GET WITH THE PROGRAMME: PUTTING THE EXPERIENCE BACK INTO TRAVEL

Those with one eye on Silicon Valley and its march into the world of travel will have noticed plenty of movement of late in the crowded niche of flogging real-world activities in the virtual world. Countless names, none household, have vied for the attention of travellers looking for more than an open-top bus tour: Peek, Vayable, Guide me Right … some stand the test of time, some are written off as another corpse in the closets of serial investors, others swallowed up by the free-wheeling giants.

Far from a giant just yet, but with tens of millions of dollars in investment already, Berlin-based GetYourGuide bought up fellow German startup Gidsy in 2013; TripAdvisor flung $200m at similar platform Viator the year later and, just this September, a certain Airbnb moved in on Barcelona-based Trip4real. And it’s the latter which is of most note; the shareconomy Goliath unveiling its Trips offering soon after.

Airbnb Trips
Airbnb Trips

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks (and you shouldn’t, it’s cold there this time of year), Airbnb Trips is the peer-to-peer marketplace’s next logical step; the addition of local experiences to their multi-billion dollar business model. In short, they’ve moved into the crowded space all those wannabe next-big-thing startups were operating in, and will blow them out of the water. It’s a cruel world.

Much as there is plenty of meat on this bone, I’m merely setting the scene for a hotel trend that precedes these online activities marketplaces, but has only recently began settling into the creative class lexicon: the cultural programme. This is a posh term for ‘in-house events’, but means so much more than water aerobics at 10am and children’s face-painting after lunch. As a fine piece written for The Hotel Culture explicates: ‘savvy hoteliers saw this coming some time back. Ace Hotel, The Hoxton and The Standard have been planning cultural programmes for years, before it even had a name.’ The usual suspects, then.

The significance of Airbnb’s big-money movement into this field, though, heightens the importance hotels need place upon their experiential activities; ‘we see millennial travellers more as explorers than tourists,’ admits Brian McGuinness, global brand leader of Starwood’s Specialty Select Brands. And, as the war between the old guard and the new heats up, it’s never been more important for hotels to feed that craving for experience.

The Hoxton, Holborn
#HoxtownFashionSeries at The Hoxton, Holborn with Henry Holland and Nick Grimshaw

We’ve talked here about the evolution of pop-ups, the increasing need for hotels to embrace community within their local neighbourhoods, the importance of being seen as an editorial authority, and the dangers of homogenising creative culture — all those, and more, are deeply-rooted in contemporary travellers’ heightening desire to live and breathe their destinations rather than encounter them through the heavily-trodden paths of museum passes and maps handed out by the concierge.

Naked Boys Reading
Naked Boys Reading at Ace London. Photo © VANEK Photography

Airbnb know it, and the savvy usual suspects knew it. Today’s travellers want more; living like a local is becoming less buzzword, more mantra. Millennials want tangible experiences that speak to their cultural desires. They want talks and ethical pop-ups, creative collaborations and DJs of international regard, they want guest chefs and cinema nights and … naked boys reading.

The latter is a bi-monthly event, which currently resides at Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, and does exactly what is says on the tin. It is also a reminder of the lengths that Millennial-minded hoteliers are going to in the search of differential. I can’t help but think what my mother would make of a naked man reading short stories and poetry in the lobby of her Holiday Inn.

A danger lurks here, though. As hoteliers turn publishers, foster community among locals, focus attentions on eco-credentials, curate art at gallery-level, there is the perilous potential for those spinning plates to come crashing down. Did you neglect to book an inspiring local creative to talk at tonight’s event because you were too busy rounding up local tapas bars for a listicle on your blog? Is your pop-up design store short on stock because you were negotiating a new mural with the next big street artist? Today’s travellers crave experience, sure, but they can smell a rat a mile off. Oh Millennials, you awkward bunch.

