It pains me to say this, but 2022 may finally be the moment for bleisure, the ugly portmanteau describing a cross between business travel and leisure.
I appreciate this makes me sound like I am in the pay of Big Bleisure. For as long as I have written about work, someone or other from the business travel sector has tried to persuade me that bleisure is on the rise. After all, the hotel and airline industries are desperate to make up for lost revenues. While it is hardly new to tack a weekend of sightseeing on to an overseas conference, this time, as business travel starts to pick up and Covid restrictions end, there are reasons to believe we are entering the era of bleisure.
This is because workers are more flexible and keen to explore. Airbnb said that in 2021 about 20 per cent of nights booked were for visits of a month or more. In a letter to shareholders, the company cited the example of Jason, an Airbnb host in Chicago who has seen his bookings change as more guests stayed longer, visiting family and the city while working remotely from local Chicago offices, or attending a conference.
Airbnb itself last month announced that employees can work anywhere in their home country without any change to their pay, and can relocate to another country for up to 90 days a year.
Meanwhile, a report on travel by Deloitte has identified “laptop luggers” as “workers newly untethered from the office” with the desire to fit in some work while on holiday. They take more journeys, “adding days and dollars to those trips. [They] have above-average buying power [and] greater flexibility on travel dates. “
The business travel sector needs new sources of income. Several hotel groups, including Hilton, offer WFH (work from hotel) packages, including day hire of rooms for workers wanting quiet time to focus outside the home and office. Richard Valtr, founder of Mews, a company that helps hotels manage their rooms and services, has observed a sharp rise in hotels providing additional bookable services such as meeting rooms, use of hotel rooms during the day and co-working areas.
This blurring of work and leisure is also shaped by employers making some aspects of work more like a holiday. As employees spend time apart, companies are trying to dream up creative ways to bring them together. The remote workforce at 3Thinkrs, a small PR agency, is encouraged to work from different locations. Recently the whole company went to Amsterdam for four days. There were meetings, dinners and drinks, but they also had also time off to explore the city.
Salesforce has recently opened a resort, what it calls a Trailblazer Ranch, in Scotts Valley, California, for employees to collaborate, take part in training and immerse themselves in the company’s culture. It is easy to mock. The tech company is practically begging for it with a statement saying the ranch is offering “tactile experiences like guided nature walks, restorative yoga, garden tours, group cooking classes, art journaling and meditation”.
But Salesforce may be on to something. It is discombobulating to return to the office and assume our normal lives as if we hadn’t just had two very weird years. Group events mark a sense of occasion. And encouraging workers to expand their horizons after months of being stuck indoors is good for morale and creativity.
The merging of work and leisure is happening at an extraordinary pace. Evan Konwiser, an executive vice-president at American Express Global Business Travel, speaking on a forthcoming episode of the FT’s Working It podcast, says some employers are helping plan and pay for staff holidays.
The risk is that we merge work and vacation so we can never switch off. Ruth Jones, the founder of 3Thinkrs, says she has had to make clear that employees about to go on a break must undertake a week-long handover and switch off email and Slack.
One danger of all this blurring is that work infects not just our personal lives but also the places we visit – cafés, clubs and hotels. Work creep became ubiquitous in the pandemic, but now we risk office creep. In the rush to create new places for flexible workers to fire up their laptops, the hospitality industry is starting to resemble one big wacky workplace. When I visited a new branch of Soho House, the private members’ club, it didn’t seem so different from any co-working space.
I suspect most people don’t mind leisure encroaching on their work but hate it when the office impinges on their leisure. For this reason, hotels and cafés should set boundaries too.
Recently I visited a hotel that catered to co-workers and office awaydays. For an office trip it seemed fun. But for a holidayer it felt oppressive and I felt peer pressure from people who weren’t even my peers. So much so that I opened my laptop and did a spot of writing.
If this is the year of bleisure, we must never forget the leisure.