Waad: You're listening to Next in Travel and Dining from Publicis Sapient. The podcast that shares insights on unlocking what's next in digital transformation.
Waad: While things like on-premise dining, leisure travel and other pre-COVID practices have returned in the travel and hospitality industry, there are still many unknowns in business travel. The travel industry has been hit hard with the shifts in business travel due to remote work and corporate policy, but with travel now opening up, it's not completely gone. Business travel has morphed into something slightly different, which is now being referred to as “bleisure,” the combinations of business and leisure travel.
With the rise of remote work, there is a pent-up demand for vacations in these new norms, for socializing and working within the business and travel hybrid trend is allowing travelers to combine their vacations and their business trips to better fit their new lifestyles.
Today, we'll be discussing how travel and hospitality brands can inform their business strategies on this growing movement to replace business travel revenue, increase loyalty and open up to a new customer base. Joining me for today's discussion is Ed Vanga, Senior Director, Product Management.
I'm your host, Waad Nakad. Now let’s go ahead and jump in. Thanks so much for joining me today, Ed.
Ed: Hi. Thanks, Waad. I appreciate it. I'm excited to participate in my first official podcast for Publicis Sapient.
Waad: Great. I love it. So, we're excited to have you. I know that this is a topic that we've been talking about a ton, and like I mentioned, as remote work and corporate policy and the world has changed given the pandemic, so has travel. Travel has changed. The way that businesses are traveling has changed.
So, I kind of want to start a little bit simple today before we dive into all that we can dive into with this topic, but again, starting simple, what is bleisure travel?
Ed: I think the best way to look at it now is bleisure is the blend of business and leisure travel. I like to think of it as it's always been there. Going back before the pandemic, it wasn't uncommon for somebody to take their kids with them. If they were going to a conference in Orlando, maybe stop by Disney in the weekend after your trip.
Or, like I did, you know, bring my wife to Vegas after a conference. We'd spend the weekend, enjoy it. So it's not necessarily a new concept, but I think when people say bleisure now in the post-COVID era, it really is evolving into something else, and there's a couple of different kinds of categories. We still have and see all of those classic extension-of-a-business-trip kind of bleisure travel adventures. We're starting to see more and more other categories, like the idea that people can work remote in any location—and as a result may do a medium-term relocation—is relatively new. You can, if you are a remote employee for a company, particularly in technology, go off and work from another city for 30 days.
And we've seen that Airbnb has changed their search even so that you see more and more properties when you're attempting to book that have 30-day availability. Sometimes, they'll give you two houses if they only have 14 or 15 days available on each. So that's another category, right?
The technology worker, the worker that's full-time remote that can go plant themselves in another city, or perhaps another country, and successfully complete their job.
And then the other category that we're starting to see emerge is this idea of corporate retreats or offsites, or what we jokingly refer to at work is “onsites,” strategy sessions, quarterly planning, starting to take place in environments where it's acceptable to bring your family, or bring your personal life with you and spend a little time experiencing the city that you're going to for the offsite as part of your leisure activity.
Waad: That's great. So, this is looking like it's a trend that is likely going to stick. Given where we are when it comes to remote work, a lot of companies have completely done away with offices or are giving employees options to be fully remote. People are getting, again, used to working remotely and being able to work from anywhere.
Some people may have even started a new job during the pandemic, so may not have even met coworkers in person. That's actually true for me. You know, before travel opened up and I got to go to the first offsite. But when we think about corporate retreats and how that's looking nowadays, there's this modern spin on what business travel used to be. What's your take on how that's going to look for us?
Ed: Yeah, well, I mean at first, I just have to comment, same for me, right? Like, I worked at this company for years, and part of the part of the job was always travel and meeting people in person and being highly engaged in community environments, whether it be in our offices or at our client sites. But this most recent project and product that I've been working on, the entire team—up until probably 18 or so months into the start of the project—had never met each other in person. Like, that was really uncommon for a very long time, and now we've moved into a world where it's more and more regular, I mean, that was your onboarding experience with us, which isn't unique anymore. As far as the retreats and offsites and strategy sessions—all the stuff I talked about before—some of the things that we're seeing in the market more and more people considering is, what is the destination you are picking, right?
Like, are you going to a place that's unique or interesting, or has an environment of entertainment, for lack of a better word, outside of the location you're going to, right? Is it not appropriate anymore to go to the home city, or the corporate office hometown, and you know, is it better for us to go to a place that's a unique destination or might be able to go see the sights or experience something that is part of the location that we're booking the event?
