Encouraging guests to engage with a hotel’s outdoor environment promotes wellbeing and is good for business. Orienting guests to interesting places to walk or hike helps the guest bond with a location and want to return again. One Northern Italian retreat offers forest bathing with a knowledgeable guide who helps make lasting positive memories. It may be inspiring for others.
Recently, I experienced Preidlhof, a world-class wellness retreat in Naturno in Northern Italy’s idyllic South Tyrol region. Located in the shadow of the Alps and Dolomites, the region features a year-round growing season producing everything from biodynamic wine grapes to more than 50 varieties of apples to almonds and palm trees.
There, I spent a week being counseled, massaged, and given a variety of spa treatments as part of a comprehensive women’s retreat.
As much as I enjoyed every aspect of my stay at Preidlhof which offers a plethora of pools, saunas and steam rooms as well as spa services, a distinct highlight was a morning of forest bathing guided by Irmgard, a well-versed nature guide and herbalist who leads explorers from the hotel lobby through breathtaking mountain wilderness. Irmgard is a lively, fit septuagenarian who grew up there and who I am convinced is able to run circles around most people less than half her age.
The morning we spent hiking together prompted me to reflect on how I have intentionally engaged—or not — with nature as a means of wellbeing. And it reminded me of conversations I have had with colleagues and friends on the subject. In particular, it got me thinking about outdoor experiences – as simple as walking or hiking — as a path to offering guests easy, healthy experiences while staying in hotels and resorts.
Growing up in the Midwest, I spent much of my free time outdoors. I played with friends almost daily in an expansive neighborhood county park. In winter, we ice skated and tobogganed. I attended Girl Scout day and sleepover camps. As a teen, I spent five summers as a counselor at a rural outdoor camp in Waukesha County for children with special needs.
Family vacation tradition included 10 days every year at Spring Lake outside of Iron Mountain in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Syncing our vacation weeks, extended family members from around the country would convene, occupying several cabins that dotted one side of the lake. Hiking trails were abundant. My cousins and I would disappear after breakfast, returning hours later with arms full of flowers or baskets of wild berries we picked along the way.
Though not consciously, I left those traditions behind when I moved to New York City after college. While green spaces exist – Central Park most stunningly – my attention was drawn to novel urban appeals, a new job and the launch of my career. New York City provided an endless array of new things to do, and I took advantage of all that interested me and that I could afford. Much of that exploration took place indoors – at half-price-ticket-booth Broadway plays, places like Grand Central’s underground Oyster Bar and a multi-media show in Midtown called The New York Experience which became a staple for visiting family and friends.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how communing with nature took a backseat for days and months at a time. Okay, years. The change of environment was only part of the story. Emerging technology that was helping humans do things more quickly and efficiently also caused us to move faster. The pace of life kept accelerating, prompting human beings to look more like “human doings”. Also, marriage and two children kept me in high speed as a working Mom.
As I look around, I find that almost every adult I know has their own version of my story. Outdoor child’s play transitions to indoor work as adults. The pace and pressure of daily living contributes to an ongoing lack of healthy work-life balance. The pattern repeats itself day after day and year after year.
Forest Bathing Trends
And yet, when the term “forest bathing” surfaced as an activity and a trend, I was surprised. Stunned, even.
Walk barefoot in the grass? I did that every summer day growing up. Spend time in a forest? That, too, and often. It was difficult to grasp this idea as a “thing” or a trend because it had been so much a part of my early years. It seemed a bit silly, and I initially scoffed at the notion.
Yet, over time, I came to realize it is a “thing” and more than worth paying attention to.
Global Wellness Institute defines forest bathing as “taking in, in all of one’s senses, the forest atmosphere. Not simply a walk in the woods, it is the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest.”
The term and the practice links to Japan which developed it in the 1980s as a form of “mobile meditation”. So immediately compelling was it that by 1982, Japan incorporated forest bathing into its national health program. The health benefits have been scientifically documented and an internet search of the term will call up a wealth of information.
