A new focus on cultural exploration and immersive experiences is changing the world of travel

There has been an undeniable and fundamental change in the experience of travel for many Americans over the last decade. It is a shift in perspective and ambitions that was described in the founder’s letter in the premiere issue of AFAR. “We came, we saw, we acquired,” Greg Sullivan wrote. “We now search for meaning wherever we can find it. We go beneath the surface of a place and look for experiences that enrich and stretch us.”

Keeping up with this desire not simply to escape but to experience has presented challenges for travel media, travel specialists, and hotels around the world. If once an abundant display of cut flowers in a lobby was sufficient to satisfy the luxury traveler, today’s guests are also asking for flower arranging classes and tours of the hotel’s gardens. More importantly, as companies respond to the mindset of these travelers, there is an array of new opportunities for travelers to connect with the places they visit and the people they meet.

For Lauren Maggard, a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council and Luxury Travel Consultant at Jetset World Travel, catering to these new travelers requires a different approach to travel planning. “We really get to know our clients—their tastes, travel preferences, how they enjoy spending their days while traveling,” Maggard explains. Her firm uses a “personal profile” which then becomes the basis of personalized recommendations.

Even for travelers who don’t use the services of a specialist, hotels and other companies are responding to a sophisticated traveler who arrives having thoroughly researched their destination. In the past, hotel concierges could get by with recommendations for some of the most popular sites and trendiest restaurants. John Clifford, another member of the AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council and the president of International Travel Management, says that travelers now expect information that responds to their “passion points” and personal interests. “Hotels are increasingly assisting internet-savvy travelers with itineraries curated around themes: art, architecture, food favorites, hip neighborhoods and LGBT highlights, for example.”

The members of The Leading Hotels of the World have  been well positioned to respond to this shift in travelers’ expectations. Shannon Knapp, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, reflects on the change. “In the past, many travelers  wanted a certain predictable standard of comfort when they traveled abroad, but we’re seeing a natural evolution,” she says. “We have seen a rise of a subset of travelers who are more adventurous and curious by nature.  This makes them not only more comfortable traveling to new destinations, but has them craving a much more authentic and immersive experience.” The hotels that belong to The Leading Hotels of the World are uniquely qualified to serve those travelers looking to connect with the destination and its culture. “These hotels are all remarkable. While some luxury hotels could be ‘anywhere in the world’, members like the Hassler atop the Spanish Steps in Rome or The Merrion in Dublin have incredible histories that connect them to their cities.”

Other Leading Hotels of the World are similarly iconic and essential to the character of their destinations, like La Mamounia in Marrakech, Le Hôtel Bristol in Paris, and Le Sirenuse on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Other Leading Hotels offer guests opportunities that will awaken the senses of those in pursuit of truly transformative moments. The Hotel Fasano in Uruguay’s Punta del Este is located on over a thousand acres amid a stunning landscape dotted by bungalows designed by one of South America’s most prominent architects, Isay Weinfeld. The Fuchun Resort on Hangzhou’s West Lake provides guests a chance to immerse themselves in Chinese culture, from tai chi classes to sipping the finest teas grown in the region in a lakeside pavilion.

The Leading Hotels of the World’s exclusive experiences for Leaders’ Club members are another program that bring the best of a particular locale to life for guests. At Villa La Massa, for example, this includes excursions like truffle hunting and a drive in a Ferrari through the hills of Chianti.

If a decade ago travelers hoped to see as much as the world as possible while hotels were constantly looking to raise the bar in terms of the luxury of their amenities, there is perhaps a different competition today. The focus for many is to have richer, more meaningful connections, wherever they travel, and travel advisors and hotel brands like The Leading Hotels of the World are determined to help travelers achieve that goal. If it’s a race, everyone wins in this one.