It's also you're no longer tied to being close to a hotel or a major conference center. We're starting to see a lot more, and things you should probably consider when booking these things are, “What is beyond the hotel or “immediate conference center downtown” environment?” Other things to consider again, from the travel booker side, right, from the people who are responsible for making these things happen, “Are the accommodations comfortable and appropriate,” right, or, “Are you moving out of the hotel space?” Some people like to remain in that world, and that's completely okay. We encourage that, too.
But is it more appropriate if you want for your team, to go get a home, right? Go get a home that's specifically set up to support 10, 20 individuals. They each have their own room. They each have their own bathroom, but they get a much more relaxed environment. There's a community kitchen. You know, movie nights. Yeah, there's a theater in the basement or in the garage that you can go check out.
And the third thing to consider is, you know, the activities. What are you doing beyond the work, right, that makes this an exciting, interesting, engaging experience for your employees, because the thing we miss out on when we're doing all of this remote work is the casual interaction with other humans.
Everything becomes this like “schedule-oriented.” We're getting together for a meeting, and if you're doing a really good job, you've got an agenda: Call starts at 9:00 a.m. and it ends at 10:00 a.m., and everybody tries to compartmentalize things into that box.
When you're engaging in the corporate retreats or company-related offsite that is the first step to the bleisure experience in that category, are you considering the other things that you're doing around the edges? You know, fitness, wellness workshops, yoga? I mean, we had an experience where we had a personal chef come in and make us dinner one night, and that was great for building that team experience, you know, it wasn't work talk the whole time. We certainly did, but it was a great way for me to get the human interaction experience and build the relationships that I couldn't when it's 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. meetings.
Waad: Yeah, that's interesting. It sounds like you've experienced this from a company retreat standpoint.
Was there, like, a point of hesitation when it was a completely different structure than what you were used to before attending?
Ed: Yes, and I'm pretty sure that anybody listening to this, there's definitely a percentage of people who are listening to this, I won't say everybody whose immediate reaction was, “I don't want to be in a house with my coworkers. That sounds terrible.”
When we were originally talking about the trip, I had come home and I told my wife that, “Yeah, I think we're going to, I think we're going to rent one of our homes and we're going to do a company offsite. And it's going to be the first time I'm meeting 80% of the team in person.” You know, I have good relationships with a lot of them, but like, what happened in practice was, like, way less intimidating, way less. It did not meet with all of the negative expectations I might have had.
So, I did come in with a preconceived notion that I was I didn't know how it was going to work. But the little things that we did to make the experience, and what I would encourage anyone who's looking to do this for their team, or you know, on the hospitality side, the kind of things that you need to provide in order to make this an interesting experience, specific to the short-term rental for this example, is little things, right?
We each had our own room, as I mentioned, with a bathroom, has a door lock. Everything has a key code. So, like, you basically have a small hotel room inside a larger house. There's enough space for each individual go off and do work by themselves. Or if you're not an extrovert, right, go off and have your time by yourself. And then the flip side is all of the public spaces that we shared were large enough to seat everybody. The little things like the Wi-Fi could support a group that was large in size. So, if we had 20 people in a house, there was never an issue with all of us being on a Teams call or a Zoom call.
And then, you know, some of the outdoor amenities, games, like I said—the pool, the grill, all those things that make for a great party—can also make for a great party for work. So, considering all those factors when either booking or looking to get into this service is really important.
Waad: Yeah, I can imagine this setup is going to take a little bit of time for adoption, but it's good to see that there's, you know, this level of team-building that you can have in these kinds of environments that creates kind of this new environment. Work is completely changing for folks.
So, I'd love to hear from you, in your opinion, on how travel and hospitality brands can make their offerings more attractive when it comes to the bleisure traveler.
Ed: Sure. I think I kind of said it in my previous answer, but I'll highlight some of them here, right? I call them the little “micro strategies,” the little enhancements that result in a great experience for anybody who is looking to get involved in bleisure travel, right? Like, if you are the hospitality provider, what are you doing for the customer to make that more appealing to them?
Because what you have to think about is, as we've seen travel kind of recede during the pandemic, business travel went away for a very long time, and now it's come back a little bit, but it hasn't come back nearly as strong. But if you look at the U.S. Travel Association's numbers on year-over-year travel spend, I think we're outpacing 2019, right, on travel spend with a significantly less business travel spend. So, what that means is, first of all, on a separate conversation entirely, humans, Americans are way overdue for travel and vacation, and you've seen this massive rebound effect as everybody wants to go get out after being locked up for so long.