How beneficial is reconnecting with nature? According to Global Wellness Institute reporting: “A 2017 National Taiwan University study (128 middle-aged and elderly participants) found that a 2-hour forest bathing experience led to changes in autonomic nervous system activity and emotions. Heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure were significantly lower after the short experience, while the mood scores for “tension-anxiety”, “anger-hostility”, “fatigue-inertia” and “depression-dejection” were also significantly lowered.”
That is just one of several corroborative findings from unrelated and reputable organizations.
Powerful. And actionable.
The Preidlhof Way
At Preidlhof, forest bathing is integral to a number of the wellness resort’s healing retreats and is an option for any interested hotel guest.
It is grounded in “The Preidlhof Way”, a wellness philosophy developed by Patrizia Bortolin, the property’s wellness project manager and consultant. The concept is grounded in two types of well-being: hedonic and eudaimonic.
Hedonic well-being, according to Patrizia, is experienced in the most joyful and hedonistic terms, in beauty and enjoyment of the present – a wonderful dinner, for example. Eudaimonic well-being is achieved when one intentionally confronts one’s past, heals, and strives to reach a higher purpose for the future. In Eudaimonic wellbeing, learning and introspection are valued, and health care and prevention are taken care of through intention.
The aim, says Patrizia, is to attain true well-being through a hedonistic approach to the present and a more eudaimonic approach to the past and future.
With that philosophy in mind, I met Imgard early on a Tuesday morning and we set out along with two other guests – a mother and her young adult daughter visiting from Scotland. As we trekked to higher ground on the mountain adjacent to the resort, Imgard had us stop along the way to learn about a tree here or a plant there and its properties. At one point, we stopped at a small mountain stream where she invited us to cup our hands and drink from clear mountain water that was spilling from a tree trunk spout. It was divine.
Just when we all needed a rest, she directed us to sit on a bench at the top of a steep path we had just hiked. There, she took from her backpack a flask of tea that she had made from items collected from this forest during previous treks. Tea never tasted so satisfying as she described how she made it and poured it with deserving respect.
As we enjoyed our rest and cup of tea, she instructed us to go home and walk our yards and neighborhoods to see what our environment offer in the way of branches, leaves, flowers, plants, etc. She suggested we collect natural items and lay them out to dry to later use to make tea and incense.
While we talked about the trees, plants and sights we were seeing that morning, at various points along the way, Imgard invited us to be quiet and simply listen to the sounds of nature. That quiet walking turned into what the Japanese call “mobile meditation”.
Toward the end of our morning hike, we stopped at a picnic table in a clearing where Imgard pulled from her backpack an impressive number of small jars (recycled and repurposed) of herbs she’d collected from this area and dried earlier. In the light mountain breeze, she set down a small clay tray where she managed to light combinations of herbs into an incense which delighted the senses and served as a conduit for four strangers to create common ground. That morning, we bonded in our shared, unique experience served up by Imgard. It was a memorable moment with lasting effect.
What Hotels and Resorts Can Do
Wellbeing is accessible, just steps from the lobby whether an urban hotel or island resort. Encouraging guests to take a morning walk, or an afternoon break from routine holds palpable health benefits. Provide a card at check-in, or a mobile app, that offers suggestions for easy walks near the hotel. If qualified staff are available, offer a guided early morning walk or yoga session in a nearby park. Have water on hand and consider giving guests a logoed bottle of water on their way out or back in the door.
Making the most of what is right at hand can be the simplest way to wellbeing. It seems that I had to travel to Italy to reconnect to something that was so much a part of my upbringing. I was lucky to have that experience.
For hotels, resorts, and wellness retreats, the good news is that those guest experiences can be provided simply, easily, and in an enriching way. For inspiration, simply look outside the lobby door. Encouraging guests to grace themselves with self-care holds the added benefit of creating a bond between them and the hotel.