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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Glamping Elevated: The New Wave of Eco-Resorts

What makes an eco-resort, well, “eco”? It’s complicated.

Just because a property is located in a pristine environment, engages in sustainable practices, or buys carbon offsets to compensate for its environmental impact, that doesn’t automatically put it in this increasingly sought-after category. The definition of an eco-resort is a bit more nuanced than that. Europe is leading the charge in the space, not only by showing the world what exactly it can entail, but also in creating lots of properties that fit within its parameters.

One possible definition comes from Steph Curtis-Raleigh, whose Upgrade Publishing company produces International Glamping Business Magazine, along with glamping and eco-resort trade shows. “Eco-resorts are largely outdoorsy hotels where there is an environmental ethos,” she said. “It can be any type of accommodation — tents, individual structures, hotel  —but it’s down to the way it’s run; it’s a hotel with a conscience.” David Levanthal, founder of Regenerative Resorts, agreed that the definition starts with intention. “It goes down to the values of the people behind the resort,” said Levanthal. “How they got to where they are and their concern for the wellness of the entire environment.”

Kimshasa Baldwin ·  Treehouse Suite at Playa Viva Sustainable Boutique Hotel
The Treehouse Suite at Playa Maya, Mexico

In this way, the eco-resort movement has much in common with the transformational travel trend, which Skift has been reporting on. The common threads are consciousness and concern about environmental and societal impacts.

Good old-fashioned marketing matters, too, according to Siniša Topalović, managing partner at Horwath HTL. “There are those resorts which are eco-friendly in terms of sustainability efforts and energy efficiency, but those initiatives are not always marketed to guests,” he said. In other words, if an environmentally conscious resort does not promote itself as such, it may not end up in the specific category of eco-resorts.

Often, eco-resorts are in the upscale and luxury tiers, he added. That’s because delivering seamless service in a calm environment often requires a place to be “individualized and small scale” — hence, toward the luxury end of the spectrum. “It’s not easy to do a three-star eco-resort,” said Topalović.


The idea of a resort located in nature and focused on sustainability started in northern Europe. It’s a particularly strong phenomenon in Scandinavia, according to Topalović, which many consider Europe’s most environmentally focused region. But that comes with a catch. Because Scandinavia is ahead of the curve, properties like Norway’s Juvet Landscape Hotel or PAN Treetop may not classify as eco-resorts, said Curtis-Raleigh. For the Scandinavians, “these properties are just something set in nature — it doesn’t have to be classified, not marketed in that way.”

Juvet Landscape Hotel, Norway

In places like the Netherlands, France, and Greece, according to Curtis-Raleigh, many traditional tented camping and glamping sites are now upgrading themselves into eco-resorts, which “are more ambitious projects” often involving built structures, like cabins, treehouses, or containers. In the vast majority of cases, those projects “are accommodations providing eco- and nature-related experiences to guests, which allow guests to connect and immerse in nature,” said Levanthal. “The experience is in direct connection with nature and the environment around you.”

Both Slovenia and Croatia are leaning into the concept in a big way. These countries lost out on a lot of tourism during the war of the 1990s. When the fighting ended, “they had to get back into the game and quickly,” noted Curtis-Raleigh. “Because they had a chance to look at what was happening in the world at the time, they were able to embrace new ways of getting into the game with low environmental impact,” she said.

Growth of eco-resorts in these countries has also followed government policy, Topalović said. Slovenia’s national tourism office has gone all in for nature tourism, and the result has been an increase in specialized eco-resorts. In Croatia, the development of eco-resorts in rural areas is part of the solution to the overtourism problem along the country’s coast. For example, inland in Lovinac, the highly anticipated T-Nest eco-resort is set to open this fall. It incorporates 70 wooden villas in a scenic forest landscape. Green credentials include a natural pool with a self-cleaning system, an elevated tree canopy trail, and organic gardens and greenhouses supplying the on-site restaurants.

Slovenia Eco Resort and Glamping Olimia Adria Village among top 7 ...
Olimia Adria Village Eco-Resort, Slovenia


Your Nature, situated in 700 acres of preserved forestland in western Belgium, is scheduled to open later this year. The eco-resort is designed to preserve the area’s biodiversity and natural resources. It will consist of hundreds of small lodges built from sustainable materials. There will be multiple dining and nightlife concepts and a range of recreational facilities. What’s more, the carbon footprint for getting there will be small. Your Nature is a short train ride from London, Paris, and Brussels.