But the other piece of it is, it's come back without business travel. So that means that whether you call it bleisure or immediately recognize that that's what it is, or if you're just going on a vacation with your family. And you know, my wife has had this experience. I'm not sure what your experience has been like, but you know, we'll take the kids, we’ll go somewhere and she’ll say, like, “Well, you know, two of those days, I'm just going to work, you know, a couple of hours just to make sure I don't fall behind.” I don't know if she would have ever used the word bleisure, frankly.
But if you were explaining the concept and put it out there, would she have considered that formal business leisure travel? Now that’s just like, “Hey, I need to do a couple hours’ worth of work while I’m on vacation,’ which is a very new thing as well. But are the hospitality providers now meeting the needs of that experience? And what I said upfront is absolutely relevant, right? Is the neighborhood appropriate for that kind of thing, right? You know, city center hotels that are great for all of the activities that happen in a city center that are business-focused may not necessarily be what you're looking for when you're looking to combine your leisure travel with your business travel.
So, you know, not that that's an immediate thing, that you can consider moving your hotel, right? But it's important to consider, like, what are you highlighting in the neighborhood around your hotel, right, that makes that an appealing choice? Are you helping with event planning around the stay? And I don't mean events for, specifically for teams, but are there events or other things that you can provide access to through your concierge? What are you doing to make that customer experience for someone coming in who might have more of an interest in the leisure component of your experience than they had previously? What are you doing to make that real for them? Are you providing them services to get them tickets to an event or music or, you know, are there festivals and, you know, we see like farmers markets and stuff?
Are we making that available and appealing so that when you're making that selection, which now doesn't happen by rote anymore, right?
Ed: In the old days, I used to be Monday through Thursday on the road, and my travel would get booked 24 hours before I left, maybe sometimes like three hours before I checked in, and it wasn't me considering the neighborhood and what other things were going on. Now when I travel, and this is true for a lot of my peers as well when we start to look, it might be further out, and the things we're considering is, “This is my like, one week, one weekend kind of out of the house for this month or for this quarter. What am I doing around my work experience that, you know, if I'm going to get a couple hours, am I going to pick a different hotel as a choice?”
So, making sure that you understand the neighborhood and its appeal and what the experiences are that your customer or guest can take advantage of. Do you provide them with services that allow them to get tickets to a show or give them access to events around them? All important.
And then there's all the little stuff, right? The internet stuff I mentioned earlier. Is the internet connection sufficient for remote work? For the short-term, residence-type stay, does the hotel space have adequate working space in the room? If it doesn't, are you converting space inside your hotel for WeWork-type stuff, right? Like, are you considering creating a working environment that's outside of the room but still inside of the space where you can provide access to a desk beyond the classic business center stuff, which I think might still have like the dusty printer for the people who still print their boarding passes from many, many years ago? Are you enhancing that experience?
And then finally, all the little stuff I mentioned earlier, which is like, do you have the space or the platform to offer things like classes, yoga, cooking classes, that kind of stuff? Are you building an experience around the business traveler stay that you hadn't considered previously?
Waad: Yeah, you mentioned a lot of really interesting points. And kind of going back to the point on customer experiences and loyalty, do you feel that brands give an opportunity to get more personalized in their approaches with their customers to make the travel experience fit for their business needs as well as the leisure needs? And how do you think that brands should continue to approach this?
Ed: Well, to the first part, I think that's the goal. I don't believe that there's any savvy executive at this point who wakes up in the morning and doesn't think they need to personalize their experience to their customer based on the piles of data they have internally in their systems about them, right? Like, that's table stakes, at least the idea that you want to go do that.
Now, what anybody who's worked in the industry long enough understands is that the execution of that can be very complicated. You know, you're dealing with legacy systems. You're dealing with private guest data. There's the final component, which is like the creepy factor, right? Like, are you too much in my face? Do you know too much about me or are you pushing me away? Because now you appear to be aware of my behaviors in a way that I find unsettling.
Ed: So, I don't think that it's necessarily, like, do you need to personalize? Everybody kind of recognizes that you need to do that, but it's the execution of it from a data perspective. How are you getting at that data internally and then how are you using it in the guest experience to make it more relevant for you? And that can apply to top of funnel, when we're talking about when you're browsing, and we were talking about this on our product, it's very important for us to take all of the data about our loyal guests and then use that to help them find the right places, because in our world in short-term rental, you aren't just looking at one or two hotels, you might be browsing 25 different properties. And how do I give you what you're looking for immediately, not overwhelm you with choice, still reinforce that I have choice, but don't make it so much that you are completely awash and can't make a decision, or you end up going to a place where you find the browsing or searching experience much easier?
