Julien Surget, general manager of Amangiri, the luxury nature retreat in Utah, makes a point of having a good answer for the repeat guests who arrive and immediately ask: What’s new?
“One of our guiding principles is to be relentlessly seeking renewal in terms of programming,” he said.
Surget was brainstorming the next innovation in programing last fall when he came across a picture on the web of Austria’s “Stairway to Heaven,” a steel-cable ladder suspended more than 2,000 feet that is part of the Donnerkogel via ferrata (a climbing route that employs fixed cables, rungs or ladders) climbing tour.
Amangiri already had its own via ferrata, and a similar ladder to one of the peaks in the area seemed like a perfect fit to Surget. After three months of planning and three weeks of construction, the nerve-rattling climb to a panoramic view of the desert landscape opened in April.
Called the Cave Peak Stairway, it has 120 steps and stretches 200 feet in length, making it the longest walkway of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere.
“At first it was simply an exciting project, but as we talked it through we found it really fit into some of the larger things we wanted to do,” Surget said. “It was a game changer when it comes to these types of installations, which translated to a strong PR message. As we were relaunching from the pandemic, it was evident people were looking for adventure as they returned to travel. What better way than to use that as a flagship attraction to relaunch adventure at Amangiri?”
The Cave Peak Stairway tapped into one of the biggest demands as travel returned in the spring: the desire for singular, outdoor adventures. Experiences were already a booming trend in travel prior to the pandemic, and the desire for social distancing and lingering Covid-19 restrictions means interest in outdoor excursions in particular is surging.
While Amangiri was firmly in the luxury outdoor adventure niche prior to the pandemic, with its via ferrata and activities like horseback riding and kayaking, hotels across the spectrum have been augmenting their programming for alfresco thrill-seekers. In many cases, the properties are launching innovative activities as they look to capture the imagination of travelers ready to venture out again and providing exclusive experiences.
Driven by demand
Several factors converged to make 2021 the year hotels cannonballed into the deep end of outdoor adventure programming.
In 2020, amid the pandemic, outdoor activities were largely the only thing available to those who did choose to travel, and now, as new restrictions are being imposed from Hawaii to New York to address the upswing in Covid-19 cases being driven by the delta variant, fresh-air experiences remain the safest booking option — and the least likely to end in a last-minute cancellation.
Derek Krantz, a Southern California-based travel advisor who specializes in outdoor, active travel and also leads private tours under his company Go Legendary Adventures, said he has not been able to keep up with demand this summer.
Krantz said a Santa Monica Mountains-to-Malibu hiking tour he offers has been so popular since travel began rebounding in the spring that he is now considering hiring additional tour guides for the first time.
“I’m all booked up,” he said. “I had to stop taking new tour clients until mid-October. I also stopped taking new travel clients two months ago so I could focus on the people I already have.”
A June survey from Destination Analysts found a quarter of Americans plan to change the way they travel moving forward.
“Most notably, those anticipating travel habit changes plan to travel more, focus more on outdoor experiences and also be more mindful of travel sustainability,” the report states.
As a result, hotels, eager to fill rooms again after a historically slow 2020, are getting creative to tap into the biggest current of demand right now.
“Travel ground to halt last year, and then as it came back, there was a very different travel landscape that was almost 100% leisure-driven,” said Asad Ahmed, Hyatt’s senior vice president of commercial services.
Ahmed said Hyatt’s research found travelers were embracing the outdoors after spending the pandemic cooped up, and people were also clamoring to connect with friends and family once again.
In May, Hyatt launched Explor-cations, a program of 40 unique experiences, many of them outdoors, tailored to select properties and designed to meet growing demand that the company sees for the types of excursions that are remembered long after other aspects of a vacation have faded away.
The shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic also gave properties unprecedented windows of inactivity, offering the opportunity to build infrastructure and execute bigger projects.
For years, the team at the Inns of Aurora in the New York state’s Finger Lakes region had been discussing building a trail system to better take advantage of Cayuga Lake and the 370 acres of forest surrounding the property.