While the resort is owned by Edouard de Ligne, a member of the Belgian nobility, it’s going to be branded and managed by a notable hotel company: Dream Hotel Group, which recently signed on as the property’s management company. CEO Jay Stein said that even though Dream Hotels hadn’t originally planned to start an eco-resort, a chance encounter with a green-leaning real estate developer offered reason enough to give it a shot. Since the world is heading this way, and the concept fit into de Ligne’s desire to be “progressive and sustainable,” the partnership made sense.

Your Nature, which will be branded under Dream’s Unscripted label, will be a pilot project, according to Stein. “We are trying to get fully immersed in the concept and are learning as we go,” said Stein. “We aren’t bringing a playbook and dropping it in there. That said, we are hoping to bring in elements from existing brands, and vice versa.”

Will other hotel companies follow Dream Hotels in the eco-resort movement? According to Topalović, “While eco-resorts are becoming increasingly popular, they are not mainstream. They are still perceived by investors as niche/boutique,” which, he said, may not be of interest to bigger companies — yet.

But Curtis-Raleigh sees eco-resorts as products that will appeal both to investors specializing in social responsibility and to large hotel companies. That’s because the desire “to seek out experiential travel and discover modern, unique accommodations doesn’t seem to be going away.” Just look at AutoCamp, UnderCanvas, and Getaway, all of which have raised millions of dollars in recent years from venture capital funds, private equity firms, and major hospitality companies.

Our Luxury Accommodations in California | AutoCamp
An Autocamp Resort in California

As big money comes into the picture, however, there is a danger that the concept could end up getting misappropriated. There is certainly potential for greenwashing, which is when an organization falsely presents itself as environmentally responsible. According to Curtis-Raleigh, the industry “would like to come up with some standards as to what an eco-resort is to avoid greenwashing.” That said, “We don’t want to impose these standards, but we do want to ensure that eco-resorts always serve to improve the lives of the people who live around them and the environment.”

This article also appeared in Skift in February.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Where Americans Can't Go This Summer

Americans are pariahs, even in their own country. While the much-whined-about EU travel ban on Americans has been in the headlines recently, lesser known is the fact that U.S. residents from states 1 through 48 (based on entry to the Union) are also personae non gratae in states 49 and 50.

For several months, Hawaii has been requiring Americans from the mainland to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. That is set to change on August 1, when all travelers arriving in Hawaii will be required to get a valid COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their trip, and to show proof of a negative test result at the airport, to avoid the 14-day quarantine. The FDA-approved PCR test from a certified laboratory will need to be done prior to arrival. No testing will be provided at the airport. 

Alaska currently has similar rules in place. Americans arriving from the Lower 48 have to quarantine 14 days upon arrival in the state unless, according to the State of Alaska website, "They have proof of a negative molecular-based COVID-19 test result obtained 72 hours before arriving in Alaska. Travelers with a negative test within five days of arriving in Alaska will be retested at the airport and should minimize interactions with others until the results of the second test are available."

Of course, several states on the mainland are enforcing their own 14-day quarantine rules against travelers from states with high rates of COVID-19 infection. However, those quarantines are more challenging to enforce than those of Hawaii and Alaska, because people can cross continental state lines undetected when traveling by car, bike or foot.

So, where can Americans go this summer if they want to get out of Dodge? Most Caribbean islands are welcoming U.S. citizens, just in time for hurricane season. Many islands, however, do require negative COVID tests or testing upon arrival. 

The Caribbean beckons

Some fly-to destinations in Mexico, like Cancun and Los Cabos, are welcoming Americans, but not all tourism facilities in those areas are open. Americans can also fly to Dubai. For those who want a Europe fix, Serbia is currently welcoming Americans without restrictions. England and Ireland say Americans can come, but they have to quarantine for 14 days. Other European Union countries, plus non-members Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, are putting American inbound travel on ice for the foreseeable future.

Norway is among the European countries saying
no way to Americans this summer

Monday, June 15, 2020

Summer Travel Tips: Packing for Your Covid Era Road Trip

Hope you caught my appearance on The Jam on May 27. If you missed it, click here or read on for more information.

