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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Discovering Chicago's Neighborhoods: WIcker Park and Bucktown

Booking a hotel in an urban neighborhood provides a visitor with the tools to feel like a local — and for Chicago-bound tourists seeking out a hipster vibe, the Wicker Park/Bucktown area is the place to be. Here, you'll find the addition of the 606, Chicago’s version of the High Line, where you can rent a Divvy bike or jog along the paved 2.7-mile path carved from abandoned elevated rail line. Below, you’ll witness streets filled with locally owned boutiques, bistros, and bars (with a few chain stores and juice shops thrown in).  


Perfect for all budgets are the neighborhood’s music shops and bookstores. Head to Myopic for poetry readings, live music, and used books or grab a beverage at Volumes Book Cafe. Fans of vintage records will find their heads — and their turntables — spinning. The vinyl frontier includes Dusty Groove, Reckless Records, and Shuga. And there's plenty of places to eat, drink, and sleep. From budget to splurge, here's our guide. 

On a Budget

Where to Eat: There are plenty of cheap eats in this area. Try Irazu for a Costa Rican take on Latin American cuisine. You can grab three empanadas for $9 or casado, a typical Costa Rican meat and rice dish for $15. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Need a snack? Try the horchata or a uniquely flavored shake. Just bring cash — they don’t take credit cards. Continuing the international cheap eats theme, En Hakkore dishes out bibimbap bowls ($9) and Korean-inspired tacos (two for $8).


What to Do: By day, hang out at Wicker Park. The park for which the neighborhood is named is a playground for kids and adults. In addition to its sports fields, the park often hosts free movie nights and farmers markets. By night, sneak into the Hideout, a Prohibition-style bar with live music. From January to April, there’s free soup and bread, made by local foodies and artists; your donations go to local food banks. 

Where to Stay: Urban Holiday Lofts offers up shared rooms with shared baths, along with private rooms with shared or private baths. Don’t be surprised to be sleeping in a bunk bed, though. The rooms are barebones (no TVs, no lotion), and the lobby is a bit dingy, but the place is certainly well-located, and it has convenient amenities like free breakfast, a common room with a pool table and television, and a guest kitchen. (Dormitory style room with shared bath go for $39 per night; private room sleeping up to four with private bath: $137.)

Mid-priced Options

Where to Eat: Enoteca Roma is one of those family-run Italian joints with scratch-made food and a rustic feel reminiscent of the Old Country. On a nice day, mosey to the back patio for an al fresco dinner (a pizza for $20 and plenty of wines for less than $10 a glass). Despite its name, Dove’s Luncheonette provides counter service for three squares a day. Menu items (between $12 and $17) are inspired by south of the border and Southern fare.

Dove's Luncheonette
What to Do: Head to Trap Door Theatre for avant-garde performances of challenging and obscure works. The Den Theatre has five unique venues, which present productions developed by its multiple resident companies. After a show, head to the Den’s bar for live music. (Ticket prices average about $25 each.) 

The Robey
Where to Stay: The Robey ($250 per night) has the same high design and unique amenities sported by many of the downtown hotels, but at a cheaper price tag. Located in an Art Deco building at the triangular intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenues, the hotel offers easy access to the city. If you have a choice, go for the extra-roomy industrial-style rooms in the Annex Loft. The El’s Blue Line, which runs downtown and to O’Hare Airport, is right next door (and can be heard from some rooms — so if you are a light sleeper, be sure to ask for a room on the quiet side).

The Splurge

Where to Eat: Mirai Sushi is a stylish sushi and sake bar. The menu includes the standard items you’d expect, plus more creative fare. For sushi, it’s not that expensive, but is still one of the pricier restaurants in the neighborhood with shared plates that run $7-$17. Another nice date night option is Cafe Robey, serving upscale American fare. 
What to Do:  It’s not a huge splurge, as entertainment options in the neighborhood aren’t excessively pricey, but WhirlyBall offers bowling, laser tag, and Whirlyball courts that can keep anyone entertained for hours. What’s Whirlyball?  It’s a made-up sport that marries lacrosse and hockey and involves riding around in souped-up bumper cars. Fuel up before, during, or after your session at the on-site bistro. ($15 per per for a half-hour; bowling starts at $60 per hour for 8 people.) 

Hotel at Midtown
Where to Stay: The Hotel at Midtown is on the northernmost end of Bucktown, and while it feels a bit isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, it's an easy 10-minute walk to the main drag. Even though it’s the highest-priced hotel in the neighborhood, consider that the cost of your room (plus the $25 a day resort fee) gains you free entry into the fancy-schmancy Midtown Athletic Club. In addition to having access to the latest gym equipment, you can choose from dozens of daily classes, ranging from barre to yoga, without paying extra for the privilege. (Rooms go for $250-$300 per night plus the resort fee.)

