audience: past, present, and future guests. If you've got a certain employee that has a great story but isn't a great writer, we can assist them with writing that story. But I want to see as many voices as possible in our company talking about their experiences.
When you get a lot of people creating online content, it creates a much richer narrative.
Thanks, Benjamin! To learn more about Amble Resorts, visit their website, http://amble.com www.hotelmarketingstrategies.com/experiential-travel About the author
This blog is written by Josiah Mackenzie, who enjoys exploring the relationship between emerging technology and the hospitality industry.