Packing for a road trip, especially with kids in tow, is always an annual summer ordeal. But this year, things are made more complicated by the need to bring along extra cleaning supplies. 
For many of us, you can never be too germ-phobic these days. Especially on a road trip, during which you may need to stop at places that may not have extensive cleaning protocols (like gas stations and roadside cafes), you need to take the burden of cleaning on yourself.
So, develop a special packing list this summer, designed especially to the COVID-19 situation. Of course, bring along the usual suspects, including hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. For pumping gas, pack plastic gloves, cover your hand with a plastic bag, or use your winter mittens!
Remember to bring along an ample supply of face masks, as you need to wash them after a single use. 

Don't forget the microbes that are accumulating on your phone. Clean your phone regularly, and swap out screen protectors frequently.
A couple of other items that might not seem so obvious are a thermometer and a battery-operated UV light sanitizing wand. The science is still out on how well these work on viruses, but a light swipe as an add-on to other cleaning protocols likely can’t hurt. 
The jury is still out on sterilizing with
UV light, but it can't hurt as an extra precaution.
Pack a small cleaning kit for everyone in the car. Try to store kits away from the sun, in part to avoid extra-runny hand sanitizer. To dispense with the need for multiple stops, bring along your own food and beverage. Not only will you not have to stop for nibbles, but you won’t have to worry about germ-laden packaging. Additionally, you can also select food items that, even if dropped, won’t create a mess in the car (carrot sticks, pretzels versus sticky stuff).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Summer Travel Tips

If you are planning to take a summer vacation this year, expect your to-do list to expand exponentially. With so many safety concerns, the smart traveler needs to self-educate before hitting the road.

It is likely that the traveler will be hitting the road, and not the sky. The summer travel forecast calls for a large bump in local and regional travel, with most trips taking place within easy driving distance of home.

It's important to remember that summer travel is supposed to be about fun. If you think you are going to be stressed out on the road, maybe it's best to "vacation" at home. For those who do travel, it is certainly important to stay vigilant, but try not to be paranoid.

Here's a tip list to help you travel safer.

1. Check state and local guidelines for the place you plan to visit. Local restrictions and openings are likely to vary widely this summer.

2. When selecting a destination, look to nature and wide open spaces. Avoid destinations likely to sport large crowds. 

3. If you are driving, consider the stops you will have to make along the way. Gas stations, roadside restaurants and bathrooms could pose risks. Bring disposable gloves for pumping gas; bring disinfectant wipes for the bathroom; and consider bringing your own food and drink so you don't have to dine out along the way.

4. If your road trip involves an overnight stay before you get to your destination, try to make the reservation in advance. After all, you want to be sure you choose a hotel that has established hygiene protocols, which will likely be listed on the property or brand website.

5. Whether staying at a hotel or a vacation rental, consider the high-tech areas and wipe them down with the disinfectant wipes you brought along (or a portable sanitizing UV wand).
Think about switches and electronic controls, including the thermostat. Remote controls, doorknobs, in-room safes, irons and coffeemakers can all harbor microbes. Also wipe down the handle to the minibar and high-touch spots around the bathroom.

6. If you are only staying for a couple of nights, waive the housekeeping.

7. If you are flying, wear a mask, follow all recommended safety protocols and bring along hand sanitizer. This blog post outlines some areas on the plane to be wary of.

8. At the airport, be aware of your surroundings. Don't bury your head in your cell phone, especially when walking around. Situational awareness will be particularly important this summer.

9. Wash your hands frequently, bring a few masks (you should wash between wearing) and social distance.

10. Remember to chill, have fun and most importantly, don't be a....

Monday, April 20, 2020

When Can We Travel Again?

There is little doubt that the travel industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the global economy during the COVID-19 crisis. Tourism revenues worldwide have tanked, millions of jobs have been lost, and many small and medium-sized travel companies will end up going out of business.

I will be appearing on WGN Radio from time to time to discuss the implications of the crisis for the travel industry.  This is what I discussed in the most recent segment, which aired on April 19.

I should mention that Chicago's hotel industry in particular has been very proactive during the crisis. Working with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the industry was the first in the nation to offer free rooms to first responders, medical staff, and citizens suffering from mild symptoms in need of a place to quarantine. Other cities quickly announced similar programs.