This article was written for Shermans Travel. The original version of the article appears here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Brain Dating: Thought Leadership Conferences and the High-End Traveler

This article originally appeared on Skift.com. I am that publication's luxury correspondent.

Nowadays, luxury travel is all about discovering new frontiers. It’s not just about expanding physical and geographic boundaries. The travel cognoscenti are “brain dating” around the world in order to stretch their minds.

First came TED in 1984. Soon thereafter, in 1987, there was South by Southwest.
Now, after a bit of a lull, thought leadership conferences are popping up all over the map, with Vivid SydneyC2 MontrĂ©al, and Light City Baltimore launching in the last decade.
Light City Baltimore: Photo by Perry Mandelboym
These conferences, which meld creative components with thought-provoking programming, deliver high-end visitors, while providing a host city with the opportunity to develop, solidify, or refine its brand.
According to J. Walter Thompson’s Future 100: 2018 forecast, “Events like these indicate the increased appetite for thought leadership and innovation among consumers. These experiential events combine self-improvement with entertainment, networking, and access to today’s influencers, who are often tech leaders or startup founders, rather than traditional celebrities.”
Vancouver thought the sector important enough to woo TED to the British Columbian metropolis. Working with Destination Canada, the city developed a two-year financial incentive package to entice TED to relocate from Long Beach, California.
Image result for vancouver ted
Courtesy cantechletter.com
“The average economic impact for TED from 2014-2017 was $3.8 million per year, but the true value far exceeds that as the TEDsters are distinguished and influential leaders who can help share Vancouver’s appeal as an incredible convention destination, great place to do business, and an unforgettable place to visit,” Tourism Vancouver said.
According to Dave Gazley, vice president of meetings and convention sales for Tourism Vancouver, most TED visitors stay downtown in four and five-star hotels, meaning that “Vancouver also benefits from the affluent crowd in that people will come back here on their own and experience the city on vacation,” given that the TED schedule doesn’t allow for much city exploration time.
South by Southwest, or SXSW as it is widely known as, celebrates its 31st anniversary in March. It’s grown from what was primarily a music festival into one big event made of music, film, interactive, sustainability, and education tracks.
“The interactive conference has the largest per capita spend, between the individuals who may stay at more expensive hotels and the corporations spending more money to host events at ancillary venues around the city,” said Ben Loftsgaarden, a partner in Austin-based Greyhill Advisors, which analyzes the economic impact of SXSW.
“One of the things that has made SXSW so successful.” said Loftsgaarden, ‘is that while the organizers realize it’s largely about networking, to keep people coming back, you have to make it fun.”
Vivid Sydney light festival
Courtesy Vivid Sydney
Perhaps that’s why so many conferences seem to be melding elements of creativity and commerce. Witness Vivid Sydney.
What started as a modest light festival ten years ago, designed in part to attract visitors to Sydney during the winter, has become a huge draw for tourists. The 23-day show has grown from 255,000 attendees in 2009 to 2.33 million in 2017.
Destination NSW took over the event two years into its run and started transforming it into what it is today: a festival of light, music and ideas. According to Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW and executive producer of Vivid Sydney, the pivot to thought leadership “reinforces Sydney’s position as the creative services hub of the Asia Pacific region….and builds access to global markets.”
Chipchase said that most international travelers stay at high-end hotels and extend their stays to travel throughout New South Wales and beyond. “The international luxury traveler comes because it’s unique. These are people who want to learn and immerse themselves in creativity.” What excites them is “what they are going to learn, who they will meet and how they can be inspired.”
Moreover, as Sydney looks to attract even more high-end spenders, Chipchase believes Vivid is the perfect brand ambassador. “Vivid is a reflection of who we are: beautiful, sexy, outrageous, optimistic and fun.”
Indeed, the branding benefit is one of the intangible elements that hosting thought leadership conferences can provide.
“SXSW is an invaluable brand that has helped define Austin as the center of creativity and commerce, a community that is innovative, entrepreneurial and cool,” said Michael W. Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
But to be successful at brand-building, according to Tourism Vancouver’s Gazley, an event must have “unbelievable, compelling content that is meaningful to people,” while also aligning with a city’s DNA.

Interested in reading more about light festivals around the world? Read more here.

Monday, February 19, 2018


Love a good pun?
Don’t miss the DMV’s original pun show.
Beltway Pundits
February 27
7:00 PM
Maggiano’s Little Italy in Friendship Heights
For ticket information, go to this Eventbrite link. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

What's New in the World of Global Wellness Trends

Starring in your own distinctive adventure, female empowerment and trips for mushroom tripping are all in vogue for travelers, according to a new report from the Global Wellness Summit (GWS).

