Skift Take

The pandemic was a wake-up call from many, about their physical and spiritual health. No surprise that travelers then are choosing wellness trips as their first getaways as restrictions loosen. Tour operators didn't miss a beat.

The last year was marked by lockdowns and quarantines for so many people. So not surprisingly, many people were envisioning 2021 as an opportunity to shed the baggage brought about by the difficult year.

And travel just might help them do that. Indeed, executives at tour operators specializing in wellness travel have seen growing interest in their products over the last year. While that’s not surprising considering wellness travel was already considered a likely trend in 2021, the demand has been greater than expected.

Numbers absolutely indicate a post-pandemic boom in wellness travel — the Global Wellness Institute predicted it would be worth approximately $919 billion worldwide by 2022, roughly 18 percent of global tourism. Furthermore, a survey conducted by the Wellness Tourism Association earlier this year found that 74 percent of respondents said they had already made plans for a wellness vacation.

A recent boom has already occurred for one tour operator. “Our bookings surged in the spring once many Americans were vaccinated and feeling more confident about travel,” said Elinor Fish, the CEO of Colorado-based tour operator Run Wild Retreats, which organizes running-centered excursions for women.

“As a result of the built-up demand, we’re now almost sold out for 2021 — about 90 percent full. And that was after we increased our trip capacity by 88 percent over pre-pandemic levels.”

Run Wild Retreats has gotten so many new bookings and queries that the company decided to hire additional staffing to respond to all the calls and emails, Fish added.

Despite the growing interest in wellness travel, opinions differ on what is it exactly. But if you ask Linden Schaffer, it’s a combination of several different components. “We created a wellness philosophy that touched on five different elements,” said the founder and CEO of Pravassa, a tour operator that has run trips in numerous Asian countries.

“[Those elements are] breath, movement, mindfulness, nourishment and experience. Our definition is if you can find a balance between those things that’s right for the client who’s traveling, then you’ve achieved wellness travel.”

Actually, many people may not be truly aware of what wellness travel is, which has presented a big hurdle for one tour operator. When asked what was the biggest challenge in this environment for wellness travel, Murigheal Montecalvo, the founder and CEO of Vacayou Wellness Travel, believes it’s education.

“Making the traveler aware that wellness travel is not just a weight loss clinic, it’s a way of living a healthier lifestyle and wellness travel is just an extension of this,” she said.

The reasons for growing interest

While a desire among many to live healthier lifestyle has surely contributed to the surge of interest in wellness travel, Run Wild Retreats’ Fish feels the pandemic-stricken year has motivated many people to make 2021 productive.

“The year 2020 gave everybody the time to stop and think about what was more important to them and a lot of people really decided that when they’re gonna travel again, they want it to have meaning and be really purposeful,” she said.

“Just this pause has given people a chance to connect with what really motivates them and so wellness travel fits the bill because it’s about choosing experiences that are really enriching on a spiritual level as opposed to purely the physical.”

That pause absolutely provided many people a change to reflect on what’s important in their lives. But did tour operators use that break to enhance the experiences they can offer their guests?

Fish certainly did, and her company’s recent excursions have included an experience many people have come to enjoy during the pandemic.

“Dining outside has really become something that’s safer than dining in a crowded restaurant in a lot of places,” she said. “So one of the things we were able to modify in our Montana retreat is that we were able to find this really wonderful venue next to a beautiful lake where we’re going to have one of our group dinners.”

That surely sounds like a memorable setting for dinner, which Fish stated was absolutely the case. “We get to sit out and eat al fresco and look at this beautiful lake in Montana, where we can hear the loons calling,” she said.

“It is so serene and idyllic. It just makes for a dining experience that is so much more special than any restaurant could offer.”

The desire for many travelers to seek serenity has led many wellness travel companies to plan excursions in similar settings. When asked what she learned while preparing to launch trips during the resumption of tourism, Vacayou Wellness Travel’s Montecalvo answered that many travelers expressed a desire for less crowded settings.

“A lot of people wanted to get out of big cities. They wanted to be in more remote areas,” she said. “So we kinda shifted and made sure that a lot of vacations were in those types of areas to accommodate those types of people.”

how to market wellness travel

But what else do people want from their wellness trips? Pravassa’s Schaffer finding out the answer is crucial to ensuring they come back refreshed from their travels.

“We are very heavy on our communication with anyone who travels with us,” she said. “And what that means is before they even put any money down for anything, we have extensive conversations about their lives, what they’re going through and often, people who are interested in health and wellness are traveling to dive into that a little bit more.”

Schaffer added that as prospective travelers often tell her they want to feel better but are often unsure about what they need, she has to dig deep to discover how a wellness travel experience might rejuvenate them.

Finding out what customers want is perhaps the most important aspect of marketing wellness travel. “Our marketing approach involves being very targeted to a specific type of customer and creating experiences that speak exclusively to that audience,” Fish said. “It’s key to understand that wellness means very different things to different people. Not all women are into spas, for example.”

The ability to provide the right balance of time doing strenuous activities like running on trails with time to relax and do other leisure activities has contributed to Run Wild Retreats attracting a lot of repeat customers, Fish believes.

So what do executives specializing in wellness travel think about the future of the sector? They look at it quite optimistically, especially as Schaffer views it as a movement instead of a trend. Meanwhile, Montecalvo — whose company features hiking, biking and spa vacations among activities in its tours — believes the increased emphasis on health is driving more people to wellness travel. “I think it’s gonna continue to grow as people are taking better care of themselves when they travel,” she said.

“A lot of people are thinking about wellness as a whole. How does it affect your day? How you eat, how you drink and how you live your life every day. It’s all a part of wellness.”

And Fish sees the feelings among her clients as a major reason why wellness travel will grow.

“We’ve heard from our clients lately just an immense gratitude that they have simply to be able to travel again and connect with other people,” she said, “They really appreciated having the opportunity to go out and do something because we get out and exercise each day at the retreat.”

Certainly, the desire to feel gratitude after traveling will always be en vogue.


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Tags: mental health, tour operators, wellness travel

Photo credit: A group of travelers on a tour run by Pravassa meditating in Thailand. Renee Choi / Pravassa

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