I distinctly remember my first all-inclusive hotel experience. It was in the early to mid-‘90s at a beachside resort in Antalya, Turkey, a popular destination with post-USSR Russian tourists for its affordability. With grandparents and children in tow, whole families took over resorts for weeks at a time, crowding pools with "exotic" cocktails in hand and piling plate upon plate of food at the buffet line like they would never see such bounty again (reminder: post-communism tourists had seen their share of rationing; the concept of endless food was truly foreign to us all). As a child of six or so, I lived solely off “sticky ice cream” (dondurma), in amounts oblivious to even my parents, who let me roam the grounds unsupervised. The concept that I could have an unlimited supply of sugar and get my face painted every night before a dinnertime beach bonfire was titillating to me, erasing all other surely historically memorable highlights of the country.
Fast-forward to a little less than two decades later, and all-inclusive vacations, once the height of popular travel, have been in serious decline. Millennials, per usual, are to blame. It makes sense: Known for loving all things personalized, this generation cringes at the image of retirement-age tourists strapped into fanny packs and unironically wearing sandals paired with socks. Millennials have no interest in resorts that have seen better days, and are now packed with screaming children, drunk spring breakers attempting to play tequila volleyball, and run-of-the-mill tours that involve swimming with sad-looking dolphins at questionable waterparks. I myself became jaded by the all-inclusive experience when I went on an ill-advised spring break vacation to Cancun, Mexico, in the late aughts, which included less-than-mediocre meals, diluted drinks with intolerably cheap liquor, and one tear-inducing dolphin that put me off ever going to another waterpark again.
All to say I was just as surprised as anyone when I found myself not only visiting, but really enjoying, two all-inclusive properties in the past year. The first came about when I was invited to Riviera Maya, Mexico, to check out a property's new fitness program back in November. It was then that I also learned of an upcoming property, UNICO 20˚87˚, that peaked my interest even more with its promise to redefine the "all-inclusive hotel for the sophisticated traveler." After seeing the blueprints and getting a hard hat tour of the then-unfinished property, I knew it felt different from the "inclusives" that have come to dot and define the Quintana Roo coastline. From décor that was going to pull from the region's rich surroundings and Instagrammable tiles set to adorn the common spaces, to the carefully selected, cuisine-focused restaurants, and rooms whose furniture was handmade from materials sourced from the area, the property felt more like an oversized boutique hotel than a generic resort. I was back for a closer look just six months later.
"All-inclusive hotel vacations are one of the largest growing segments amongst our clients," says Lia Batkin, co-owner of In the Know Experiences, a luxury travel company that caters to a younger, savvy demographic. "They want the décor to be modern and fresh with all the current-day amenities like butler/concierge services, great spas and gyms, and interesting activities on the property." The resorts are, in turn, responding to the new—and largest living!—generation of clients, by revamping the property grounds to create photo-friendly environments and adding personalized services that disrupt the notion that you're one of the many faceless guests.
That individualized factor was palpable upon first entering UNICO 20˚87˚, especially after an unfortunate encounter at the airport where a flock of aggressive tourists shoved me out of the way while running to the bus that would take them to their hotel. (Maybe they thought it would leave without them? I don't know. I was too busy checking myself for a concussion to think much about it.) Instead of checking in at the front desk, I was seated down on a leather banquette and handed a mocktail while my "local host" (anfitrión), UNICO 20˚87˚'s response to butler service, dealt with the paperwork for me.
As I entered my room, my phone automatically sprung out to capture the giant bathroom filled with Mexican-brand toiletries touting local essential oils and towels slung over that Pottery Barn-like decor ladder that all influencers seem to own, a straw hat with my name on the bed, and, most excitingly, a semi-private swim-up pool with two suspended-in-water loungers where I would find myself reclining during most of my stay. "Guest rooms are changing to suit the taste of millennial travelers," says Cathleen Richards, travel curator, member of Virtuoso travel consortium, and one of this year's Top 30 Travel Advisors Under 30. "Some properties are expanding to include villas that accommodate more guests, while others are creating overwater bungalows for those who want that experience without traveling to the South Pacific. Other trends include modern design, private water features, and connectivity." Because, really, what's the point of taking a bath (drawn with DIY salts by an anfitrión) in an outdoor hydro spa tub overlooking the ocean while drinking red wine and listening to the Big Little Lies soundtrack before going to bed if you can't capture and post it on Instagram?
