While travel suppliers, from hotels to cruise ships to airlines, are racing to create more and better WiFi connectivity for travelers, a quiet movement at the opposite end of the spectrum is actively encouraging travelers to disconnect from the endless deluge of email, social media feeds, news alerts, tags, updates and check-ins that define modern life.
A small but growing number of travel companies are beginning to offer what they are calling technology- or digital-detox programs, designed to give travelers a break from their devices and from 24/7 online connectivity.
“People are realizing that we’re not very good about unplugging,” said Levi Felix, co-founder of a company called Digital Detox. “They want the permission to be able to tell their family and co-workers and friends, ‘Hey, you won’t be able to reach me.’”
To that end, Digital Detox is introducing its first Camp Grounded program next month, a sort of summer camp for adults sans wireless devices.
Felix recalled how he was a vice president of a start-up tech company from 2006 to 2009, when he “burned out.”
“I had two smartphones and was working 14 hours a day,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted.”
His antidote was a three-month adventure that turned into two-and-a-half years traveling around the world. When he got back, he realized people were even more connected to their devices than they had been when he left.
In fall 2011, Felix helped create Digital Detox, which hosted its first technology-free retreat last summer. The retreats take place in a wide range of destinations, from Cambodia to California.
The first Camp Grounded will take place June 14 to 17 in Anderson Valley, Calif., at a former Boy Scouts camp. Some 250 campers have already signed up, and there is a wait list of more than 100 people, according to Felix. The cost is $340 per person, including open-air cabins with bunk beds (or participants can bring their own tents); all meals; and a host of low-tech workshops as well as old-fashioned activities such as archery, roasting marshmallows, hiking and sing-alongs.
Nor is Digital Detox unique.
Last month, Jacada Travel, a custom Latin America and Africa specialist, introduced three “Tech Detox” itineraries to off-the-grid destinations, where disconnecting from devices in exchange for nature and wellness escapes is encouraged.
“It’s more of an observation of daily life, how much [time] we spend on devices,” said Sophie Goddard, Jacada’s marketing manager. “Even if we’re on holiday, we’re not really on holiday.”
But unlike Digital Detox and Camp Grounded, Jacada does not force clients to relinquish their wireless devices. Rather, the itineraries — Tanzania and Mozambique; Costa Rica; and Mexico — are suggested escapes from the overstimulation of social media updates, email, texts and even phone calls.
Boutique yoga and wellness vacation company Via Yoga goes so far as to offer travelers a 15% discount off the package price if they are willing to give up their cellphones, tablets and laptops.
“We decided, let’s make it a challenge and incentivize some of our guests,” said Via Yoga owner Suzie Cavassa.
The company provides an emergency contact number that guests can give friends and family who might need to reach them, then confiscates their devices. The accommodations don’t have TVs or radios in the room. Cavassa said that only about 10% of guests take advantage of the digital detox program.
“We’re fighting a battle; we’re not quite winning yet,” Cassava said. “I always compare it to a food detox: Limit toxins and food to give your body a break. With the digital detox … it gives us a little break so your brain can detox from all of the distractions.”
It would appear that travelers voluntarily signing up for tech detox programs span a variety of demographics.
According to Felix, Digital Detox sees customers from 18 years old and up. They come from all over the U.S. as well as from international destinations, including the U.K. and Mexico. The product attracts people from the tech industry, from the entertainment industry, teachers and students.
In surveys of past customers about their engagement with technology, when Digital Detox asked how many hours a day they used a screen, the average was 10 per day, Felix said. The longest most customers had gone without using a computer or phone was two days.
Felix said that beyond the retreats and “summer camps for adults,” he’s hoping to give people the tools to disconnect in their day-to-day lives.
“If you feel like Instagramming, write about it or draw about it,” suggested Felix. To promote the concept, Digital Detox has hosted evening events in San Francisco where people surrender their smartphones. The company hosts live music, sets up typewriters, drawing stations and board games for people to engage in rather than using their phones or tablets.
“This is kind of a whole zeitgeist movement,” Felix said.
As a movement, it’s still in its infancy. But hotels, too, are jumping on the trend, offering digital detox packages that enable guests to lock their devices in their safe and focus on disconnecting, relaxation and rejuvenation. The Westin Dublin, for example, has a digital detox package that includes a “detox survival kit,” complete with a Dublin walking map, a newspaper, a board game and a tree-planting kit to take home.
For the time being, the nascent digital detox business appears to be more of a marketing angle than a true movement complete with avid followers. But as connectivity becomes still more prevalent, the need to disconnect (and consequently demand for vacations that help people to do so) could become more pronounced.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.