A small group of hotels are rising up against the wave of the always-on culture of mobiles, iPads, Facebook and Twitter and instigating a technology black-out at their establishments. But are guests really ready to unplug, switch off and slow down? Rosalind Mullen reports
By the time McDonald's offered free Wi-Fi across its 1,200 sites back in 2007, the genie was out of the bottle. As our reliance on technology has taken hold,
restaurants, cafes and hotels have vied to keep their guests connected with iPhone docks, laptop chargers and internet access.
Some 63% of UK hotels now offer free Wi-Fi, according to hotel booking website HRS. And it's not just the business fraternity that is feeding demand. Leisure guests seem equally unable to part from the Twittersphere, Facebook or their company emails.
To get an idea of our addiction, in 2008 the Post Office claimed that 13 million Britons suffered from "nomophobia" (no mobile phobia) and felt stressed when their mobile was lost or out of battery or service. Looking ahead, research analysts the Radicati Group claim the global average number of business emails sent and received per person per day will increase from 105 in 2011 to 125 in 2015.
No wonder a backlash is predicted. According to the World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2012, the digital detox holiday is trending internationally this year. Initiatives include hotels offering tech-free guest rooms or setting aside areas where devices can't be used. Some offer alternative pastimes, such as board games, books, sports and sightseeing trips. The idea is to allow leisure guests to leave their stressful work and social hang-ups behind, thus boosting their satisfaction with the hotel or resort. Far from being altruistic, it taps into a fresh market, potentially plugging a few holes in the economy-shot bottom line.
While US-owned groups seem to lead the way in this (see ‘Trending around the world'), several hotels in the UK and Ireland have also been quietly striving to get their guests to switch off. The results, however, have been mixed.
The Westin Dublin, for instance, launched a Digital Detox package in March last year in response to the increased dependency people now have on their electronic devices and
the need for hotels to offer guests an escape.
"We want our guests to feel better when they check out, so it seemed natural to look at ways we could enable guests to truly switch off during their stay," says general manager Fred Smits.
The €175 (£149) package requires guests to hand in their smartphones and gadgets at reception on arrival and includes a free boardgame, a city map and an in-room massage designed to "iron out the kinks and knots from hunching over a computer keyboard all day".
However, Smits says that although they've had enquiries from around the world, including Poland, the USA and even South Korea, the hotel has yet to have a confirmed reservation for the package. "Guests are intrigued by the idea of detoxing from their electronic devices, but they are not quite willing to make the commitment," he adds. "The guests who have enquired eventually made a standard reservation."
Edmund Inkin, co-director at parent company Eatdrinksleep, which also owns the Gurnard's Head near St Ives and the Old Coastguard in Mousehole, explains: "We've never banned mobiles. If a guest can get a signal, we trust them to use their own good judgment. If a guest is ever excessively chatty, a raised eyebrow from a fellow guest will usually do the trick. And we are always happy for guests to use the landline and rarely charge."
Reservations by letter
There has, however, been a conscious decision to lure customers into the public areas and create a social buzz by removing TVs from bedrooms. "We want our guests to leave us thinking what a wonderful time they have had, in a brilliant part of the world. We don't want them leaving wondering what has happened in CSI," says Inkin.
Even more cut off from the technosphere is the family-owned Howtown Hotel in Ullswater in the Lake District. Its remote location means there is no signal at all. In addition, there is no online booking facility, so guests have to pick up the phone or send a letter.
Owner Jacqui Baldry sees this as a benefit: "It's nice to talk to people. They get an idea of where they are coming to if you have a voice. It's more personal. The personal side is going out of things. You can't get a break from business."
The 12-bedroom hotel has been in the family for 112 years, and is only open from April to November, attracting niche and often repeat customers who come for the hiking or to get away from city life. "We've been here a long time and have faithful followers," says Baldry.
The Scarlet at Porth Mawgan in Cornwall is one of the few hotels that have tried to ban technology completely, triggering near-panic from some guests (see 'Persuading guests to ditch their techno-habits'). Nearly four years on, and the hotel has had to compromise by introducing Wi-Fi in bedrooms, though not in the spa or public areas. Nevertheless, general manager Nikki Broom reports high occupancy of 80%. "We're watching the trend. Certainly, our spa manager is actively promoting it. People are recognising its importance." Broom adds: "Look at glamping. That's another indication that people want to switch off… But it's more luxurious here."
retox before you detox
It is arguably a slow-burning trend. Other hotels, such as the Lifehouse Spa and Hotel, have tech-free policies only in designated areas, such as the spa. The evidence suggests that while there is definitely a market for technology-free zones, few guests are ready to chuck their iPhones, Blackberries, tablets and laptops out of the window completely. In the short term at least, it seems the way forward is to provide customers with a choice.
