"People are burning out a lot faster these days at work," says Melissa Bruno, founder of Invigorate Travel.
Bruno calls herself a "lifestyle travel consultant," not a travel agent. She sees herself as someone who not only books travel for you, but also offers you a way to change your lifestyle. Bruno sends groups to exotic locales like Bali and Peru for customized hiking trips and yoga immersions. She calls her getaways "transformative experiences."
"People need an outlet and it has to be a little different than what it normally has been," she says. Citing the traditional beach vacation of Mai Tais, suntans, and lazing around on a hammock, she says, "People aren't satisfied with that anymore—at least not for the younger people. The millennials want more. And they’re willing to spend the money."
Bruno is one of many new entrepreneurs who specialize in wellness travel, which is now a $563 billion global industry. It is defined as vacationing while enhancing or maintaining one's well-being—physical, mental, or spiritual. So everything from yoga retreats to boot camps to healthy cooking tours in Italy fall under this umbrella. While overall tourism is growing at 6.9%, the wellness tourism sector grew 14% in the last two years and is now one of the fastest-growing tourism markets, according to the Global Wellness Institute. More than 690 million wellness-focused trips were taken in 2015 worldwide.
As a result, travel agents have enjoyed a comeback. Travel-industry firm MMGY reported a 50% increase in the use of an agent in the last three years, with 2016 hitting a six-year high. These aren’t baby boomers picking up the phone, but millennials in their 30s who are tired of sifting through various websites to stitch together a cohesive itinerary. Couple that with an increase in wellness and you’ve got yourself a new generation of travel enthusiasts. What's more, the wellness traveler traditionally skews toward the more affluent and educated, but it’s become more democratized with affordable retreats increasing across the globe.
Within the category, several trends have spiked in recent years. Spa travel is still popular, but more and more, Americans of all ages are looking to get active on vacation. A recent survey by the Destination Analysts found that fitness classes, yoga, surfing, and guided mediation (in that order) are some of the most popular activities for get-aways.
Currently, the U.S. is the largest wellness tourism market, and that’s primarily due to our go-until-we-drop lifestyles, according to Beth McGroarty, research director at the Global Wellness Institute. Americans are vacation-deprived, sleep-deprived, more prone to chronic diseases, generally overworked, and overconnected to their devices. With so much daily stress and unanswered emails accumulating in our inboxes, our time off becomes even more important. "There is no end to work. You're constantly stressed," McGroarty says. "It’s pushing people to want vacations that are restorative and actually make them feel better. They desperately need it."
McGroarty, as well as other travel specialists, repeatedly attest to hearing the same thing from travelers, from boomers all the way down to millennials: They’re exhausted.
"The old model was ‘party time,’ and to let go," McGroarty says. "But that’s changing. What you need to achieve now to stop feeling burned out is different."
Stephanie Tuck, head of communications at PopSugar, is already quite active in her daily life, but not to the degree she’d like. Her fitness goals are routinely thwarted. "Work gets in the way," she says.
When Tuck does have a chance to take time off, she joins Escape To Shape, an adventure travel/fitness company that caters to many women with high-pressure jobs. "Instead of just grabbing an hour here or there in the course of a week, you could be on a hiking trail for six to eight hours a day," she says. One recent trip took her to Istanbul, where she did yoga and early-morning jogs along the Bosphorus, followed by swimming in the Sea of Marmara and hiking on Princes’ Island.
Tuck, who is a New Yorker, enjoys the exhaustion—the good kind—and clarity she feels at the end of an active travel day. It's a high she feels she’s "earned." She’s building muscles and able to think better due to the lack of distractions, giving her the energy to return to work. "You come back glowing, looking refreshed and feeling reset," she says.
Linden Schaffer, founder of the wellness travel company Pravassa, recalls how only seven years ago, there wasn’t even a name for this sector. Now it’s a booming business. This is due in part to cultural technological shifts, but also to society’s growing love affair with healthy living.
