Whole Foods To Put Travel To The Test

Whole Foods Market has never been your typical grocery store chain. Its focus has been not only on natural products but also very much on health and wellness. It has skillfully morphed itself into a lifestyle brand, and now it’s turning to travel as the latest strategy to connect with its consumers on a deeper and more emotional level.

Being a lifestyle brand increasingly means touching your consumers’ passion points and giving them new ways to access and enjoy those interests. Smart retailers are saying, “We get who you are as our consumer, and there’s something tangential to our category and related to our brand that we think you’d be into.”  

In the case of Whole Foods, it’s launching Whole Journeys, a tour product designed to appeal to active foodies. The concept seems well timed. Not only does it speak to the burgeoning farm-to-table movement and increased interest in food overall, but it has also wrapped in elements of recreation and wellness. Just as importantly, it’s leveraging the power of the Whole Foods brand and its deep connections to the global food community.

Who better to take you on a tour through Provence, or introduce you to fireside cooking in Tuscany, or guide you through China’s Ancient Tea and Horse Route, than a brand that has literally made its living as purveyor of the foods from these regions.

In a post on the Travel + Leisure magazine blog, Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey explained, “The trips are an effort to nourish our customers with an understanding of the growers and artisans who supply many of the products consumers find in Whole Foods’ aisles.” 

Whole Foods has shaped the program so that it will appeal to a public that increasingly craves new and unique experiences and it has wisely teamed up with travel industry veteran Kathy Dragon, who serves as Whole Journeys executive director. She has described the tie-in with Whole Foods Market as enabling her to create tours filled with “more integration with farmers, cheese mongers, wine makers—a bigger focus on where and how the food is produced and sharing the food with the communities that made it.”

The Whole Journeys website currently lists 10 itineraries with participation ranging from 4 people to as many as 20 in each tour, with the majority having space for a maximum of 16 participants. Given the small numbers of people who will actually have the opportunity to go on these tours and the relatively small margins the tour industry operates on, the motivation for creating this offering wouldn’t seem to be focused on driving revenue. Rather, it’s a way to reinforce the positioning of the Whole Foods brand, extend the brand story, and to engage consumers in another aspect of their lives. The limited availability for each of the itineraries ensures bragging rights for those able to go, and the tours will no doubt be fodder for marketing messaging and content development, plus extensive sharing across social media.

If this embrace of travel wasn’t enough, Whole Foods also recently announced plans to open a health resort in Austin, Texas (which, not so coincidentally, will be situated near to where the company is headquartered). Unlike Whole Journeys, which is launching its first tours this month, the hotel remains years away, as a site and a hotel brand to operate the facility is still being sought.

The plan is for the hotel to focus on health and wellness education, which will mirror a very successful program that the company already offers its employees.

Interestingly, according to the Huffington Post, the company had previously tried launching Whole Foods Wellness Clubs in five markets, offering yoga classes, wellness classes and more, but the effort apparently never reached critical mass.

This would seem to underscore the challenge for any retail brand as it looks to expand its reach and engage customers outside its traditional purview—especially if that translates to a foray into travel. You have to ask yourself:

  • Is the offering something that is connected to the brand in an authentic and believable way?
  • Is the actual experience delivered in a way that is consistent with the brand and is it enriched by access and perspective that the brand is uniquely qualified to provide?
  • Does the brand patina make the offering significantly different from other, similar offerings already in the market?
  • Is the brand’s relationship and dialogue with its customers such that they can successfully promote and market the offering in a way that drives participation?

It would seem that Whole Journeys checks off all the boxes, and you could readily imagine the brand’s connections and experience translating into a farming, food production and culinary experience that few others could match.

The health resort, on the other hand, feels to me to be more of a reach, and a bit less believable for the brand. It also means entering a category that is already crowded, not only with many other hotels and resorts already focused on a similar theme (including Biggest Loser Resorts, based on the NBC TV show, which is about to open its fourth resort property), but with more and more health clubs and other local providers (from schools to hospitals) expanding their offerings to include wellness and lifestyle education.

Of course, Whole Foods might be hedging its bet. By building the hotel near the corporate headquarters, it can always use it as a facility for its own local staff (and as a reward for employees and suppliers across the country), not to mention driving occupancy by accommodating the numerous visitors and meetings the firm must regularly host.

Count me among those rooting for Whole Foods to succeed. It would serve as a wonderful example to encourage more brands to embrace travel and use it as a tool to invite people to experience the world from new and distinct perspectives.

Looking for tasty travel experiences. See Aisle 10.

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