For us, it's about taking that data, filtering down our results on the shopping side and then presenting you with something that's relevant to your interests immediately to keep you interested in potentially booking.
And then on the backside, where there's all the work we have to do about making sure that your experience is personalized, and there's a lot of work still to be done in that area, but all of that data is available to us. It's just about marrying them together, and I say the same applies to almost every hospitality provider at this point.
Waad: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think that, with this trend too, and the way that the lines of business and leisure have blurred, there's this idea that the future of travel has changed for good. Do you think that this trend is here to stay and over all changing the way that people will travel for work, moving forward, with family and friends, coworkers, etc.?
Ed: Well, I think as a product person, I like to rely on the data rather than my own opinion. But if I would go to my opinion first, yeah. I mean, you just think about what's happened, and all of what's happened as part of COVID, and all of what's happened to kind of change the world, and how we work with each other, and how we interact with each other socially, some of that stuff, especially remote work, right?
You think about remote work as the fundamental component of this. In order for you to be able to do what we're talking about here in one of the categories, you need to be able to pick up and go somewhere else. Or you need to be able to, if you're at your corporate retreat, go back and interact with your team back home and not have it feel like you've just unplugged for two weeks.
Remote work isn't a new concept, you know? Companies like American Express back 2000, I want to say 2010, piloted the idea that everybody is remote, right? Like, they don't have anybody in the office. You come in for meetings, which for then was very progressive, and all of the normal pains that went into it seemed much more, I guess that you could say they were highlighted, because not everybody else was experiencing them.
But now we've kind of forced ourselves into the situation where everybody had to sort out a lot of the constraints that come with working remote full-time as a group, and then recognize like, “Okay, you know, it's the hive mind can kind of figure out how to solve some of these problems and reap the benefits on the other side because that core piece which is, you know, the remote work and then being able to be an employee who has access to their team from anywhere.
Or when you're remote, you can get back to your team. That being, like, part of our society now, especially in the U.S., makes all of this stuff that we're talking about seem permanent to me. And going back to the data, if some of the data points that you read are to be believed.
Like I said, if we're outpacing 2019 travel with less with less spend than we are seeing on business, that means when business slowly kind of creeps back to where we're going, because, if you think about it, plenty of these companies, ours included, still have huge office buildings, like, there's going to be a draw to pull us back in.
It's not going to be like it was before. It’d be continuing this hybrid model, which kind of raises the tide for everybody, and it's hard to go back from. It's hard to go back from where we are now—which is, it's an acceptable social practice for you to bring your family on a trip or for you to extend your travel in some way—back to where we were before. So, it's almost like a creed if, you know, now that business travel starts to come back, more and more opportunity for bleisure around the edges, and you're seeing some of the brands react to that, right? All the major hotel brands are all kind of recognizing there's going to be this segment of business travelers, who, when they come back, have very different expectations than they had before.
It might previously have been about maybe price. But mostly about loyalty program, brand amenities. What you get out of being in a hotel that suits your needs as a business traveler. Well, now we're getting to a place, at least in my opinion, where you're starting to see, first of all, brand affinity be less guaranteed. If I'm not traveling for work every week and putting, you know, 65, 75, almost 100 nights into my account, where's the, why am I going to, because I don't see the real benefits in any of these loyalty programs until you get past the 50, 60-night stay mark, right? So, if I'm not getting there, now my brand loyalty kind of goes down because I don't see the amplified points, I don't see the amplified kickbacks. Now I'm back to shopping, like, “Okay, who's going to give me the best experience,” or “Who's in the best location for when I want to bring my family for the once-a-month or once-a-quarter stay?”
Waad: Yeah, that's an interesting point, too, just given that I'm sure so many people were in the same boat traveling all of the time Monday through Thursday, whatever it may be. So, it's interesting. I think to wrap up, what would you say are the top ways that the hospitality industry can continue to capitalize on this modern approach to corporate retreats and other bleisure travel trends moving forward?
Ed: Consider the customer. It might be worth it to reassess. I know that the large companies do this relatively often, but consider the customer. Build that persona. Understand what their wants and needs are. You know, as a product manager by trade, it's my job to always be considerate and understanding of what the guest, the customer, is looking for in their stay, and then solving those problems, going to find out what those needs are and then sorting them out for them.
