By Adam and Larry Mogelonsky
The OTAs are big, really big, as are the property memberships for the likes of Marriott, Hilton, Accor, IHG and all the other multinational associations. There’s so much product choice and so much digital noise nowadays; how is a hotel customer supposed to find what they want?
One answer may be ChatGPT and using AI as a virtual representation of a trusted travel advisor to design an entire travel itinerary. Another answer, though, is in the nichification of travel search websites around a given interest or psychographic. For this later case, we present to you an in-depth examination of a relatively new launch targeted around wellness-primary hotel guests.
For this evolution into travel distribution nichification, we interviewed Mary Blackmon, founder of Farm to Wellness Retreats™. As you may be able to tell from its namesake, the platform is dedicated to helping wellness-motivated travelers escape this overabundance of brand choice on the internet by presenting users with a curated selection of hotels, spas and resorts that meet certain criteria centered around locally sourced, farm-to-table cuisine and wellness experiences.
To elaborate on these criteria, the platform aggregates properties that offer a farm, garden or vineyard on premises, along with those that work directly with local producers to provide farm-to-table cuisine or spa services using all natural ingredients. Complementing this core driver, Farm to Wellness Retreats looks for places that also offer transformative activities or excursions focused on clarity of mind and holistic healing in a natural setting (think horseback rides, rainforest hikes, glamping, stargazing or even goat yoga).
Strict Criteria Breed Exclusivity
While aggregators like this website within the broader wellness space are not exactly novel – a foremost example would be Spafinder which has existed since 1986 – what is unique is the highly specialized nature of property prerequisites for display on the platform. Blackmon’s team personally researches and approves each new property, whereby each qualifying hotel or resort must deliver onsite experiences that bring together at least one aspect of this farm-fresh twist and niche criteria. The bonus for interested hotels is that the website is free to join, with premium, paid-for display and marketing opportunities available once onboarded.
At a glance, it’s easy to say to yourself that such narrowcasting means it isn’t for you or your hotel brand. And that’s probably true! But that’s also why Farm to Wellness Retreats and its ilk will boom in the decade ahead. Most hotel distribution channels aren’t curated with such an intention for exclusivity and thus aren’t nearly as memorable. Or, as the two of us say, “When you aim to appease everyone, you end up appealing to no one.”
In this sense, Blackmon has created a website with a highly targeted core audience and this precision of messaging is what hoteliers can learn to guide their brand vision going forward. While it would indeed to a noble and profitable initiative to set up a full garden for your kitchen on premises or redesign the entire F&B supply chain around minimizing food miles and wholly organic, this example touches on far more than that. It’s about thinking of new distribution strategies to cut through the digital noise and appeal to new audiences without hemorrhaging marketing costs.
The Overwhelmed Guest
To understand the crucial importance of cutting through the digital noise right now, just consider the average consumer who is bombarded by texts, social media, emails, videoconferences, streaming services and other screen-based, attention-seeking channels on a daily basis. Within the travel landscape, the plethora of OTAs, metasearch, brand names, tour operators, home sharing platforms and hotel associations have made today’s travelers outright fatigued. This is what’s often called the paradox of choice or shopper’s paralysis. Yes, there will always be price-hunters who gravitate to the best online deal or those tied in with a loyalty program, but there are still innumerous others who now spend an untenable amount of time discovering destinations and lodgings prior to any actual bookings. Some of this can be fun, but often it’s a slog.
The vastness of this ecosystem has thus created a deep sense of inconvenience with travelers spending a significant amount of time researching and filtering down to the exact trip they want. This agonized time sink in part explains the resurgence of trusted travel advisors as well as the proliferation of both curated multi-night travel packages and cruise lines. A central conceit amongst these trends is saving customers time and stress by taking care of as much of the logistics as possible.
“Consumers have lamented how searching Google is overwhelming and having an easily navigable resource offering such individualized wellness experiences is time-saving,” commented Blackmon. “Bespoke travel search websites like ours now represent a real opportunity for hotels to get around this too-much-choice situation and break through the clutter. But more than that, our cherrypicked – and importantly easy to find – hotels, spas and resorts offer inspiration and a variety of wellness experiences to improve guests’ overall well-being.”
The Booming Wellness Travel Market
“You either pay the farmer or you pay the doctor,” added Blackmon. During our interview, we talked about why wellness is booming right now, and it all comes back to the pandemic. During lockdown, people got off the proverbial hamster wheel and separately yet collectively started to wake up to the host of wellness options at their disposal. Eating foods fresh from the farm that are significantly higher in nutritional quality is but one aspect of this movement that Farm to Wellness Retreats has tapped into by integrating this demand into its mission and messaging.
You see this farm-to-table explosion in the grocery store with the growth of organic food sections and the popularity of brands like Whole Foods. It’s not a quantum leap to assume that many of those people who value healthy eating would also be keen to extend this interest into their travel selections. With the pandemic as a sort of tipping point, prioritizing wellness will only increase from here out as awareness builds one conversation at a time.
While Farm to Wellness Retreats is only a few months old since launch, the groundswell of applications and organic growth of customers – as measured through website analytics, newsletters, press releases and social media engagement – already demonstrate that Blackmon is addressing something that people really want. For reference and your own homework, other key areas outside of cuisine as a form of healing include, but are not limited to, exercise, traditional spa treatments, meditation, breathwork, yoga, sound therapy, extreme temperature exposure and all forms of nature therapy (otherwise known as ‘humans are meant to be outside’).
While it would be absurd to ask every hotel to put a farm onsite or reorient the brand DNA around wellness, the broader trends will inevitably impact the entire industry. Firstly, in the face of this paradox of choice, distribution is changing, favoring niches or curated recommendations rather than aggregates. And secondly, people are increasingly taking their health into their own hands by voting with their wallets for brands that align with their core, wellness-driven identities.