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A true sabbatical is the definition of luxury. Most people would consider it a privilege to take time away from the responsibilities of work with the intention of exploration, learning without an objective, or for deep inner reflection.
While sabbaticals were once reserved for those in academia, in recent years, there’s been a growing trend toward adult gap years — or at least adult gap months. As a result, there are a number of travel companies lining up to become the experts in this area.
There are several key features of sabbatical trips that make them a particularly compelling business for luxury travel companies. First, they are long. Sabbaticals tend to last between three and 12 months. Additionally, many customers arrive with the idea that anything is worth the cost for this rare opportunity — a budget mindset similar to planning a wedding or honeymoon.
“We’re seeing a big spike in people returning to places they backpacked when they were younger — but now going back in a much more luxurious style. We call it the backpacker evolution, where our customers call up and reminisce about their time in Thailand, South America, and Australia,” explained James Traecy, spokesperson for Abercrombie & Kent UK.
“Very often, these places now offer as much for backpackers as they do for luxury travelers. The Great Barrier Reef is seen in a completely different way when staying at Qualia and doing a helicopter tour out to Heart Reef.”
Multigenerational travel has also increased, which shifted a single sabbatical — traditionally taken by professors alone to read, write. or research — into a six-person, six-country expedition. The rise in women-only tours and solo adventure travel on a luxury scale also intersects with the growing sabbatical market.
Most sabbaticals originating in the United States include families traveling with children, explained Abercrombie & Kent U.S. spokesperson Pamela Lassers. Consultants often organize the trips six weeks at a time to allow clients the flexibility to adjust their schedule as the family move through the long trip. Abercrombie & Kent recently helped an executive plan a four-month family sabbatical around Asia, which included three weeks in Japan visiting all the major cities and the countryside, six weeks in China including Tibet, camping in Mongolia, and a wilderness camp in Bali among many other adventures.
Original Travel co-founder Tom Barber called family sabbaticals “the trend within the trend” and said that the increased air time that sabbaticals have received encourages people to start thinking “Why not?” rather than “Why should I?” The London-based luxury itinerary company spearheaded the conversation around luxury sabbaticals in early 2019 as it positioned itself as the leader in high-end, curated sabbaticals.
“Children may miss one term of school, but the life lessons and skills, experiences, eye opening, and just understanding of the world beyond the classroom and home is worth 10 academic terms, frankly,” said Barber, who has occasionally organized tutors to accompany families on sabbatical. Other families integrate coursework at night.
For all of these reasons, public relations folks have started squawking that sabbaticals are the next big travel trend. But the truth is that they’ve been a part of the travel landscape for some time. Regardless, there’s little doubt that luxury travel operators and advisors are excited for what they see as a shift toward longer, more intimate, and more intricately designed experiences. After all, sabbaticals also present industry veterans the opportunity to get creative and detailed with itineraries in ways not possible with typical vacation time.
What Has Contributed to the Rise in Sabbaticals
Although the concept of a sabbatical started in academia, it has recently become popular in technology circles. Several Silicon Valley companies are including sabbaticals in their roster of benefits for long-term employees.
Providing sabbaticals becomes a calling card for a caring company culture, a sign that a company understands the importance of work-life balance. Moreover, the benefit becomes an attractive way to draw employees in a competitive market. The Society of Human Resource Management estimated that 17 percent of all businesses have a sabbatical program. Some companies offer six- to eight-week sabbaticals, while others offer month-long sabbaticals at reduced pay. A quarter of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For now have a sabbatical policy.
It’s part of the larger shift toward more mindful workplaces. “On a personal level, we encourage and support the team’s passions — whether it’s leaving early to set up an event or taking a sabbatical to find yourself,” according to Jonathan Emmins, founder of London-based digital studio Amplify. “We know the happier we are, the more interested and consequently interesting people we will be.”
That’s part of the reason why Matt “Mills” Miller, the co-founder of digital product studio USTWO, gives employees a $10,000 check on their 10th work anniversaries, as he explained during an interview at Courier Live. Co-founder John “Sinx” Sinclair recently took leave to travel the world after building USTWO into a global powerhouse.
Tech company Basecamp offers a monthlong paid sabbatical to employees every three years in addition to their annual three weeks of vacation. Basecamp founder and Chief Technology Officer David Heinemeier Hansson told me that the paid sabbatical is “probably our most important benefit, especially for the people who’ve been here for a very long time. It’s an excellent way to truly recharge, reconnect, and reconsider work and life.”
