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A growing number of people want a smartphone free holiday. Andrew Hennigan has been hearing from firms catering to this need

As a hotel you will have heard this question many times: ‘How do I connect to wifi?’ It is, after all, one of the first questions today’s smartphone-addicted traveller asks when they arrive at a hotel or a resort. Sometimes it’s because they are organising their phone to plan their trip. It’s also, however, to stay in touch with friends, not to mention a chronic fear of missing out.

These are customers who want to keep up with the never-ending slog of social media notifications. But an increasing number of hotels and resorts are starting to address a new kind of customer. Customers that want to disconnect - or perhaps be helped to disconnect. ClubMed, for example, is one that is helping travellers to do just that.

These travel experiences, that help people to disconnect, don’t yet have a consistent name. This makes them sometimes harder to find in search engines. Some people call them ‘off grid’, others prefer ‘unplugged’, some choose ‘digital detox’ and a few opt for the rather unappealing ‘black hole’.  What they all have in common is that they promise a break from the urban digital lifestyle, with no cellphone connection and no internet. Some also promise that there will be no TV – not so relevant when everyone watches TV on their tablet. A few even exclude electricity!

Quite often so-called off-grid destinations are actually taking advantage of their location. Most of them are either located on remote islands, nestled in mountain valleys or far inland in the desert. What may, for some, once have been perceived as an inconvenience becomes a sought after feature.

Nomadic Expeditions’ Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia is about as off-grid as any leisure traveller is likely to get. Located out in the Gobi desert about 300 miles from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar, it is a one-and-a-half hour drive in an off-road vehicle from the nearest wifi. There is also no telephone at the lodge, so guests are able to disconnect completely from the digital world.

“Travellers understand that being in a remote location means limited or no access to internet,” says Nomadic Expeditions’ Executive Director, Undraa Buyannemekh. “Not having access to wifi or a telephone service is beneficial as it gives travellers the opportunity to unplug and unwind. The remote location of the Three Camel Lodge is not for the impatient traveller, but those seeking a true escape will be rewarded.”

Women rule

You don’t need to drive hundreds of miles into the Gobi desert to find an off-grid experience. Much nearer to civilisation, the Lake Placid Lodge in upstate New York also offers an ‘unplugged’ package for guests. Though it’s hard to find on the resort website, this package has attracted surprising attention.  As a fairly remote location, the Lake Placid Lodge emphasises a back-to-nature experience, so any extension of the off-grid approach fits their brand and clientele.

“This unplugged experience started as a marketing idea, something fun and interesting, based on the fact that Lake Placid Lodge is a wonderful place to convene with nature,” a spokesperson for the resort told EyeforTravel. “There are no TVs in the rooms so it was a natural fit”.

One lesson that the Lake Placid Lodge learned is that the ‘unplugged’ package appeals strongly to couples’ segment.  In essence, they see double benefit in being able to disconnect from their own gadgets while redirecting the attention of their partners back to them. Here the target customer is the woman, as it’s usually her idea for a couple to try the unplugged package!

Over in California, the River’s End resort on the Sonoma coast has had a similar experience. Less than two hours drive north of San Francisco it is still remote enough to have no cellphone service and no public wifi. The resort’s ‘Luxe Unplugged’ package began by embracing this accidental isolation and making it into a feature. At the River’s End, too, the off-grid experience tends to attract mainly couples.

“It’s my experience that women wanting a weekend getaway with their partner enjoy the idea of unplugging from the outside world. They want to have one-on-one time,” says proprietor Bert Rangel.

Rangel sees unplugged experiences as a new kind of luxury for a connected age. “Today it seems like a luxury not to be connected in every way,” he says. “Our guests want to unplug and reboot, and that means providing an environment conducive to building better bonds without partner or self.”

Unplugged experiences seem to be an opportunity, but will they ever become more than a niche?  As more travellers rely on smartphone apps to manage their trips and hotels adopt smartphone based keyless entry, some may argue that the unplugged experience may not become mainstream. But who knows?

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