That's the first step, making sure that you understand in the context of your brand, in the context of your ecosystem. If you're pursuing that customer, who are they? What are their demographics, right? You want what is a sense of the age, what is a sense of the family, how does the whole picture kind of get painted with regard to their needs based on their unique circumstances?
The second would be immediate changes to the things that are the problem areas. The Wi-Fi, right? Making it easy for someone who will be remote working from your location, not just sleeping in the hotel, or in the house. Remote working from your location, making it easy for them to connect back to the rest of their world, means that they're more comfortable in your environment. You're driving up your total nightly revenue.
So, the second piece is just sort out the little things, and I've seen a ton of investment in that space. You'll see it definitely in the short-term rental side. It's a big feature of a home. When in the listing attributes you see, hey, you know, high speed Wi-Fi or ultra-fast Wi-Fi, and/or they provide their metrics, a desk, a working area. That kind of stuff can all make the environment much better.
And then the third, I would say, is all the sweeteners. What can you do that is extending the experience for the guest in a leisure context inside your hospitality ecosystem, whether in the hotel side, it's spas and amenities and all the stuff that's the sort of classic extensions of the brand to the stuff I talked about before, which is classes in yoga.
You know, even workout classes, right? Having something in the gym so that somebody feels more like they're at home, or an extension of their home, than they are on the road doing a work trip. That's the sweetener. That's all the stuff that I feel like is the true differentiator when you're looking at it purely from hospitality, because there's always going to be, we live in a world of OTAs, online travel agencies, like, there is still a percentage of the market who's going to shop your experience purely on price, right?
Ed: So, again, understanding who your persona is and understanding as part of that persona, do you have a customer who lives in the bleisure world and wants to have that experience, but is at the end of the day completely driven by price?
“Yeah, those amenities are nice, but I'll sort it out on my own. You know, in the short-term rental world, I don't really care if the house is super nice, but it's in a great neighborhood, and I'll sort out what I'm going to do after work.
I don't need your help.” Are you one of the customers on the high end who wants that white-glove experience? Or are you a customer who's completely price oriented, who is more than capable of figuring it out on their own? You might just give ‘em a couple of things to get ‘em started, you know, understand that persona and solve their needs.
Waad: Yeah, it has to fit everyone’s lifestyle now. It's no longer fitting into what the business trip looks like and adapting your life. It's more so the other way around.
Ed: I gotta ask, Waad, before we move on. Have you bleisured?
Waad: I have bleisured in the way that is like, “I'm on a trip and I have to get some stuff done for work, right?” It's like, you know when you're leading up to a trip and you're like, “I have so much that I need to get done so I can fully enjoy this vacation.” And now it's kind of become like, “I can tap in and out while I'm on vacation. It's a little bit more laid-back.” I haven't fully bleisured, which I feel jealous of the people that have been like, “I just worked out of Costa Rica for a month,” you know what I mean?
Ed: I understand, and that's the thing. I had folks on my team during the pandemic who we're all in. They had very low risk profile for their personal well-being, and not to be dismissive to COVID at all, they were just taking that risk as, “It's risking myself. I don't have parents around. I don’t have little kids. Like, this is a chance I am taking on my own sort of libertarian approach to it.” And they just left, left to another country, left to other states, worked for, you know, weeks and days at a time.
And to me, that was one of the big early categories, emerging categories, of bleisure that I'm sure was always there. But it's almost like a pool or a reservoir, like this thing happening with Lake Mead now. Or it's like, as the waters receded, suddenly what was exposed was this world of people who probably have been doing it forever, but are very comfortable saying like, ‘I’m going to Costa Rica, and I’m going to go work down there…
Ed: … and I’ll probably just keep my blur on, and you’ll never know where I am.” So…
Waad: Yeah, it’s a great option to have, it really is, to make your stay a little bit more comfortable in basically every way, shape and form. But as we’ve been talking, right, as technology development is booming, and the lines have been blurred between personal life and work life.
This, in turn, has had an effect on how we think and plan for travel as well. People will add some extra days to a business trip to explore the city you’re in, and that's becoming more and more common among business travelers today.
This has been so fun digging into what bleisure is and how brands can consider these trends as part of their business strategies moving forward if they haven't already, so thank you again so much for joining me today, Ed.
Ed: Yeah, thank you for having me. It was really fun talking to you. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Waad: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to subscribe to keep up on what's happening in travel and dining.