IN CONVERSATION WITH DIVIA THANI
GLOBAL EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, CONDE NAST TRAVELLER / INDEFATIGABLE SERIAL TRAVELLER
Divia Thani on the remnants of the pandemic, the constraints of a Zoom call and the future of travel in 2021 and beyond.
NEW TRENDS IN TRAVEL
Some say things are never going back to the way they were, but there is a reshaping of the new world order that we are seeing. Tell us about some of the travel trends you've observed recently and your predictions?
Over the last year, people all over the world have realised just how integral and enriching travel has been to our lives, how much we took it for granted, and how very much we miss it. Travel has gone from being a luxury, an indulgence, to being viewed as a necessity. At the height of lockdown in India and globally, Condé Nast Traveller saw its digital audiences double! There is irony there, but it also makes complete sense.
So, a lot of the trends that we are now seeing already existed as microtrends: destinations with unspoiled natural beauty; hotels and other accommodations that offer both luxury and privacy; sustainability and wellness, are high on the agenda. The pandemic has amplified those trends.
What's key is that more and more people - encouraged by the clear blue skies, clean air and sudden appearance of otherwise rare wildlife - are looking at regenerative travel. This means that they're not only looking at lessening the negative impact of their carbon footprints, but they want to actively contribute to the welfare and betterment of local communities and environments. Travel is no longer a last-minute decision, but rather a planned endeavor. The more we value travel, the more we will, I hope, value the places and people in the destinations we visit.
“The desire to travel has truly never been stronger. This pent-up demand is resulting in people thinking more deeply about their future travels, about the places they most miss and crave, the people they most wish to spend time with, how and where.”
One doesn't simply go to a place and leave it the way it was found but rather, makes an effort towards leaving it better than it previously was. Travelers are making more conscientious decisions.
In India, we are particularly lucky to have such a rich, diverse country with so many different travel experiences to choose from. Whether you want a beach, the mountains, the jungle or the desert, we have it all! This year has provided us with the best opportunity to explore some of the hidden gems that India has to offer and discover newer ones.
What about "revenge travel"? How long is it here to stay?
Going forward, travel is going to be nothing but positive, absolutely laden with good energy, given our renewed understanding of what is truly important and valuable to us.
A beautiful phrase that I came across recently is "the pursuit of togetherness" and I think it wonderfully describes the kind of experiences people are now looking for! It is not simply about traveling to a beautiful destination, but doing so with the people you love and have missed spending time with. It'll be about connecting with different communities around the world, and opening up minds and hearts.
“To be honest, I find the term ‘revenge travel;’ very odd; I don’t quite understand whom travellers are taking revenge on! If anything, we’ve realized that travel is therapy; it’s great for our mental health, our relationships, our personal and cumulative growth. That’s a lot of positives. Revenge is such a negative word!”
As far as travel trends go, we've observed a surge in boutique hotels stays in India. We'd love to hear recommendations for any that you've personally experienced
Gosh, I have so many that I love! As a destination, Rajasthan has always been a favourite because it has so many gems to offer when it comes to boutique hotels. Whether it's RAAS Devigarh, where the bright pink bougainvillea is blooming right now, or Mihir Garh, an exquisite ancestral property near Jodhpur, or Suryagarh in Jaisalmer, brimming with cultural heritage - they all have unique accents that set them apart. And you simply cannot beat the hospitality. I love spending Christmas in Rajasthan; there's something magical about a cold day with bright blue skies and golden sunshine - and being surrounded by dazzling history as if it were perfectly normal to be treated like a princess.
At this time of year, Kashmir is always a favourite; postcard-perfect mountains, valleys and streams, with gardens full of tulips around the corner! In Srinagar, there is a small, quaint hotel called Dar-Es-Salam, which is beautiful and right on the lake. I also love The Lalit in Srinagar, the historic palace turned hotel and the all-new Karan Mahal, a beautifully restored ancestral property owned by the royal family of Kashmir. In Pehelgam, there is Pine & Peak, which is storybook pretty. And Gulmarg, where the skiing has been fantastic this year, has both The Khyber Gulmarg Resort and Spa and Hotel Highland Park.
“The Himalayas have their own exquisite boutique properties as well – The Kumaon, The Mary Budden Estate, and Soulitude in the Himalayas – all amidst nature and beautiful in their own ways.”
Down south, Kerala has dozens of fantastic small hotels, of course, but I particularly love The Bangala in Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu, for its incredible Chettiar cuisine. It's one of the finest meals you will eat anywhere in the country.
THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS TRAVEL
While leisure travel has picked up, business travel has seen a great halt. Is this recess in business travel here to stay?
Business travel has definitely reduced, with the pandemic forcing us to come up with renewed ways of conducting business. Nevertheless, it is something that will pick up again.
