Industries Hotels/Tourism

The new leisure travelers

Today’s resort guests are looking for one-of-a-kind experiences

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The stables at Salamander Resort & Spa offers yoga on
horseback. Photo courtesy Salamander Resort & Spa

Patrick Starfish has trust issues. It’s obvious from the wary look in his  eyes. But at Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, guests can learn to communicate with horses, even skittish ones like Patrick.

Under the tutelage of equestrian director Sheryl Jordan, a recent participant in the resort’s Equi-Spective course transformed the suspicious animal into a trusting follower who shadowed her every movement around a pen and quietly came to her when she stopped.

Jordan’s course is meant to be a lesson in nonverbal leadership that can be applied to team building in the workplace. Yet plenty of Salamander guests take it solely for their own enrichment, she says. Bringing about change in an equine partner is a Horse Whisperer moment and exactly the kind of special experience that today’s leisure travelers crave.

While high-end leisure travelers represent only about 10 or 15 percent of visitors to the commonwealth, Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, says he looks to their demands and expectations to lift the hospitality market as a whole. That already seems to be happening in a modest way as Virginia boasts of more top-rated resorts in 2015 than ever before.

For example, three Virginia resorts earned Forbes’ highest, five-star imprimatur, up from two last year. Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington, Richmond’s The Jefferson Hotel, and Keswick Hall and Golf Club in Charlottesville all got top marks on Forbes’ 800 separate standards of hospitality.

O’Connell’s restaurant also merited five stars, for the 25th consecutive year — best showing of any restaurant in the country. The number of facilities in the commonwealth that Forbes ranked with four stars also grew from seven in 2014 to eight this year.

“People expect great amenities” at these resorts, says Terry. Like the participants in Equi-Spective, “They are looking for an experience.” Millennials in particular, he says, are “savvy and focused” about what they expect.

At the Inn at Little Washington, the experience being sought is a meal that is famously not to be duplicated elsewhere, complemented by a world-class wine cellar.

At The Jefferson, it’s immersion in the ambience of the hotel’s grand public rooms, soon to be matched by its guest rooms. Managing director Joseph Longo says that by the end of 2016, each room at The Jefferson will be at least 500 square feet and will feature a foyer, a changing room, a five-fixture bathroom, and even a doorbell.

The new 18-hole Pete Dye-designed Full Cry golf course undoubtedly was a factor in Keswick earning its first five-star rating this year. Just as important, says Janet Kurtz, the resort’s director of sales and management, is the option for guests to unplug from their high-tech lives and have offbeat outings such as hot-air ballooning, touring local wineries on horseback or walking the foxhounds with the huntsman for the Keswick Hunt.

“Luxury is changing its meaning,” says Esra Calvert, director of research for Virginia Tourism Corp. The creation of a memory, she notes, is as important as a lush environment. A sampling of top Virginia resorts shows just how on the mark she is.

At the four-star Salamander, for example, guests are treated to a taste of hunt country Virginia, not only through Jordan’s course, but through riding lessons, trail rides and the chance to attend polo matches, steeplechase races and horse shows.

At the Tides Inn on the Chesapeake Bay in Irvington, the focus is on the culture of the Northern Neck. General Manager Gordon Slatford says the inn, which made Travel+Leisure’s best hotel list, “creates events to individualize the property,” such as this spring’s oyster roast and craft-beer festival. Guests can go hands-on, too, by helping a local waterman harvest oysters or by going crabbing. 

The venerable, 2,000-acre Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs, which has updated its pool and lobby, has long been known for its exotic activities, which include falconry lessons, Segway tours and skeet shooting.  On TripAdvisor, the most common compliments from amateur critics concern such adventures. The Homestead earned a four-diamond rating from AAA this year, which is awarded to only 5.4 percent of  the 28,000 hotels the association rates.

Another wilderness resort, the 12,000-acre Lodge and Cottages at Primland at Meadows of Dan, sets itself apart with a panoply of unusual activities, including stargazing at its own observatory, geocaching, off-roading and wing shooting. Such offerings helped propel it onto U.S. News and World Report’s list of the world’s top 50 resorts — it ranked No. 25 — and garnered four stars from Forbes, says Steve Helms, vice president. For a unique sleepover, he recommends one of the resort’s three luxurious tree houses that look down on the Dan River gorge 2,700 feet below.

Experiences such as stargazing, crabbing or communing with Patrick Starfish are popular not solely because they are so unusual. They also represent another shift in the profile of the high-end leisure market. Yes, these travelers want high-thread-count sheets, HD TVs and lightning-fast Internet, but, as Calvert puts it, “Legacy has become the new luxury. Consumers feel guilty, and they want to do the right thing.”

The right thing these days means staying at a resort that is environmentally sensitive, like Primland, which has a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified lodge, or Salamander, which put 250 of its acres in a conservation easement. If a resort is philanthropic, giving back to its community like The Jefferson does through support of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, so much the better.

The right thing also means a focus on eating conscientiously — both for one’s own health and that of the planet. The Inn at Little Washington’s longtime emphasis on organic and sustainable foods was in the vanguard of a farm-to-table movement that has become ubiquitous. Almost without exception, the commonwealth’s top resorts strive to serve regionally sourced cuisine, and Virginia wines and craft beers.  “The foodies are here to stay,” Calvert says.

This emphasis on healthier, greener eating is part of a general interest in health and wellness as is witnessed by the rise of the spa.  No top resort is without a spa now, though, naturally, each comes with its own twist on pampering — whether it is lotions made from grape seeds from nearby vineyards or massages tailored to horseback riders or golfers. 

Who would have foreseen this flight from conformity toward the individualized resort experience when Anne Tyler wrote “The Accidental Tourist” in 1985? The hero of that prize-winning novel, Macon Leary, made a living writing travel guides for people who wanted everything to be as much like home as possible wherever they went. Now, 30 years later, in the leisure world of 2015, Macon Leary would need to find another line of work.

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