New Travel Markets and the Rise of Subscription Living

16 minutes, 14 links


Updated May 4, 2022
Global Natives

You’re reading an excerpt from Global Natives: The New Frontiers of Work, Travel, and Innovation, a guide to digital nomads and the work-from-anywhere movement, by Lauren Razavi. Purchase the book for instant digital access.

On the Eastern edge of Amsterdam’s inner-ring is an area known as “The Knowledge Mile.”* This “innovation cluster” launched as part of a city marketing campaign in 2015,* presumably the vision of a team familiar with the ideas of Richard Florida. When I visited two years later, the project was in full swing. Every other building in the area was either a trendy cafe, a startup office or part of a university. If a founder invited you to their product launch, the venue was likely to be on a tree-lined boulevard named Weesperstraat, the Knowledge Mile’s main artery.

My destination was about halfway down, next to the local WeWork. The entrance was set back from the street, a giant potted plant on each side of the automatic doors.

Stepping inside, four oversized letters glowed overhead: “ZOKU.” One wall had mailboxes, and the other a rambling manifesto of sorts, the kind advertising agencies charge startups a fortune to come up with. The doorway led to a small, shoebox-shaped room containing a wall plastered with event posters and two janky elevators—no reception desk in sight. It looked more like the entrance to a student housing complex than a hotel lobby. Was I in the right place?

On the top floor, I stepped out of the elevator into a plant-filled glass corridor. Greenhouse doors led to a series of rooftop gardens, each one with furniture in a different style. At the end of the corridor, double doors opened into a vibrant, oversized living room. There was Heineken on tap, a 3D printer, copies of Monocle magazine, and a cosmopolitan crowd of young professionals. Remote workers tapped away on their keyboards, guests chatted over coffees and cocktails, and tattooed chefs prepared meals in an open kitchen. The atmosphere reminded me of Hubud, the Balinese coworking space that was influential in the early nomad movement.

The building I found myself in, Zoku, was a collection of micro-apartments with the cookie cutter design of a hotel brand. Each unit squeezed a kitchenette, a four-person dining table, a private bathroom, and a superking bed—accessed using a retractable staircase—into the plot of a standard hotel room. There were hotel and lifestyle amenities on-site, too: a restaurant and bar, coworking areas, table tennis, punching bags, laundry, and rooftop gardens—shared, communal spaces to encourage interactions between guests.

Figure: The Zoku Loft XL. Source: Zoku.

Zoku, a Japanese word meaning “tribe,” “clan,” or “family,” was associated with the use of psychedelics by Japan’s hippies and punks in the sixties and seventies. Hans Meyer, the Dutch hotelier who founded the Zoku hotel brand, first heard the term while living as a digital nomad for a few months in 2009. Meyer, then 40, was in search of a new, more innovative direction for his career. As Tim Ferriss’s ideas went international, wafting around at dinner parties and in hotel bars, Meyer grew curious and decided to take a trip: a month each in Bali, Buenos Aires, and Washington, DC.

Meyer learned a lot during his travels as a nomad. Tourists head home when they check in for a flight, but moving through an airport is a different sensation for nomads: it marks the end of a trip and another one just beginning. Nomads return to cities again and again, getting to know the best neighborhoods, cafes, restaurants, and coworking spaces just as well as the locals do. Wherever they go, Meyer noted, this new generation of travelers spend more time than most in lonely, disconnected spaces like airport lounges and hotel business centers. He wondered: Could nomads be the target market for a new type of accommodation?

Unlock expert knowledge.
Learn in depth. Get instant, lifetime access to the entire book. Plus online resources and future updates.

The accommodation experience often sets the tone for a trip and, if you have deadlines along the way, highlights the practical challenges of working and traveling at the same time. Meyer lived in apartments, hotels, and hostels, and did his best to maintain a regular work pattern as he moved around. He found the big-name hotels overly complicated—“five different TV remotes and too many light switches.” The serviced apartments came with ergonomic workspace and reliable wifi, but were usually bland, impersonal, and uninspiring.

“Hostels, though, had a traveler’s culture and were less like liminal or transient spaces,” he told me. “I’d jump out of my bunk bed to grab a coffee, then still be there at a big family table hours later, happily chatting with strangers about new places.” But the hostels came with downsides, too, like shared bathrooms and doors that didn’t lock properly. The blurred lines between public and private were an interesting space for experimentation, but hostels didn’t always get the balance right. What these spaces really thrived on, though, was connecting people. And that was something Meyer thrived on, too.