A common pitfall of juggling too many plates is an over-reliance on the easy option; a tendency to stick to the tried-and-tested, a reluctance to experiment and push boundaries. Herein lies the importance of collaboration — finding likeminded partners to shoulder some of your burden. Let’s have a quick scoot through some of our usual suspects’ upcoming offerings:

The Hoxton, Shoreditch: gallery event in collaboration with emerging artists platform Creative Debuts

Ace London: in-house record store Sister Ray takes control of the decks

The Standard, East Village: meditation with local spiritualists The Path

Generator Amsterdam: club night with Dutch record label Love On The Rocks

Connect, collaborate, shirk responsibility (in the nicest possible way), but what of our shrewd contemporary travellers keen to experience for the sake of experience; eager to understand the inner-workings of the cultural cities they’ve flown into? For every naked boy reading there is a cookie-cutter DJ to keep the beat going.

Down in Australia’s capital, the city formed to appease rivalling Sydney and Melbourne, Hotel Hotel is an establishment with creativity at its core. It is an amalgam of originality drawn out from forward-thinking architects, designers, artists and makers, and it lives and breathes an authenticity that today’s astute travellers demand. (Incidental note: they have the best Instagram for a hotel, period.) Running from last November until the end of October just gone, their Fix and Make project is a case study for truly creative cultural programming.

Suzan Dlouhy at Hotel Hotel's Fix and Make
Suzan Dlouhy at Hotel Hotel’s Fix and Make

A series of workshops and talks, Fix and Make delivered authenticity and originality to the world of in-house events. To quote: ‘Through the practical, the experimental and the philosophical, Hotel Hotel’s program brings different people together to actively question our consumption of and relationship with objects. Collectively, with small acts of fixing and making we can get a better understanding of how things work.’ This is not another DJ session.

Reflecting upon our fetishising of objects, and the resulting waste, hands-on events focussed on repairing, remaking, rethinking; a project to stir introspection, a project to better the behaviour of those taking part. A project for betterment. Now that’s bold.

Over in West Texas betterment continues, this time for the soul. The free-thinking art movement inspired by revered artist Donald Judd has left a legacy of counterculture artiness in desert town Marfa, and it can be felt in its purest psychedelic form at El Cosmico; a loosely assembled hotel that consists of tents, teepees and trailers. Their ‘happenings’ evoke the hippy spirit of the 1970s and embrace occasional bonfires, campfire cooking and ad-hoc performances. Unachievable in the middle of Manhattan, I know, but a lesson in carrying out events that are inspired by, and true to, their immediate surroundings.

El Cosmico
El Cosmico

Back in the big city, London’s new cultural aparthotel project Leman Locke promises a ‘cultural programme’ — there are no specifics, but we’re promised things like round tables, craft beer tasting, cookery courses and acoustic sessions. You know the story about how the late, great David Bowie wrote his songs? The ‘cut-up’ method inspired by William S. Burroughs involves taking a series of paragraphs — a list of ‘story ingredients’, if you will — cutting them up and randomly reconnecting to form a new whole. I’m just putting it out there.

Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO
Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO

‘We want to make travel magical again,’ boasts Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky in a way only a Silicon Valley CEO (or Disney World host) can, ‘by putting people back at the heart of every trip.’ It’s a simple vision, but one that should resonate with those charged with compiling ‘cultural programmes’ nonetheless: places are nothing without people

Dear East London-based Cultural Programmer, what if — instead of round tables and acoustic sessions with cultural migrants from Wales, Scotland, France, or Australia — you hosted an event that delved into the creative pursuits of indigenous cockneys? What if New York hotels hosted talks with 1980s graffiti artists who risked long stretches inside for their art over exhibitions of ‘street artists’ who’ve come straight out of art school? I’m just … putting it out there.

It’s a familiar conclusion from me, I’m afraid. Place your importance on honesty, and you’ll find it hard to put a foot wrong. Hotel Hotel is a hotel founded on craft, salvaged materials, and creative-thinking; ergo it is natural that a series of events reflecting that very ethos is the best way to relay that to your guests; the best way to involve them in the walk of life you embody. Light on backstory? Let your neighbourhood be your narrative, its people the protagonists; make travel magical again, keep it real.

mm

James Davidson

James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.