The newly released 2018 study identifies eight trends that will have a meaningful impact on the $3.7 trillion wellness industry. Many of these trends pertain to the luxury travel arena as well, since novel wellness trends often manifest first in high-end vacation spaces.

Travel marketers talk a lot about storytelling and experiences these days, but one of the GWS trends takes the journey steps further.
As Beth McGroarty, director of research for GWS, notes, by its nature, “travel is an ongoing quest versus piecemeal, disconnected experiences.”
Yet, itineraries provided at wellness destinations often do not connect the dots. McGroarty, the lead author of the report says, “We predict more wellness destinations will use the power of circuits and epic storylines” to create linked experiences, where the traveler is the pilgrim in an immersive story. The report calls this trend Circuits, Sagas and Epic Storylines.
It cites several examples of multi-chapter journeys, ranging from theatrical travel sagas to real-life games of Survivor.
For example, London-based Based on a True Story creates adventures for its well-heeled clients involving epic stories featuring multitudes of sets, actors and locations. According to founder and CEO Niel Fox, these journeys cast travelers as the heroes of their own stories. He cites “A Greek Odyssey… an adventure that unfolded with hundreds of actors, as a family encountered gods and goddesses…as well as having to overcome mythological monsters…. as they uncovered a trail of gold.”
Image result for six senses bhutan
Six Senses Bhutan
A more wellness-oriented saga is unfolding as Six Senses embarks upon a new venture in Bhutan. A story-based wellness circuit opening in autumn will have guests traveling among five lodges, where they will discover programming based on the pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. Six Senses is developing similar experiences elsewhere.
“A focus on multi-property wellness circuits will be a much bigger priority for us going forward,” says Vice President of Spas and Wellness Anna Bjurstam.
Black Tomato’s Get Lost program exemplifies this trend, plus another—that of Extreme Wellness. The $30,000 Survivor-style trips often require travelers to begin training months in advance so they are ready for the mental and physical challenges that await when the company drops them off in the middle of nowhere.
Less pricey and more civilized, but also extreme, many resorts are adding Body Boot Camps to their programming menus.
But the trend of Extreme Wellness is not just about exhaustion. It also encompasses “hacking our way to better brains, bodies and overall well-being.”
The report says, “Expect wellness destinations to create customized, individual programs through combining personal biomarker screenings for assessing body composition, stress, and prevention, with a fitness tests for optimizing performance.“ A handful of high-end wellness resorts are already on the mark with this trend, including Six Senses and Canyon Ranch.
Image result for canyon ranch
Several of the report’s other trends are relevant to high-end travel as well. One of the components of Getting our “Clean Air Act” Together is tourists avoiding going to polluted cities (or seeking to leave their own).
An obvious example comes from China. According to Ctrip.com, a leader in providing travel services to the Chinese market, smog avoidance and lung cleansing is becoming a major theme for luxury travelers there. Marketers are therefore touting destinations like the Seychelles, Maldives and Iceland as fresh air getaways.
Iceland's pristine air is a big draw for Chinese tourists

A New Feminist Wellness builds on the recent wave of for-women, by-women businesses. Given that Merriam-Webster picked feminism as its 2017 Word of the Year, travel aimed squarely at women’s empowerment is timely and highly promotable. High-end, women-owned operators like Wild Women ExpeditionsAdventure Women and Whoa Travel are leading the charge.

Likely the most offbeat of the trends examined is Mushrooms Emerge from Underground.  According to the report, “Magic mushroom retreats, in nations where legal, will continue to pop up…where the ‘trip’ gets combined with increasingly luxe wellness experiences.”
MycoMeditations is a pioneer in the movement. The company offers weeklong retreats in Jamaica for fungi trippers. It may seem a bit out there, but then again, in 2015, GWI was among the first mainstream trendspotters to predict the budding of cannabis tourism for wellness purposes.

This story originally appeared in Skift New Luxury, for which I am the correspondent.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Luxury Destinations Making a Big Impact in 2018

NEW FOR 2018

What’s the best way of predicting the up-and-coming luxury destinations of 2018?
At Skift, we like to look at where new products are coming online, as well as chatting with travel agents and tour operators working exclusively with the affluent.
Based on these criteria, there are four markets we are keeping an eye on this year.