Back in Amsterdam, Meyer met with his friend Rob Wagemans, a darling of the Dutch creative scene and the architect who would later design Zoku. Over a series of dinners, Meyer and Wagemans came up with an idea for a hotel that would cater to a then-tiny minority of global travelers: remote workers. Their hotel would be a “home/office hybrid,” with space-saving “loft” apartments, a coworking space instead of a lobby, and a community manager to make introductions between locals and visitors. At this hotel, people would split their time between private micro-apartments and public social spaces, complete with those communal, family-style tables Meyer loved during his hostel stays.

When Zoku Amsterdam opened in June 2016, its press release declared “the end of the hotel room as we know it.”** The awards rolled in, and Zoku climbed the ranks of TripAdvisor and Google Maps, quickly becoming a selfie hotspot for influencers and socialites. Meyer spent the next few years making plans for an international expansion. The first hotel’s success led him to believe there was plenty of demand—after all, he’d never even employed a marketing manager in Amsterdam. Zoku was riding on the rare success of a “build it and they will come” mentality.

When I met with Meyer in December 2019, he was full of optimism about Zoku’s future. After years of negotiations with investors, city planners, and building owners, his team was getting ready to announce two new European openings. His ultimate goal was to put a hotel in every creative capital, from Seville to San Francisco to Singapore, and it seemed Zoku could be the vehicle to do just that.

Then, as COVID-19 ravaged the world, the travel landscape was radically and permanently altered. In 2020, the global tourism industry saw a 74% year-on-year drop in visitor arrivals.* The business travel industry supported one in seven jobs worldwide in 2019, with annual revenues of $1.4 trillion, and business trips accounted for as much as 75% of revenue on some international flights. By 2021, though, business travel had seen a $710 billion year-on-year loss.* The sector is unlikely to bounce back, at least at the same scale. Once an expense line has disappeared from the company budget for a year or two—like travel for face-to-face meetings—it becomes more difficult to justify reinstating it.

Tourism and business travel involve many other sectors, including accommodation and hospitality, all of which were forced to think laterally in response to the pandemic. Suddenly, everyone who could work remotely was doing so and governments were even launching dedicated nomad visas. In a matter of months, work from anywhere went from a niche lifestyle movement to the travel industry’s hottest new target market. Guest categories were merging into a new one, and it was the one Meyer had spent years tailoring his brand for.

Amidst the chaos of the early pandemic, and with digital nomads in mind, Meyer decided to test a new business model at Zoku: subscription living. Instead of marketing overnight stays, his hotel launched a flexible monthly subscription for remote workers. Zoku’s subscription grants access to their buildings in three different cities: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Vienna. Long-term, the idea is that guests will take out an annual contract and stay under the Zoku brand as they move between cities.

Living permanently in a hotel may sound liminal and boring on the surface, but the familiarity of branded spaces is among their biggest selling points. Wherever you are, things are identical by design: the plates and pans in your kitchen, the height of the bathroom mirror, the position of power outlets. This consistency smoothes out the creases of borderless living, providing travelers with a “home” environment across different locations.

The subscription concept removes key points of stress and friction from nomadic living—no more wondering about whether the place will look like the pictures, fretting over wifi speeds, or trying to figure out where you’ll work from. Like many travelers, I buy into the aspiration of “going local,” but when travel is your lifestyle, knowing you won’t be tripped up by the fundamentals is key to being able to get your work done efficiently, freeing you up to relax and explore a place in your downtime.

Subscription living is the logical next step for accommodation brands seeking to serve the nomad market. What appeals to remote workers is not just staying and working from somewhere new and exciting, but the convenience of accommodation, workspace, and community all in one place. The price points of the subscription programs vary, but are generally comparable with renting private Airbnb apartments by the month. Zoku’s initial offering costs $3,000 to $5,000 for 30 days, with discounts for bookings of multiple months. Hostel brand Selina now offers coliving subscriptions for stays across the US, Latin America, and Europe, at a monthly cost of $1,140 to $3,300 for private en suite rooms. If prices reduce further, this kind of accommodation could come to replace more traditional housing options for locals as well as nomads. And those categories—local and nomad—will become harder to distinguish as flexibility becomes the norm.

As laptops, tablets and smartphones proliferate worldwide, digital subscriptions are becoming increasingly popular. The 2010s saw the rise of global subscription giants like Netflix for movies, Spotify for music, Harry’s for razors, and HelloFresh for meal kits. These companies operate across many cities, providing cross-border lifestyle and convenience services for a global middle class of knowledge workers. International coworking brands like WeWork and Spaces and the private members’ club Soho House, which IPO’d at a valuation of $2.8 billion in 2021,* have already succeeded in selling people on the idea of paying to access exclusive physical spaces.

