Arabian Travel Market returns to Dubai World Trade Centre from April 24-27, with the theme of experiential travel. Hotel News Middle East spoke to a number of key players in the industry about how hotels are not just a place to stay anymore but a platform for guests to immerse themselves in the local experience.
The official theme of this year’s ATM event is experiential travel. This takes in the adventure, culture, heritage, wellness and spa, sport, theme park, halal and cruise tourism segments which are currently trending not only globally, but across the Middle East.
ATM senior exhibition director Simon Press says: “Today’s travellers are seeking more than amenities and creature comforts; more than a sight-seeing tour and a picture beside a famous landmark.
“The increasing trend is for an immersive style of tourism, which encompasses different areas of local life – culinary, culture, history, shopping, nature, sports, halal, theme parks, wellness and spa, medical tourism and extreme luxury – and can be the basis for a holistic travel experience, by connecting with a place rather than just visiting it.”
The Middle East has a rich tapestry of offerings, Press says, from overnight stays in a stone house in remote Omani villages to a stroll around the Souq Waqif in Doha or alternatively for foodies, a tour of Old Dubai, in search of wholesome local street delicacies.
There’s no question that experiential travel is high on the agenda, not just at this year’s Arabian Travel Market, but also with hotels across the region.
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort general manager Darren Darwin knows only too well the value of providing an experience that goes beyond the standard offering of hotels.
“Anantara is renowned for opening the door to authentic indigenous experiences and as the highest five-star resort in the Middle East, we pride ourselves in offering a multitude of incredibly unique activities that allow intrepid travellers to explore the nearby history, culture and spectacular landscape,” he said.
“We have spent considerable time developing a host of experiences that mean our guests really get an insight into mountain life from personalised trips to the local souqs and heritage sites to cookery classes, rock climbing, abseiling and archery.”
Experiential travel is so vital to Darwin and his team that the hotel has also employed a “mountain guru” who grew up in a nearby village and has mapped out the surrounding landscape to identify new hiking trails. This allows guests to go off the beaten track and discover abandoned villages and hidden caves.
“The resort’s high altitude means we’re lucky enough to enjoy temperatures that are around 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the Middle East, providing a year-round destination and a place to escape and take part in activities during the sweltering summer months,” he said.
“Our aim is to ensure that every guest leaves with interesting stories to tell and long lasting memories.”
Palazzo Versace Dubai director of learning and development Charlotte Moore said that experiential travel is an essential part of her hotel’s offering.
“I do believe that travel is not anymore about seeing places, but more about connecting with people,” she said.
“We believe that everyone is looking to be inspired, to be made to feel special and ultimately feel touched through an experience they have had. More than ever this a priority for us as human beings.
“Our cultural offering respects and appreciates our Arabic heritage. From offering falcon displays, to following local traditions we are grateful to have locals as our guests at Palazzo Versace Dubai.”
The newly opened Fairmont Fujairah is operating with experiential travel very much at the top of the agenda. General manager Omar Souab explains to Hotel News Middle East how the resort was built with the explicit aim of attracting experiential visitors from both the local community and internationally.
He says: “We’ve chosen to operate in a destination that is lauded for its natural beauty and plan on offering a variety of activities like sunrise yoga, where guests can enjoy the valleys of the Al Hajar Mountains in the bright morning hours while exploring our cherished rugged terrain along the coast of Dibba. We’ll also soon be offering the sunrise breakfast, for an exclusive bespoke experience amongst the hidden valleys of Dibba.”
The key, Souab says, is to ensure the activities are authentic and truly reflective of the local culture and heritage and that even extends to their menu which has been created in partnership with local fishermen.
“The days of travelling for a specific purpose are long gone. Today, experiential travel has created a strong demand for a personalised experience,” he says.
If there was any doubt that experiential travel is here to stay then you just have to look at the fact that two new hotels are opening, with that specific market in mind, for proof.
Remmie de Graaf is the general manager of Hilton Garden Inn, Ras Al Khaimah and he tells Hotel News Middle East what the modern guest is expecting.
“The discerning guests of today are seeking experiences that will enrich their lives,” says de Graaf.
“They want to discover local cultures and challenge themselves; be it by having more “me-time” to reflect or to take on activities that will push them their limits.”
That’s why his hotel is positioned to offer guests activities such as rock climbing, abseiling, trekking into the mountains and visiting local mountain villages.
“One of the developing trends is how travellers aspire to become more dynamic and informed citizens of the world,” he says.
“They are pushing past preconceived notions and seeking new ways to understand the world and its multitude of culture from different perspectives. They are seeking inspiration, personalisation and a path towards self-discovery.”
Experiential travel is also about getting a value-add for hotel guests. DoubleTree by Hilton Dubai – Business Bay general manager Remco Werkhoven says they also want to immerse themselves in a destination.
He says: “Everyone is looking for that little bit extra during their travels, to experience the real thing and to feel like more than just a tourist. People are looking for an authentic experience with a purpose. They want to learn about the places they are visiting and improve their knowledge of the world.”
It’s no longer enough for guests to simply go on a guided tour, they want to immerse themselves in local culture and interact with the community.
“People are moving away from the word ‘tourist’ – People want to be travellers,” he says.
“It is all about making memories and creating experiences that money cannot buy. More and more hotels are taking their guests ‘back of house’ through exciting and once-in-a-lifetime events. Purposeful travelling is also on the rise. The combination of ‘experiential travelling’ with ‘charitable travelling’ is becoming a trend with millennials embracing these opportunities. I notice that people are more and more in need of strengtening the communities they visit.”