While Tokyo and Kyoto have long been favorite destinations for luxury travelers, the hinterlands of Japan are now getting their turn in the sun. Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agents, named Japan as one of its top five international destinations for 2018, largely because of new tourism developments outside of the country’s major cities.
“Travelers are now exploring beyond Tokyo, finding value in Japan’s time-honored traditions and rural areas that offer traditional slices of Japanese life,” says Keiko Matsuura, a spokesperson for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).
To spread high-end tourism around the country, two luxury cruise trains were introduced in Japan in 2017. The Mizukaze Express, launched in June, runs through western Japan, past the scenic Sea of Japan, Mount Daisen and the Seto Inland Sea islands. The Train Suite Shikishima, which hit the tracks in May, goes through the northern regions of the country. According to Matsuura, “These luxury trains were launched this year in response to the demand of the American traveler wanting to explore beyond Tokyo.”
Beyond the rails, Matsuura says Japan is targeting high-end travelers through their stomachs, “Food serves as a gateway to the country’s culture and is a common language we can use to promote Japan.” JNTO is raising recognition of lesser-known places through collaborations with top chefs like Eric Ripert and Dale Talde.
In another effort to beef up Japan’s luxury street cred, five areas sporting high-quality tourism infrastructure formed the Japan Luxury Travel Alliance in 2016. The members are Kyoto, Sapporo, Ishikawa Prefecture, Wakayama and Nara.
The idea is to join together to strategically attract international luxury travelers to outlying areas beyond Tokyo.


Virtuoso has also named Portugal to its list of international hotspots. The southern European country has emerged from Spain’s shadow in the past couple of years, having shown up on several 2017 hot lists.
But 2018 will see Portugal’s arrival as a luxury destination beyond Lisbon, due to its burgeoning food scene, the international recognition of Douro DOC wines, and a spurt of luxury hotels opening in the countryside and on the coast. In fact, several well-known international luxury brands are using Portugal as a launchpad into the European market.
Image result for six senses douro valley
Six Senses opened its first European property in the Douro Valley in 2015, and in the spring of 2017, Anantara debuted its first branded resort on the continent in the Algarve. The coastal resort town of Cascais, often called Portugal’s Riviera, is also booming as it attracts high-end travelers in search of a second or third or fourth home.
According to upscale experiential travel veteran Richard Bangs, Oman seems to be the new smart destination among those who have experienced the world.
Image result for oman sobek
A trek through Oman
“Part of its appeal,” says the founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, “is that it is an island of peace in an unsettled sea, as it borders Yemen, Saudi Arabia and is just a skip across the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf, depending upon whose map you reference) from Iran. I think we all quest for understanding… and this is one place where we can safely venture to get a bead on the swirling currents and the cultures, and experience the beauty and traditions of a world apart.”
Oman has seen a year-over-year 22.1 percent in visitors in 2017, according to statistics from the country’s National Centre for Statistics and Information. The 2018 reintroduction of a classic Ritz-Carlton property, along with the Omani debut of the W and Kempinski brands, will likely lead to more increases.
The Kempinski Muscat is slated to open in the first quarter of 2018. Although in the city, it will very much have the feel of a resort, with more than a mile of white sandy beaches, a Greg Norman-designed golf course, and multiple food and beverage outlets. The W Muscat will open in the fourth quarter of 2018 and will focus on design, fashion and music, bringing a new vibe to the hotel landscape in Oman.
Meantime, Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel is undergoing an extensive restoration process, which is expected to be finished by April 2018.
Image result for al bustan palace
A pool at Al Bustan Palace, Oman
Owned by The Ministry of Tourism, Al Bustan Palace is one of Muscat’s most prominent landmarks and a symbol of the nation’s emergence as a destination for global travelers since it was built in 1985. The renovation builds on the luxury resort’s positioning as the premier destination for affluent travelers, including royalty and heads of state in Muscat. The property also houses a Six Senses Spa. Six Senses also runs a resort and spa on  Oman’s northern Musandam Peninsula, which is celebrating ten years in business in 2018.


Is this the year Tunisia makes a comeback? According to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, tourism growth in 2017 (through October) has been particularly high in North Africa, led by rebounding numbers in Egypt and Tunisia.
Image result for Anantara Tozeur Resort
An oasis in Tunisia
Those numbers may get a boost in 2018 thanks to a trio of new luxury hotels. Four Seasons Hotel Tunis opened in December. The location in the affluent Gammarth neighborhood provides privacy and exclusivity, yet is close to the central business district. Most of the 203 rooms and suites have views of the sea. Ritz Carlton will be opening in the same general area at some point (yet to be announced) in 2018. Also on the grand opening calendar is a new Anantara.
According to Dillip Rajakarier, the chief executive of parent company Minor Hotels, “Capitalizing on Tunisia’s renaissance as a hot travel destination, Anantara Tozeur Resort will open in mid-2018, offering a rich gateway to the southwest area of Tozeur.” The region is a hub for Saharan adventures, renowned for its ancient history and otherworldly landscape.

This article originally appeared in the Skift New Luxury Newsletter, for which I am the correpondent.