There are already other Zoku-like brands offering long-term stays: Figment in Singapore, Urby in the U.S., and Sonder across 35 cities in 10 countries. In the years ahead, I expect to see more branded spaces, each with its own unique flavor and selling points. It may soon be completely normal to pay a global brand subscription for flexible accommodation across various cities instead of rent to a single landlord for a long-term, fixed address.

Future nomads might boast about the features of their favorite brand: the Swedish design aesthetic, the oversized American furnishings, or the chopsticks and rice cooker in a Japanese-run property. The brand you choose may not be that of your home country, but one that provides the aesthetic and accommodations you prefer. The companies hope your subscription will become part of your identity, like an iPhone or an American Express Platinum Card.

Accommodation companies are actively promoting the nomad lifestyle to ensure its viability. In 2021, Airbnb ran a competition for 12 people to “live anywhere” in their properties, for free, for a year.* Meanwhile, the company’s CEO, Brian Chesky, is living exclusively in Airbnb properties for 12 months in a personal bid to showcase the nomad dream.* As more people travel in this way, as digital nomads, infrastructure is emerging to serve them as a political and economic class. SafetyWing, the company I work for, has set out to build a global social safety net: travel medical insurance, remote doctors, and borderless pensions. The special projects department I run is on a mission to create an opt-in internet country, Plumia, conceived as a digital citizenship platform. Our long-term goal is to deliver access to a new global passport, along with other products and services that solve some of the problems laid out in this book, as a membership.

The convenience of subscription living opens the door for more people to experiment with nomadic travel. Some guests will be only semi-nomadic travelers with mortgages, offices, and employees to return to, and consider themselves to have a “home” and “home country.” Still, they are part of a new and fast-growing market of digital nomads.

The less friction there is, the more convinced managers will be to allow their teams to work from anywhere, and subscription living may soon have direct applications in business contexts too. Most remote companies organize retreats or gatherings a few times each year. As teams grow, booking out hotels and resorts becomes expensive, creating the incentives for businesses to own or lease real estate beyond traditional offices. Technology companies once created branded campuses, complete with gyms, cinemas, and sushi restaurants. Now, they may create their own branded buildings instead, and offer subscription living to their employees. Company-managed properties where staff meet, stay, and work together could look a lot like Zoku.

Subscription living represents a new global standard—for accommodation, remote work, and the expectations for connection and adventure that nomads and all kinds of travelers want. Many locals want these things too. We’re watching a global aesthetic and a set of global values achieve wider reach and become part of our identities. Now, people are starting to wonder: will everywhere soon look like anywhere?

Same, Same, But Different

An interest in the exotic has always underpinned tourism. Beginning in the 17th century, graduates of England’s elite Oxford and Cambridge universities embarked on grand tours of Europe. They’d trek through France and Italy to experience the “otherness” of foreign cultures, visit famous monuments, and eat unfamiliar, potentially toxic foods like pasta and focaccia bread. The strangeness of these places and the experiences they offered made the journey a key rite of passage for the English gentry. In the 1800s, as railways and steamships expanded travel, the availability and ambition of these grand tours increased alongside. Americans flocked to the museums and art galleries of the Old World, and Europeans vacationed further afield in the colonial outposts of Asia and Africa.

But as more people visited places that were previously only knowable from books, questions arose about the “authenticity” of their travel experiences. In E.M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, published in 1924, the protagonist is perpetually disappointed to discover that life in the East was not too dissimilar to life back home in England. She laments afternoons of tea with scones and evenings of tedious networking drinks. Where was the real India?

Today, the desire to see the “real” culture will be familiar to anybody who has visited Egypt’s Pyramids—located opposite Pizza Hut’s Giza outlet—or tripped over the Starbucks coffee cups littering the Great Wall of China. Modern package holidays, luxury cruises, and all-inclusive resorts have dominated leisure travel for decades, streamlining the delivery of exotic experiences to be efficient, predictable, safe, photogenic, and profitable. The sights, trinkets, and stories may change, but the role of “tourist” remains largely the same whether you’re visiting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán region. Globalization can make everywhere start to feel the same.

You’re reading a preview of an online book. Buy it now for lifetime access to expert knowledge, including future updates.
If you found this post worthwhile, please share!