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The rise of the digital nomad and what it means for the future of work

By Ahead Thought Leadership
collage with person with surfboard, an office chair, and keyboard representing digital nomad and hybrid work

How hotels and home rental sites are catering to a whole new generation of remote workers. 

When the world shut down, Daniel Thompson was in Belize on a scouting trip. 

Thompson had spent much of his life organizing music festivals and, several months prior to COVID-19, had suddenly realized he needed a change. “Every time we did an event, we’d be cleaning up afterwards until six in the morning,” he says. “I looked at my business partner, Jack Robinson, and said, are we going to be doing this when we’re 50? I don’t think so.”

The duo did want to remain in the hospitality game, though, so they landed on a new idea: hotels. After checking out locations in Uruguay, Thompson cruised up to Belize, which has better proximity to U.S. tourists. For about three months, he scoured the nation, searching for a location to start a hotel. But when the pandemic hit, tourism in Belize, like everyplace else, dried up overnight. Rather than panic, however, Thompson and Robinson had an epiphany. “Every hotel in Belize was empty and people were working remotely,” says Thompson. “It just clicked: let’s start a hotel for digital nomads.”

The idea of “digital nomads” has been around since 1997, when Tsugio Makimoto, a Japanese semiconductor scientist, and David Manners, a British journalist, wrote a book that predicted technology would someday enable people to work outside the office. Ten years later, a small but growing number of cubicle dwellers decided to break their bonds and live abroad.

“By 2013 and 2014, you really start to see critical masses of digital nomads showing up in Southeast Asia,” says Robert Litchfield, a professor at Washington and Jefferson University who, along with his wife Rachael Woldoff, a professor at West Virginia University, recently published the book Digital Nomads.

In Bali, for instance, an underground guerilla marketing campaign attracted scores of nomads. Other countries soon caught on, hoping to spur their local economies, and by 2016, thousands of nomads in everything from finance to tech were working from one beautiful location to another. Among them was Noami Grevemberg, an environmental scientist in New Orleans who quit her day job to work remotely from a van with her partner while bouncing between various parts of North America. “We’d shared a dream to visit all the national parks,” she says. “The monotony of my career was very difficult for me to accept as my life. So as soon as we decided this was what we were going to do, we jumped right in and were on the road.”

In 2016, a study by Strategy Analytics predicted that by 2022, 1.87 billion people—42.5 percent of the global workforce—would be working remotely. The pandemic has expanded that figure dramatically. From 2019 to 2020, the number of digital nomads in the U.S. alone grew by almost 50 percent, according to MBO Partners, a business management software company.

Shifting focus

To accommodate nomads, house-rental companies and hotel chains shifted some of their focus from short-term to long-term stays. One U.S.–based luxury hotel chain, for example, began offering perks to nomads who booked reservations at hotels in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and India for 29 nights or longer, including access to an IT specialist, complimentary gym access, and 25 percent off food and beverages. Several countries, including Barbados, Croatia, and Norway, began offering digital nomad visas, which were usually contingent on proof that applicants make a monthly income of around $2,000 or more. In Hawaii, in February 2021, the island of Oahu began a program called Movers and Shakas, which selected 50 people from an applicant pool of 90,000 to come work, learn, and participate in philanthropic projects on the island for one month.

In Belize, meanwhile, Thompson launched a digital nomad startup called Noma Collective at the Umaya Resort, a beautiful hotel on the Placencia Peninsula, a narrow strip of land between a mangrove-lined lagoon and the Caribbean Sea. By February 2021, Noma Collective was hosting guests—everybody from coders and developers to fashion designers and animators—for a minimum of four weeks in rooms that ranged from $73 per night to $226 per night. But before anybody booked, they needed to be vetted. “We had to make sure that people wouldn’t be bothered by, say, a gecko in their room,” says Thompson.

To accommodate nomads and help give a boost to the local economy, Thompson and his team provided shuttles that made trips to the grocery store, set up weekly excursions to surf or tour the jungle, and organized “skill-share meetings,” during which guests would present thoughts on everything from digital programming to how to invest in cryptocurrency.

For certain guests, the staff went above and beyond work essentials such as convenient connectivity and reliable Wi-Fi. Notably, staff debugged a room for a Google developer who was working on sensitive material and sound-proofed another room for a guest who was recording an album.

Proof the hotel was successful could be seen in the numbers: 70 percent of guests extended their stay, often spending seven or eight weeks in Belize.

“When I was working remotely, I was much more productive and able to manage stress better,” says Natalia Rivas, a film industry worker from New York City who spent three months in Belize at Noma Collective. “You’re right on the ocean and being able to go stand-up paddle boarding in the morning and meditate by the beach makes it a lot easier to focus on work.” What digital nomads don’t have to deal with is also a reason outfits like Noma Collective are thriving—namely, traffic and long commutes, paying rent on expensive office spaces, boardroom office meetings, and a host of other inconveniences associated with traditional office life. 

Noma Collective’s success has encouraged Thompson and his partners to grow the business. They’re currently scouting land in Belize where they’ll build what Thompson calls a cross between a “Google office and dope hotel.” And beginning in 2022, they’ll partner with hotels to offer curated month-long stays for digital nomads in eight different locations, including Argentina, Kenya, Bali, and Portugal. “The pandemic has been awful,” says Thompson. “But the one silver lining is that it proved people didn’t have to grind nine to five in a city anymore.”As such, we’re likely to see more destinations catering to digital nomads. “You see a lot of talk about this in lots more places,” says Litchfield. “There’s talk about developing some of the Greek Islands and Madeira Islands into destinations for digital nomads. So yes, this is just going to continue to grow. It’s too appealing not to.”

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