“Not everything can be achieved over a Zoom call! When you collaborate in person, you pick up and bounce off each other’s energy. You end the day feeling creatively energized, not drained from staring at a screen.”
I'm at a shoot right now, and was up with my team until midnight and we relooked at the brief completely, and moved things around and at breakfast this morning, we had a few more ideas we were able to exchange and refine. We wouldn't have done it if we weren't meeting in person. We wouldn't have scheduled a morning call. Fluidity is just not as easy to achieve. And travel in itself is transformational, even if it is business travel.
“When you get on a flight, when you land in a different place, your brain starts behaving differently. You will think differently, and there’s no getting around that.”
There's simply no virtual tour you can take that will get you into the mindset of a different place. The weather changes, your temperament will change, you will feed off the people that are around you and everything new you see and hear and taste and smell. And so, I think that creatively, travel is still essential.
The one advantage that we see with working remotely is that it can be done from anywhere - a beach, a mountain or even a tea estate! Are remote work staycations the new normal?
Companies are now being forced to look at remote work without suspicion or condescension. They're seeing the benefits and what can be achieved from working remotely as well. Ultimately it boils down to each individual's own behaviour, productivity and output, and what their work and company requires of them. It might not work for everyone - but it certainly works for some. Moreover, do we really want things to go back to what we called "normal"? For instance, shouldn't we really think about whether a long commute to and from work every single day is - or should be - considered normal?
“This pandemic forced us to slow down and really look around, to find value in different things. I sincerely hope we remember these lessons and not rush back to the way things were.”
Tell us about the most interesting offers that you've witnessed hoteliers come up with, in order to stay afloat and attract travellers?
When hotels first opened up, the rates dropped significantly because people were initially hesitant to travel due to safety concerns. The industry really stepped up: both airlines and hotels created and followed strict protocols, designed not only to make their environments safe, but also to communicate and convey that sense of security to guests. For the traveler to be satisfied, hygiene could no longer be "behind the scenes". Instead, airlines and hotels ensure that the cleaning and sanitizing is happening in front of customers, puting their anxieties at ease. Flexibility in terms of cancellations also became extremely crucial. That said, leisure hotels across the country are filling up quickly! And we are seeing peak rates again.
“Given how unpredictable the past year has been, a hotel’s cancellation policy can be a game-changer or deal-breaker for many.”
The past year has seen a huge emphasis on taking care of oneself. What are hoteliers and the industry at large doing in terms of trends in health, safety, wellbeing and living organically?
We are seeing many hotels adopt a self-sufficient model. They're looking to grow their own vegetables, herbs and even grains. They're realizing that health and wellness go beyond spas and massages. They're re-looking at every vendor and supplier to ensure that everything fits the new larger picture. They've seen that Indian travellers are willing to pay rates as high as foreign tourists, but that their needs and requirements might be different. They're realizing that it isn't good enough to do all these amazing things; you have to be able to communicate what you're doing. And they're also realizing that they have to spend time on truly understanding social media for what it is - and what it isn't. Those who work in luxury travel now realize that it isn't about how many followers you have; it's about the quality of that community.
I'm at RAAS Devigarh right now and when I walked into my beautiful bathroom, I noticed a little tray with two glasses with an immunity-building homemade herbal concoction of turmeric, rock salt and pepper that you are meant to gargle with at night. It's so very smart and thoughtful and still presented so beautifully. Little details truly are everything.
People need to be cognizant of the fact that the pandemic is not over, and that safety does not only lie in the hands of the airlines / hotel / restaurant staff.
“From the traveller's point of view: there has to be a greater sense of responsibility when travelling. You have to look out not just for yourself and your own family but also for everybody around you.”
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST
In an ideal situation, we would have loved to have you over for a cup of tea to hear all about your travels. Nevertheless, we'd love to know about your favourite tea experience so far!
As far as English afternoon tea goes, I've had delightful experiences in London at the Claridges, Ritz and Dorchester, but also at The Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Belmond Mount Nelson in Cape Town, where the lines are shockingly long! But I adore Hangzhou in China, where the Four Seasons Hotel at West Lake arranges a fantastic experience around the region's famous Longjing tea, the Emperor's favourite. It's an extraordinarily romantic place, with tea gardens and willow trees, misty lakes and old temples. Another destination I've always loved for tea is Sri Lanka. The resplendent Ceylon Tea Trails restored colonial bungalows have refined the tea experience; It's quaint and charming.
Last but not least, my favourite tea experience has to be in Kashmir. While the kahwa is very popular, I prefer the salty noon chai, and the delicious breads that they incorporate into their tea service. Kashmir's bakeries have a variety of breads, made for different times of the day. It's one of the most sophisticated and unpretentious culinary cultures I've seen anywhere. And there is a lovely, Instagrammable spot in Srinagar called Chai Jaai, where you can get a taste. So many reasons to get back on a plane as soon as possible!