The largest tech companies also have been adding paid sabbatical programs into their employee benefit plans. Intel offers a four-week sabbatical to employees after four years and eight-week sabbaticals to employees after seven years. Employees at Zillow Group receive a six-week paid sabbatical after six years of consecutive employment. Facebook’s and Adobe’s sabbatical programs provide employees with 20 to 30 days of extra paid leave every five years.
“There’s a bit of a leap of faith because, as a company, you don’t necessarily want your key employee going on a jaunt around the world for three months or a year. But our perspective is that if the employee comes back refreshed, invigorated, reenergized and determined to repay your loyalty by staying for another decade, that’s a win-win on a major level,” said Original Travel’s Barber, who offers employees a three-month sabbatical every five years.
“Also, companies are competitive. You need to keep up with the time if you want to employ the top people in your industry. As the more enlightened companies start putting this into their contracts, everyone is going to realize that they’ll have to do it too.”
Travel companies seem likely candidates to support a sabbatical, but what is more common in the industry is an annual travel stipend. Travel brands such as Airbnb, TripActions, and AFAR Media allow employees to expense $2,000 of personal travel each year. Software services such as Moz, Evernote, and BambooHR also offer travel stipends of up to $2,000.
Even if people don’t work in high-tech or travel, some are thinking about the possibility of a sabbatical. An online money manager called Wealthfront recently launched a tool allowing its clients to estimate when they could take a sabbatical, its impact on their potential net worth, and how they could save for it in a similar way that they’d save for retirement or a home. More than half of Wealthfront’s clients listed “take time off to travel” as a bigger priority than “financial independence” or “early retirement.”
How Luxury Operators Are Taking Advantage of the Trend
The fact that more individuals are interested in the idea, and that more businesses are supporting, and in some cases funding, these sabbaticals, means this is a lucrative opportunity for luxury tour operators. Creating intimate relationships with clients as they plan this important moment may also end up leading to future business.
“One emerging group that we have come across is the HENRYs (high-earners-not-rich-yet) — the most important demographic consumer segment that you’ve probably never heard of. HENRYs are so named because they have incomes higher than nearly 80 percent of all U.S. households,” said Traecy from Abercrombie & Kent.
“HENRYs are important to luxury brands because most everyone who reaches ultra-affluent income levels start out as a HENRY. Shopping habits learned while they are living as HENRYs are often carried over into their later stages of life.”
The specific characteristics of a sabbatical make them specifically appealing to travel operators and hold a special place in travel advisors’ hearts.
“A sabbatical is the ultimate challenge,” said Barber. “A luxury sabbatical is very often taken by a high achiever, and they are, by definition, demanding with a huge attention to detail. They expect things to be done to a very high standard. It is also the most interesting sort of travels put together for someone, because it’s not just a city break or ‘fly and flop.’
“It’s a lot of moving parts, which really allows our consultants to flex their muscles and share their expertise. They absolutely adore putting them together. Quite often these sabbaticals flow across more than one region so regional teams work together, creating a real sense of community around it as well.”
Requests and subsequent discussions with clients revealed the company’s sabbatical-seeking clients usually had desires deeper than just taking time off work.
“The two trends within sabbaticals at the moment are giving back and education. If travelers are staying somewhere for a month or three, they can really get out and make a difference as part of that trip. It’s a perfect opportunity to do something profoundly good. The other desire (is) to learn, whether it is spiritual enrichment or a skill. Travelers come back a better person by learning about themselves,” explained Barber.
As Original Travel set out to design experiences that spoke directly to ultra-high-net-worth individuals, though, it was clear that clients weren’t looking to leave their homes to hitchhike through Europe. How do you craft this explorative, expansive experience while also making sure that customers are super comfortable?
“Most people don’t want to just go from Four Seasons resort to Four Seasons resort, because they’d miss the essence of getting away from normality. What we tend to suggest is that people change the pace. Go and have a real, blow-the-doors-off luxury experience somewhere beautiful and amazing, but intersperse that with slightly more charming, but less glamorous, less luxurious places,” said Barber.
“I always say it’s not necessarily true that a sabbatical needs to be incredibly expensive. You could spend untold millions on a sabbatical, but I don’t think you’d necessarily be getting an authentic experience if you just travel the world in five-star luxury.”