"Living a well lifestyle is not a trend, but the current evolution of our society, one in which we used to look at smoking, drinking, and drugs as glamorous, and wellness outside the norm," says Schaffer.
Pravassa offers group and individualized itineraries for people and companies looking to restore their well-being, productivity, or even just break their bad habits. Their upcoming five-day trip to Costa Rica, for example, includes daily yoga, life-coaching sessions, meditation classes, fresh local gourmet food, and even a "clean living workshop."
In 2014, Pravassa enjoyed its first triple-digit percent growth in bookings, and this year they’re on track to reach it again. Schaffer predicts future growth, based on the increasing demand for healthy vacations.
"With the lifestyle that people are living today, wellness travel has become so popular because people not only need that time off, but they need it to be effective when it comes to relaxation and stress reduction," she says. "Once people travel in this way, they wonder how they ever traveled any other way."
Pravassa attracts 85% women and 15% men, ages 30 to 70. Several agencies I spoke to relayed similar numbers, attesting to female-led trips, many of them including working moms who need a break. Nearly all put experiential-driven millennials at the top of their client percentages, with Gen Xers and retired baby boomers right behind them.
Millennials crave genuine cultural experiences as part of their healthy vacations. They demand more wellness travel than the boomers, and that will only increase as they grow into their spending power. But niche companies can cater to powerful niche demographics, as demonstrated by Strength In Numbers (SIN), a fitness concierge and travel service that boasts primarily male clientele.
Catering to high-income individuals who travel frequently, SIN offers a monthly membership that starts at $450 for fitness concierge services (rates for individual, one-time services are also available). Services include booking fitness classes, finding personal trainers, and even delivering green juice. These clients make up 86% of the wellness travel market and are considered secondary wellness tourists in that the healthy-living experience is not the primary purpose of the trip. To suit their needs, a plethora of mainstream hotel chains have gone the "healthy hotel" route, offering more nutritious breakfast buffets and healthy amenities like yoga mats or treadmills in the hotel room.
As the Global Wellness Institute’s McGroarty notes, "It must be a worthy investment because every single brand is getting on the bandwagon." Showing they care for guests’ well-being is also a good marketing strategy. "It projects a very good image for a hospitality brand."
SIN, founded in 2012, takes this concept one step further by truly catering to everything the healthy traveler could want, customized to their needs. They don’t just book you a spin class when you’re away from home: They research which instructor’s class music would gel with your taste.
"There are so many experiences you can obtain now, whether it’s numbers-driven or rising to a beat," says SIN founder and CEO Vanessa Martin. Eighty percent of SIN's clients are men who work in the finance industry, with Hollywood actors and actresses on location for movies comprising the next largest share. The company partnered with luxury hotel groups, such as the W and The Denihan Group (The Benjamin, The Surrey, The James) to offer one-off bookings for guests. In the past year, SIN has grown 39%.
The list of destinations has expanded as well. In the past, Americans tended to pick the same places over and over—Arizona or Hawaii, for instance—but today’s traveler is headed to far-flung exotic locales like Nicaragua, Thailand, Vietnam, Bali, or Morocco. They're especially eager to experience the world before overdevelopment destroys it. "The world is losing its nature, so people are thirsty for it," she says.
Governments, both regional and national, have also caught on and adjusted their tourism advertising to attract the health-conscious tourist. Campaigns such as "Incredible India" are incorporating wellness imagery, while smaller cities like Santa Barbara are touting their "fresh air" and "outdoor fun."
"It seems unstoppable," says McGroarty, citing the industry’s projected 7.5% growth between 2015-2020. It’s expected to reach $808 billion, pushing toward a trillion. But what can you expect from the overworked American who needs to hit the refresh button?
"When you have such little time off, you really can't afford to come back from a vacation where you drank too much, stayed up all night, and ate really horrible food," McGroarty says. "You can't afford coming back feeling worse than you did when you left."