Inkin at eatdrinksleep concurs: "Our sense is that the omnipresence of smartphones is in danger of triggering a backlashâ¦ but they are here to stay. In truth, the ability to keep working while on holiday is in the interests of those of us who want to see more people in the UK taking short breaks where we operate."
Persuading guests to ditch their techno-habits
Guests at the Scarlet, Mawgan Porth, Cornwall, are encouraged to ditch their techno-habits but, as general manager Nikki Broom says: "They don't always play ball".
The 37-bedroom sustainable hotel opened nearly four years ago with a decision not to introduce Wi-Fi. In fact, its beach location means it doesn't get reliable mobile phone signals. "There are things we could do to strengthen the signal, but we aren't going to do them," says Broom.
The ethos at the adults-only hotel is to get guests to slow down, look at the sea view, commune with nature and to leave completely recharged and feeling good about their stay.
Now, four years after opening, there is still a total blank-out of technology in the ayurvedic spa, but the hotel has submitted to pressure over Wi-Fi. Recognising that iPads and iPhones are increasingly used for music and games, it has installed Wi-Fi in bedrooms - but not in public areas.
"We want guests to look at the view and reconnect with nature. We stress in our room folders that we would appreciate it if they could shut off their appliances. And many guests do want to switch off," Broom adds.While older guests can remember what life was like pre-technology, the younger generation struggle with the concept of not being in touch with the outside world 24/7.
"One couple who ran their own business really panicked when they discovered there was no mobile reception," says Broom. "Ironically, they were on their honeymoon.
We had to gently tell them that there was still a landline. Another businessman on holiday expected to stay in touch with his company and came close to leaving. He couldn't see the positive side of switching off."
The hotel makes its 'no laptops in public' policy clear in the booking confirmation letter, along with a warning about the mobile signal.
Broom says that on the whole guests appreciate their techno-break. "We've got masses of evidence in our comments book that tell of how fantastic it is to switch off," she says.
The occupancy levels back this up, sitting at 80% or more year-round. Average annual achieved room rates are £199, and repeat business accounts for 25% of guests - some 30% of whom are celebrating and the rest taking a break.
Broom's own job looks far from being techno-free, though. As she points out, online booking is on the increase and technology is still important in marketing the hotel. In line with its sustainability policy, the Scarlet doesn't use paper advertising or mailshots, so relies on emails and its website.
"Technology can be beneficial," she concedes.
Pulling the plug in restaurants
Café culture thrives on Wi-Fi and social media, but fine-dining restaurants are divided about the growth of technology.
Top chef Martin Burge at the Michelin-starred Dining Room at Whatley Manor now asks guests to refrain from using a flash on their camera after a growing number of gourmet tourists started taking snaps of their food to post on Twitter or Facebook. While many restaurateurs such as Angela Hartnett and Marcus Wareing accept the trend or welcome the publicity, others see it as potentially disruptive for other guests.
Taking calls on mobile phones is another bugbear, with chef Richard Turner of Turners in Birmingham banning them in his Michelin-starred restaurant last July. He said
at the time: "Dining out shouldn't be an extension of the desk, and I don't think it's asking much for people to keep their mobile phones off the dinner table."
Last August, Eva Restaurant in Los Angeles started bribing diners with a 5% discount for leaving their phones with the receptionist during their meal. Chef Mark Gold, who has since closed the restaurant, reckoned that in the first month 40%-50% of customers ditched their phones.
Trends around the world
- Four Seasons Costa Rica's Disconnect to Reconnect programme deprives guests of their phones for 24 hours and replaces them with a guide of what they can do without technology, such as stand-up paddle boarding and spa treatments.
- Lake Placid Lodge, USA, offers a Check in to Check out package, whereby guests hand over their electronic devices and opt for a free cookery class, boating, hiking or fishing instead. For those who rely on an iPhone to take photos, the hotel will lend guests a camera and even develop the photos.
- Palm Island Resort in the Grenadines was the first beach to ban mobile phones.
- Grand Cayman Marriott has tech-free
zones for travellers. These so-called "braincations" are a response to a survey by Marriott, which found that 50% of guests said staying connected to work added
to their stress on holiday.
- Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, USA, encourages guests to leave their mobiles
in their suitcases and offers star-gazing, hiking, yoga and riding to distract them.
- Kimpton Monaco in Chicago, USA, offers
a black-out where guests surrender their gadgets at check-in and can opt for the Tranquillity Suite with in-room massage rollers.
- Rennaissance Pittsburgh, USA, has a family digital detox, whereby laptops and phones are handed over at reception, and gadgets, including the TV and iPhone docking system, are removed from the room.