As point-to-point travel gives way to the experience factor of the journey itself, hotels must consider how the great deceleration will affect design and operation in terms of sustainability, simplicity and service.

Where COVID-19 served to accelerate hospitality design trends like contactless technology and remote working facilities, it had a reverse effect on the wider experiential travel market. Driven by extensive periods of lockdown living, a broad reassessment of values relating to leisure and locality saw the rise of rural staycations and a heightened appreciation for simple, authentic and responsible travel. While this ground shift may have been catalysed by an element of necessity, however, it is unlikely that these principles will simply fall away now the option for a return to so-called normality is once again available.   

Slow travel is not a new development; its roots as a concept reach back to the broader ‘slow’ movement of the 1980s, which touches on everything from food and education to cities and marketing. Rather, slow travel is a niche that has found increased prominence via cultural circumstance, and as social issues like sustainability, cultural authenticity and responsible tourism intersected with the pandemic’s engine of colossal ground shift (and the market’s subsequent reorientation) the idea has been elevated to new heights. 

‘An emerging trend is seeing holidaymakers choosing to slow down the tempo and experience destinations on a deeper level, making more genuine connections with local people and cultures along the way’ found a 2020 report by The Travel Association. ‘Slow travel is as much about enjoying the journey as it is the destination, and a less packed itinerary takes the pressure off having to visit all the usual tourist hotspots. With more time in one destination, it can potentially reduce the journey footprint and provide travellers with the chance to support more locally run businesses – resulting in a positive impact on the local economy and community.’ 

Hanare has five separate outposts throughout Tokyo’s hip Yanaka neighbourhood.

Designing for deceleration 

News that a planned network of overnight sleeper trains could be active across Europe by 2024 is the latest sign that slow travel is experiencing a surge of interest. Indeed, Belmond’s expansion into train and boat experiences likely had this very consumption shift in mind and channels an alternative to the point-to-point holiday that slow travel seeks to displace. But for landlocked hotels – a format intended, built and operated to serve as one of these so-called points – how will this transition play out in the context of design, and how can the resulting asset be best placed to capitalize on the trend? 

As one of the major pillars of slow travel, environmental sustainability is perhaps the first point to consider, though this will require hotels to venture beyond energy efficiency certificates, plastic-free stays and green walls. Projects that are both operationally and visually connected to their natural surroundings will be those that draw slow travellers – the more immersive and integrated the better. The Desert Rock project in Saudi Arabia by Oppenheim Architecture is aiming for not just a sustainable operation but an energy positive presence, likewise the Snøhetta-designed Svart at the foot of Norway’s Svartisen glacier incorporates elements of the slow with its off-grid setting and preservation efforts. 

To some slow travellers, however, the presence of a luxury hotel could be considered anathema to the cause; refined surroundings and detailed finishes draw attention away from the journey in both a physical and emotional sense. Projects like Welcome to my Garden – a network of free camping spots that allow slow travellers to pitch a tent and spend the night in the garden of its members – speak to the stripped down core of the movement, and in the end, it may be the complete absence of design that most appeals to these guests above all. 

Cover and above: The Desert Rock project in Saudi Arabia by Oppenheim Architecture aims for an energy-positive presence.

Middle and bottom: Snøhetta's Svart is located at the foot of Norway’s Svartisen glacier.

The great dispersion 

Though it might be difficult for static projects to provide guests with the kind of winding, multi-dimensional journeys promised by slow travel, it is not an impossibility. The dispersed hotel model opts to spread facilities across multiple buildings throughout a locale, predominantly within existing houses or adapted residential structures. Guests are thus encouraged to travel between these elements, organically exploring and experiencing the surroundings as a local might and negating any unnecessary disruption to the community that a standard hotel format would pose.

The model is adaptable too; Hanare’s five separate outposts throughout Tokyo’s hip Yanaka neighbourhood serve a younger audience that might interpret slow travel as cultural lessons and bike rides through the temple town’s preserved streets, whilst the newly opened Thyme in the Cotswolds – billed as a village within a village – plays to a different crowd entirely. Scaled up, the concept offers even more scope – With its circuit of five resorts spanning the entire country, Six Senses Bhutan allows the brand to adopt the point-to-point model that appeals to slow travellers, providing a means to retain business and guest loyalty amidst a trend that encourages variety between distinctive short stops along lengthier routes.

'Various consumer trends already suggest that slow travel could take off post-pandemic,’ says Johanna Bonhill-Smith, Travel & Tourism Analyst at GlobalData. ‘A trip longer than ten nights is more highly desired (22%) than a day visit (10%) or short break away from one to three nights (14%). The added hassle and cost of additional COVID-19 related travel requirements such as PCR tests and potential quarantine periods means that short trips lose value, justifying a longer trip.’

While remaining disparate in tone, a sense of conservation and authenticity remains at the heart of this model, and so too a physical journey, as guests curate their own experience, at their own pace. As slow travel gains popularity and intersects with a trend toward longer trips, this multi-venue format could be positioned as an introduction to the slow way of travel, especially for guests considering their first slow experience.