Alan Frei lives the life of a backpacker. That is, all 62 of his belongings fit into a single backpack, which he carries with him as he travels and lives in different cities around the world—a total of 53 countries over the past three years.
The Swiss entrepreneur in October got rid of his apartment near Zurich and all his furniture. Items he kept include his watch, a toothbrush, seven pairs of underwear, and sunglasses. He currently has two pairs of sneakers—but he plans to discard them soon, having just discovered a company where he can rent shoes. He lives in luxurious hotels and eats at restaurants. He never cooks or cleans or does laundry. For work, he assembles his “set up”: a foldable Samsung smartphone, an ultra slim foldable Bluetooth keyboard and a wireless micro mouse. No computer.
“It’s super fun,” says Mr. Frei, 38, who founded and runs lingerie and love toy company Amorana, recently acquired by U.K.-based Lovehoney.
Mr. Frei is an extreme version of a digital nomad, a person with no fixed address, who lives and works while traveling the globe. Today, their ranks are small, but they could become more common in the years ahead.
“There will definitely be more digital nomads,” says Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Before the pandemic, only about 2% of Americans worked from home full-time, Mr. Bloom says, but he expects that will rise to about 8% to 10% of workers. If just 10% of them travel and work remotely, that will still be enormous, he says. Scott Cohen, a professor at the University of Surrey’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, expects more countries will cater visa and tourism programs to digital nomads, as they seek an alternative to the standard business travel market. Chekitan S. Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, School of Hotel Administration, says the trend was first driven by millennials; now older millennials are taking their families with them when they move around.
By normalizing remote work and school, the pandemic has supercharged a trend. In the future, digital nomads may be middle-aged, rent or own homes for less time, want to go to more exotic destinations and move more quickly between destinations.
“It was a nicely growing niche. Now it is going to explode,” says Emmanuel Guisset, CEO and founder of Outsite, which offers houses where travelers can rent rooms. Outsite is planning to add a subscription service called “Live at Outsite,” where members can move between properties in different cities for around a $2,000 monthly fee.
Hotel company citizenM in September started a monthly subscription service called “global passport,” which allows members to stay at any of its 21 properties around the world at any time for a $1,500 monthly fee instead of nightly fees. The program requires a minimum of seven and maximum of 29 nights at any one location. The company sees more travelers asking for an office, residence and hotel in one building, says Ernest Lee, the U.S. managing director. The rooms are identical at every hotel and the lobbies are set up like co-working spaces. “It’s still in its infancy,” says Mr. Lee.
Branded apartment community Society Living, which has communal-style buildings in five U.S. cities, currently requires its renters to sign a one-year lease. Ryan Shear, managing partner, expects that in the future people will want shorter term stays, spending a few months in Phoenix and a few in, say, Fort Lauderdale, and is considering offering them. Requests for shorter leases have been much higher since the pandemic started.
“We are only in the early innings, but it’s been accelerated by the pandemic,” says Will Lucas, founder and CEO of Mint House, a chain of 23 hotels across the U.S. The company is rolling out a subscription service that lets guests pay a lump-sum fee to get a guaranteed nightly rate on stays. Already, Mint House has seen average stays increase to almost 20 nights from three nights at the beginning of March, as more people work from anywhere. Mr. Lee expects digital nomads will make up half the hotel room market in the next 10 years.
The life of a digital nomad isn’t for everyone. Loneliness is a big drawback, as mobility makes it more difficult to establish social ties. The social isolation experienced during the pandemic might make people less willing to undermine stability and security in the future, says Ina Reichenberger, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management in New Zealand. Working remotely can make it more difficult to get promotions at work, according to research conducted by Mr. Bloom at Stanford. And there are complications involving taxes, visas and technology connections.
Still, products and services are cropping up to cater to people on the move. Mr. Frei plans to cut down from two pairs of sneakers to one pair of Cyclon running shoes, made by the Swiss brand On. Starting in 2021, the company plans to offer customers a pair of the shoes for $29.99 a month; customers can exchange them for the latest design, allowing them to get new shoes without buying new shoes. Earlier this year, a company called Trova introduced a portable, 6.1-by-3-inch biometric safe, which costs $219, allowing nomads to store valuable items while traveling.
The impetus for Mr. Frei’s nomadic life was his father’s death. Mr. Frei and his brother had to clean out the house where his parents lived for 50 years. Seeing all the stuff they had accumulated was traumatic. “I did not want that. I wanted less ballast,” he says.
Before he sets off for a new city, Mr. Frei sends a note to friends on social media that he will be traveling there. Other than that he makes no preparations—too stressful. In the mornings he strolls around the hotel to get coffee and then finds a quiet place to work. Often friends or friends of friends invite him to parties and events.
For the past month, Mr. Frei has been camped out at the citizenM hotel in Zurich, where he has a girlfriend and his company has an office. The pandemic has slowed his pace, but he plans to head off again soon. “It’s just pure happiness,” he says.