“When the pandemic was initially declared and we started to see increased interest in the outdoors, we thought it was the perfect time to get started on this project and give our employees, who were experiencing downtime, something new to focus on,” said programming director Laura Coburn.
The hiking trail project and increased outdoor programming immediately paid dividends. In 2020, despite being closed from mid-March to May, the property saw a 573% year-over-year increase in bookings for private, add-on experiences, a majority of which include outdoor programming, Coburn said.
It all adds up to the perfect recipe for an unprecedented influx of outdoor adventure options offered by hotels, which are bringing in their own staff and specialists to set their offerings apart.
Adventures offered nowhere else
In Northern Virginia, the Tides Inn sits on a creek that feeds into the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay, has hired a resident ecologist, Will Smiley, and embarked on a $3.6 million Shoreline Restoration Project slated for completion in October.
Since Smiley came aboard in January, the property has introduced a series of outdoor activities that give guests a taste of what it’s like to work the waters of the country’s largest estuary and of the seafood for which it is famous. He takes people out on boats to learn about catching blue crabs and an oyster’s role as a water filter, all the while peppering them with information about the ecosystem and conservation.
“We’re setting crab pots, learning about modern aquaculture and then harvesting and coming back to the dock and eating. We steam crabs and roast oysters right on the dock for them,” Smiley said. “The guests are sometimes a little timid at first about getting dirty, but once they’re in it, they have a ball. They’re shoveling shells, pulling crab pots. It’s been amazing, something that offers a culinary aspect on top of the adventure.”
At the 550,000-acre Ted Turner Reserves Vermejo on the New Mexico-Colorado border, one of the newest experiences offered is the Vermejo Game Drive, a privately guided, half-day tour styled as a North American safari, offering guests the opportunity to see an array of wildlife, such as bison and elk, in their natural habitat.
For Hyatt’s Explor-cations series, the archery and tomahawk-throwing experience at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa in Texas have proven popular, and guests have also been eager to do their best impression of Brad Pitt in the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” and try fly-fishing at the Grand Hyatt Vail in Colorado.
“Many of these programs we anticipate sticking around,” Ahmed said. “Some things will change with seasonality, but we are definitely looking at bringing back the programming and also using what we’re learning to think about programs moving forward .... This is not a one-and-done program that goes to the back burner as soon as masks are off.”
Krantz agrees there is no slowdown on the horizon in demand for outdoor, adrenaline-pumping fun, saying, “2022 is going to be huge.”
“I’m finding some of the better-known river rafting trips, like the Columbia River or the Grand Canyon, are already booked up for next year. One of the biggest trends moving forward will be bucket-list items. It was already huge before this, but I think the last year and a half has shown everybody that there are no guarantees for the future. We have no idea what else will happen, so if there’s a trip you want to take, now is the time.”
If the trend holds, the recent updates and continuing improvements will be more than worth the investment.
The Inns of Aurora’s new 3.5-mile nature trail and accompanying outdoor programming was led by Matt Stevenson, an outdoor enthusiast who was already on staff at the property’s Fargo Bar and Grill. In addition to sweeping vistas of the lake and ridgeline, the trail features an archery range where private lessons are offered and an overlook platform that serves as a perch for watching eagles, ospreys, hawks and other birds.
Stevenson eventually moved from his post at the restaurant to become a resident “Outdoorsman,” leading private experiences like fishing, archery, wilderness identification, snowshoeing and ice fishing. The demand for the activities proved so great, the property moved another member of the existing staff to partner with Stevenson on the outdoor programming.
“Private fishing lessons with the resident outdoorsmen have been incredibly popular,” said Coburn. Last winter several guests signed up for ice fishing outings. And the resort was also pleasantly surprised by how many people signed up for sunset hikes in “deep winter” where a trek to a ridgetop is followed by hot cocoa and roasting s’mores around a campfire.
Back at the Amangiri, the resort continues to introduce features and activities following the Cave Peak Stairway. The trail system around the resort was recently updated, a partnership for personal watercraft and ATV tours was started and a new kids program is under development.
“We want to give guests as much opportunity as possible to go out and explore and ‘rewild’ themselves within the comfortable confines of the property,” Surget said.