Skift Take

There have always been travelers who don't drink, but the "sober curious" lifestyle movement has created a defined market of people who are eager for trips, tours, and experiences that aren't centered around alcohol. It's surprising that the travel industry has only just started to respond.

From rooftop bars to pub crawls, pool-side happy hours to club nights, alcohol tends to play an outsized role in travel, especially for young people.

For the increasing number of travelers who either abstain from alcohol entirely or who are “sober curious” — meaning those taking a conscious break from drinking — booking standard travel experiences that don’t center around alcohol can be challenging. This is especially true at a moment when solo travelers are open to joining group trips, but may not be so keen on meeting or traveling with people who are interested in pub crawls, happy hours, and partying.

It is all part of a cultural moment that is challenging the prevalent yet unexamined idea that all adults drink by default, unless they have some past that means they stopped. So it’s especially curious that when it comes to travel, the industry is just starting to show signs of recognition that this is a market worth catering to.

Of course, there have always been adults and travelers who don’t drink. And historically, the word “sober” has been used to describe a person who drank in the past, but has now stopped perhaps thanks to treatment or a recovery program. Data  issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 suggests that in 57 percent of U.S. adults over 21 have had alcohol in the past month, 71 percent in the last year. But the current sober lifestyle movement, if you will, speaks to a newer, slightly more nuanced market.

Instead of eschewing alcohol for reasons of religion, health, or past substance abuse issues — though those reasons certainly still exist — a sober curious person might simply lack an interest in alcohol, or be actively exploring what their life and mental health might look like in the absence of it. They may or may not have had a problem with it in the past, but they’ll find plenty of sober influencers to guide them on their journey to their hangover-free future.

Skift Wellness has previously written about how nightclubs, festivals, and even the alcohol industry itself have begun catering to the growing number of younger people who are losing interest in booze. Plus, the dominance of the global wellness industry — estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars — is testament to the fact that getting up early to run a Tough Mudder race or go to a spin class is the new staying out until 4am to catch the latest DJ set.

A Huge Opportunity

Ruby Warrington is a podcast host and author whose 2018 book Sober Curious helped popularize the idea into something of a cultural movement. She told Skift she’s seen surprisingly little in the way of travel companies or tours specifically branded for sober or sober curious individuals, despite what she describes a “huge opportunity” there.

Warrington says while it’s true many alcohol-free travelers may be abstaining as part of a recovery or treatment program for alcohol addiction, certainly not all are. “Detox facilities are focused on [helping people in recovery] and are not open to regular travelers who may just be wanting to experience a relaxing break without any hangovers,” Warrington wrote in emailed responses to Skift. Therein lies the market opportunity: “A sober curious holiday could be any vacation without alcohol, but wellness-focused travel — which could be anything from a yoga retreat to a surfing or hiking holiday — is a natural fit for the sober curious.”

Warrington herself leads sober curious retreats, which include astrology and writing workshops designed to be both fun and relaxing while also “providing insights for participants who are questioning their drinking.” She says she is eager to work with more hotels and tour operators who’d like to create options for this market.

One new company that is expressly going after this market is We Love Lucid, based in Ronda, in the Andalucía region of Spain. Founded and run by British expat Lauren Burnison earlier this year, it provides accommodation, activities, and, she hopes, a community of travelers who are like-minded. She also hopes to expand her trips to other destinations beyond Spain, where she lives.

Burnison told Skift there is a subtlety to what she’s offering that she didn’t see represented in the market.

“The first thing I thought when I created this was how can I not make this sound like rehab,” Burnison said. “Not there’s anything wrong with those places,” but she wanted to express that this was not about treatment or 12 step meetings, but rather, the simple fact that for non-drinking people, “a lot of holidays … can be kind of boring if you’re going out with other people who are drinking every night.”

A Layer Of the Experience

The similarly-named Loosid app — which launched in late 2018 and now has nearly 50,000 members — speaks to the demand for social experiences not centered around alcohol. Its founder MJ Gottlieb describes it as a kind of “sober Facebook” covering dating, urban meet-ups, support groups, and direct messaging with other members. There is also a travel component, with Loosid aggregating trips on the app from a company called Sober Vacations International. (Users book through the latter, not via the app.)

Gottlieb told Skift it’s hard for drinkers to understand why it’s difficult for sober folk to go on a trip where others are drinking and simply not participate. It can range from the fact that it’s a trigger for a person in recovery, or that it’s simply boring to watch your friends knock back margaritas all afternoon.

“People don’t realize how, to a sober person, the non-sober person tends to revolve their entire agenda around the alcohol event in the next hour,” Gottlieb said, adding that we underestimate the extent to which going out for drinks becomes a central focus or activity on a trip, thinking instead it’s just a mere beverage choice.

Contiki, the travel company that caters to 18 to 35 year olds, has also noted a shift in its customers’ preferences. Abbey Schoenberg, Contiki vice president of marketing in the U.S., said the company has responded by offering trips with more choice and more wellness-focused itineraries. It’s striving to make alcohol a layer of the experience for some travelers, not the experience itself.

“We have noticed a trend especially with some of the other demographics like Gen-Z … that this particular audience does inherently have less of an interest in the pub crawl, club life drinking aspect when they think about taking a trip,” Schoenberg said. “So I think a lot of what we’ve been focusing on in our product evolution is choice. And allowing the customer to kind of craft the evening or the day as they would like to see it happen and not necessarily the only option being a nightclub or a bar, which was very popular ten years ago.”

Contiki’s recently-released 2020 program reflects this, particularly in its European offerings. It includes trips such as a surf and yoga retreat in Portugal, or a suite of wellness-focused activities at its chateau in Beaujolais, France. Schoenberg emphasizes these offerings are not about removing alcohol entirely, but creating an experience where wellness and experiential activities are the focus, rather than partying.

“[Alcohol] is there, but it’s to enhance the more local and cultural elements [of the trip] rather than being the main point of attention.”

UPDATED: This piece was updated to include data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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Tags: alcohol, contiki, tourism, tours and activities, travel, wellness

Photo credit: Contiki's 2020 product is focused on providing more choice to travelers who don't want to drink. Contiki

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