This has allowed some hotels to keep on workers. However, with the cancellation of all festivals for the rest of the year, and the likelihood that conventioneers won't be returning to Chicago anytime soon, things will continue to be dicey for the city's hotel industry through next spring (as winter in the Windy City is generally a very low season for hotel occupancy).

The Good'ish News

But let's consider some good news. When stay-in-place orders are lifted, there will be pent-up demand for traveling. However, in order to feel safe, with a modicum of control, people throughout the world will likely travel close to home for the foreseeable future. Expect plenty of road tripping, with visits to family and friends top of mind. 

Visits to nearby state and national parks, and to rural areas, will also be of interest. Trips to crowded big cities and overseas destinations will be slower to come back. And the cruise industry....forget about it. The cruise industry will be the last sector to recover....with a caveat. I am talking about ships that carry hundreds if not thousands of passengers. River cruising and expedition cruising may recover more quickly. 

The Jet Set

It's going to be awhile before travelers feel comfortable hopping on a crowded plane. The first groups that might be willing to take the risk are wellness seekers and luxury travelers. Certainly, the craving for wellness vacations during this age of uncertainty is going to be high. Travelers will not only be seeking vacations to boost their physical health, but to regain their mental health as well. Meanwhile, high net worth travelers will still have the money they need to afford luxuries like private jets and access to exclusive getaways and high-end accommodations that will allow them to get away from crowds.

There's no doubt that the next two years are going to be a slog for the travel industry.  But there is opportunity for smaller players to attract a large pool of travelers by focusing on the regional market. Additionally, those destinations that can develop effective messaging and hone practices needed to inspire confidence in travelers may find themselves ahead of the comeback curve.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

In the Wake of Coronavirus, Should We Be Using Paper Boarding Passes Instead of Mobile Ones?

Let me preface this post by noting that I am not a scientist. But I am a veteran travel journalist who has written many a story about the germiest places on airplanes.

Other publications have recently written about the "safest" seats to book when flying these days. But I haven't seen any attention given to the boarding process.

At the risk of being dubbed Chicken Little, I do want to propose a question for health professionals.

In recent years, the majority of frequent travelers have dispensed with the use of paper boarding passes. Instead, the mobile phone is serving that purpose.

But let's consider the mobile phone. It is estimated that the average user touches a cell phone more than 2500 times a day. That figures includes every tap, type, swipe and click.

Now, even discounting those who use their phones while, ahem, doing other business (and yuck), think about the number of times you use your phone after opening a door, using a remote control or shaking someone's hand. Then think about the number of microbes that have been transferred to your phone in those circumstances.

Now let's wander over to the airport check-in process. First, passengers hand their phones over to TSA agents to enter the security zone. Next, they hand those same phones over to gate agents so that mobile boarding passes can be scanned, or they may do the scan themselves. In all cases, your phone screen often directly touches the scanner. Then, the next passenger scans his or her phone, the surface area of that phone touches the scanner that previously touched your passenger's phone, and so on and so on and so on. You see where this is going.

So, I pose a question to health professionals. In the wake of travel bans and airport health scans, should we perhaps be considering going back to using old-fashioned paper boarding passes for awhile? Health and travel experts, please weigh in.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Chicago's Luxury Hotel Community Welcomes Refugees

Due to the sheer number of entry-level jobs it provides, the hospitality industry is a large employer of newly-arrived immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and refugees. While the two groups are often lumped into one melting pot, they are not the same.

While an immigrant may have a variety of reasons for coming to the United States, a refugee is legally defined as someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to persecution, war or violence.  In order to emigrate, they have to go through a long vetting process, often while living in a refugee camp.

While the United States has had a long history of bringing in refugees, the numbers have gone down dramatically in recent years. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the annual ceiling for 2020 is 18,000, the lowest on record. That compares with a cap of 85,000 in 2016, during the last year of the Obama administration. 

Even so, refugees are still coming in. That’s certainly what is being seen by Heartland Alliance, a global anti-poverty organization. One of the organization’s missions is working with refugee communities to provide help with the resettlement process.

