A woman relaxing in a hammock on the beach with a outline drawing of a cell phone in her hands

A study of Canadian employees, conducted for Accountemps, found that more than one-third of vacationers used their phones to check in to work—a number that jumped to 46 per cent for millennials. (Photo by iStock)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

Power off in paradise 

Some vacationers have so much trouble disconnecting, they’ll pay for someone to take away their phones

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Kelli Ricco came to Costa Rica seven years ago to figure out how to live well. The co-owner of a personal training company in New Jersey, she was sick of get-healthy-quick schemes. To build a better business, she decided to study cultures where people were naturally living “longer, healthier and happier,” and soon found herself in Costa Rica’s Nicoya region, one of the world’s blue zones, where people regularly live past 100 years. Ricco found inspiration there, but also opportunity. Armed with newly learned wellness secrets, she approached the luxe Four Seasons resort, which quickly saw the potential. Today Ricco runs its fitness and wellness programs with a pura vida, or “pure life,” mindset.

At the resort, guests can disengage from their busy lives through the Disconnect to Reconnect program, in which they hand over their phones for 24 hours and are, in turn, given a list of 24 potential activities, including everything from dance classes to stargazing to monkey-watching. If they make it through the full day without giving in to the urge to check their phones, they win a prize—a pura vida phone case to remind them of what they’ve learned during their tech fast. Ricco has also expanded the slow-down mentality to include phone-free spa sessions, sound therapy with Tibetan bowls, and chakra energy rebalancing.

“People come here and ask, ‘How can I upgrade to the highest Wi-Fi connection?’ ” says Ricco. Only later do they start asking how they can learn to disconnect. “A lot of times people don’t even realize that they come for that.” But as technology saturates our lives, hotels and resorts are increasingly betting the most extravagant thing they can offer guests isn’t super connectivity, but the ability to really experience their own vacation, without distractions.

In a recent study of 2,000 Americans by OnePoll, a market research firm, participants checked their phones an average of 80 times a day while on vacation—some went as high as 300 times a day. More than 46 per cent stayed plugged in to connect with family and friends; 68 per cent looked at social media. But another study of Canadian employees, conducted for Accountemps, found that more than one-third of vacationers used their phones to check in to work—a number that jumped to 46 per cent for millennials. 

Wellness tourism is exploding. Hotels that wouldn’t know a root chakra from a root vegetable are getting in on it.

People are so bad at disconnecting, it’s no wonder some are willing to pay to be forced to do it. This year, 20-something entrepreneur Zach Beattie launched a tour company called Off The Grid, based in Washington, D.C., and specializing in 10-day phone-free (or phone-limited) trips around the world. Marketed toward millennials, the company offers three “modes” to unplug: easy, where you’re allowed to check your phone at a designated time each day; hard, giving you three chances, total, to check in; and all-in, which puts your phone on total lockdown. Trip gear includes old-fashioned paper maps, what the company calls analogue watches, and travel journals. Rather than packing the itinerary with events, Off The Grid also says it believes in “under-scheduling” so that people have solo time to, among other things, reflect on their experiences. “Sometimes it takes a full group of people, or a reason to say ‘I’m unplugging,’ versus just trying to do it cold turkey,” Beattie told Business Insider. “And this trip gives you a reason.”

Digital disconnection is part of an exploding tourism niche. In recent years, “wellness tourism” has grown faster than overall global tourism, according to the Global Wellness Institute, with spending going from US$494 billion in 2013 to US$563 billion in 2015. Put another way: people took 691 million wellness-related trips to destinations like spas, health resorts, and yoga and meditation retreats in 2015. And while certain wellness ventures may sound eye-rolling to some, it’s good business. In response to the boom, hotels that wouldn’t normally know a root chakra from a root vegetable are getting into the game. Consumers are increasingly willing to shell out for added health benefits, whether it’s an in-room yoga mat or a phone-free full spa resort. One market research firm based in Ireland, Fact.MR, said this year that the “growing need for de-stressing, detoxification, relaxing and rejuvenating is projected to rev up demand for tourism and spa therapies.” So widespread have these programs become, says Nandini Choudhury, a research consultant with Fact.MR, that hotels are now targeting categories based on gender, age, occupation or some specific health condition: “Programs for corporate types, such as digital detox packages, are becoming some of the most popular.”

The Great George Hotel in Charlottetown offers a Digital Detox package that locks guests’ devices at the front desk for safekeeping. “Some check them in for their entire stay, others choose to have them out of sight and out of mind for only a few hours at a time,” says general manager Megan Hunt. 

Not everyone travels far to unplug, either. The Mandarin Oriental in New York offers a spa program and hotel package called the Digital Wellness Escape. Most of the hotel’s guests, says Laura Lambert, the hotel’s spa director, actually live and work in the city. They come because they are looking for a way to fully disconnect and, as she puts it, “to manage their relationship with technology.” The top 80-minute spa feature (US$345) kicks off with a soak in a Shungite bath, a mineral which, Lambert says, is rich in fullerenes—carbon molecules—and is meant to bind with the free radicals people absorb from tech devices, making them inert, and thus easily eliminated from our bodies. Guests can access a full range of “mindfulness activities,” such as journalling, note-card writing, colouring and meditation. And they take home guidelines developed in partnership with the Mayo Clinic that, as Lambert says, are designed to build a “digitally balanced lifestyle.” You don’t even need an energy-enhancing crystal to see the wisdom in that.