According to Lea Tienou, director of Refugee and Immigration Community Services (RICS) for Heartland Alliance’s Chicago office, during the past two and a half years, the bulk of refugees have been coming from Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Eritrea. Others trickling in include some from Afghanistan and members of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. 

One of the biggest issues in refugee resettlement, according to Tienou, is financial stress. “When refugees arrive, they are financially fragile,” she said. “The federal government gives such limited support--a $1000 per person grant for the first 90 days. So, there is a need to move to employment really, really rapidly, (yet) they have to find a job with limited language skills and no experience working in the United States.” said Tienou. 

That’s where Heartland Alliance’s hospitality training program comes in. The six-week course is designed to prepare refugees for jobs in the hotel industry. 

The course includes lessons on the types of jobs available within the industry, employer expectations, the concept of customer service and the vocabulary of hospitality. Guest speakers, ranging from former students currently working in the industry to hotel general managers, often come to address the class. Field trips include hotel tours, meetings with human resource directors and attending job fairs.

According to Tienou, “The program is unique both in its breadth of content and in terms of the caliber of hotels we work with.”   

Hospitality 101

That caliber is mainly luxury, thanks in part to Nancy Callahan. She ran Heartland’s hospitality program from 2008 through early 2020. Prior to onboarding with Heartland, she had been part of the concierge team at Four Seasons Chicago. In fact, she actually learned about the Heartland program through a hotel colleague whose husband was the head of refugee resettlement for Illinois.

When Callahan came to Heartland as the Hospitality Training Coordinator in 2008, she discovered a fledgling program, taught mostly by ESL teachers without hospitality industry experience. But over the years, Callahan worked to develop a full-fledged partnership with Chicago’s high-end hotel community. “We leaned on hotel partners to hone the curriculum,” said Callahan. Participating hotels also provide guest speakers, offer opportunities for job shadowing, and of course, provide jobs. Most of those jobs are in housekeeping, banquets or security. As their English skills develop, there are opportunities to move up the ladder. 

Over the years, about 50 Chicago hotels have participated in the program. They include Four Seasons, The Peninsula, The Radisson Blu and The Langham. The focus on the luxury sector is intentional.  Due to the competitive nature of Chicago’s hotel industry, starting hourly pay at luxury hotels was significantly higher than minimum wage. 

Higher-than-normal wages and the potential for upward mobility are two of the industry’s big pluses for refugee job seekers. Another is its reputation for, well, hospitality. As Tienou pointed out, a big issue for resettling refugees is isolation stress. An assistant human relations manager for a five-star hotel, who asked not to be named, summed it up well. “We are talking about people in difficult situations, who are often completely by themselves and lacking in social support.  We want to help them become part of a community, give them access to connections and to teach them what it means to be successful."

According to Randall Williams, general manager of 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, “Working in a hotel environment can help allay feelings of loneliness. Yes, there may be a language barrier, but fellow employees have a level of patience and compassion for what the person is going through.” Williams continued, “We want to make them feel comfortable. That’s half the battle--the feeling of inclusion and being part of a team.”

According to Susan Ellefson, a spokesperson for The Peninsula Chicago, “Hospitality is so welcoming and so multicultural that there’s an immediate comfort level. Plus, we try to create a family kind of environment. This is our home and we have people (both guests and employees) coming into our home every day and our role is to take care of them.” That’s why, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of different countries stay a long time because there is that feeling of belonging and being part of something.”

Class is in Session

On the day we attended the training, the class of nearly 30 students was about one month into the program. The group was preparing for a job fair at The Langham.  Positions available included steward, house attendant, room attendant, server and club lounge butler. The class worked on completing resumes, coming up with answers for potential interview questions and role-playing troubleshooting scenarios with guests. 

There was palpable excitement and camaraderie as the class discussed the possibilities. Christy Hruska, the current hospitality training director, challenged the students to answer questions like  “what is luxury?” and “how can you make a guest feel welcome?” She also provided information on what they could expect at the job fair.

Heartland staff will accompany the class to the job fair to ensure everyone attends and arrives on time. This is a practice for individual interviews as well. Staffers will, according to Callahan, always bring students to interviews while “cheerleading on the train on the way.”

The process seems to be effective. According to Callahan, the program has placed about 90 percent of its graduates, and participating hotels keep coming back for more.