It's also millennials who have notably raised the bar for all-inclusive culinary expectations. "The old-school spread of serve-yourself hot dogs and nachos by the pool doesn't cut it anymore," says Megan Wood, an editor with Oyster.com and former Forbes Travel Guide hotel inspector. "Resorts are upping the quality of their food offerings to cater to millennials who prefer healthy and fresh choices." The on-property restaurants are also getting rid of cheesy theme nights and tailoring their menus to a more aware clientele with seasonal ingredients from local farms, trained mixologists at the bar, and prominent chefs. "Some trends include partnerships with celebrity or local chefs and the shift from buffet dining to à la carte restaurants, where previously there may have been only existed a buffet option," adds Richards. On my first night at UNICO 20˚87˚, I was served a traditional Mexican dinner at Cueva Siete by Christian Bravo, a Top Chef Mexico alum; named for the seven origin caves of Mayan mythos, the Yucatan-inspired restaurant rotates new chefs every so often to keep the menu diverse but always rooted in Mexico's traditions.
It is that same cultural immersion that millennials crave in other aspects of their travel, too, one that has given rise to Airbnbs, "local host"-guided experiences, and boutique hotels in the last decade. From on-property activations, like pop-ups with souvenirs made by local artisans and artists, instead of cheesy overpriced tchotchkes, and live music shows featuring local talent rather than cruise-like impersonation acts to less mainstream private excursions, UNICO 20˚87's ethos, grounded in authenticity, felt more like the experiences I've had in tiny luxury hotels where the owners brought in yoga instructors for morning rooftop sessions and made their own cheese to serve alongside local wine at happy hour. "Our millennial clients specifically request small, more boutique resorts that are just more than boozy drinks and a nice beach," say Roshni Agarwal and Jeffrey Allen, founders of The Vacation Hunt, a surprise (another millennial travel trend) vacation company. "They want a resort with great service, specialty activities—like more adventure sports or cultural ceremonies—and something a little more off-the-beaten-path."
Off-the-beaten-path I went, to explore the Tankah Cenotes of the Mayan Village. An exclusive tour of UNICO 20˚87, meaning that our group only bumped into only one other group during the entire four-hour excursion, it showcased the four natural cenotes, the region's mineral wonders, and provided opportunities for guests either to jump into the cenotes from cliffs (yes, it's as scary as it sounds), swim in, zip-line over, or canoe in, all followed by lunch prepared by the native Mayan people who serve traditional dishes, like pollo pepil, prepared using no electricity and served alongside organic fruit plucked straight from their farm. "Millennial travelers care about immersion in a place. They want to get involved with the local culture and have memorable experiences," says Wood. "Sure, it's fun to sit by the pool and read for about one day, but then they want free water sports activities like stand-up paddleboarding or surf lessons. Biking or hiking trails on the property is also a huge perk. Additional bonus points for local cooking classes, language courses, or wine tastings."
She's right. While I did spend my share of time in the pool, when I wasn't going on tours, I found myself leaning more toward less standard activities, like a wine tasting-and-painting class before dinner, as well as more health-oriented ones, like beachside yoga followed by a volcanic stone massage and hydrotherapy in one of the most Instagrammable spas I have ever been to. And the property only continues to expand such programming with cooking and mixology classes now available at each of its restaurants, rotating events that include a wine-and-astronomy class and a hookah-and-bingo night, and an ever-growing roster of wellness classes—all events I was made aware of through the hotel app (!!!) I was encouraged to download upon my arrival, another sign of the changing times if there ever was one.
UNICO 20˚87 isn't alone in tapping into the needs of the millennial travelers either. Hyatt Hotels Corporation entered the all-inclusive space a few years back, reimagining the experience for its adults-only properties; Travaasa Austin (currently closed for renovations) bills itself as the "newest experiential resort and spa," offering classes teaching harmonica, archery vision boarding, and juicing; conservation-focused resort Song Saa works to immerse guests in Cambodian culture with a focus on ecological programming and tours that include island safaris, rainforest encounters, and participation in Buddhist ceremonies; St. Lucia's Rendezvous has undergone renovation in an effort to modernize its all-inclusive offerings to solidify its status as "the world’s first boutique couples resort"; and Belcampo Belize, a luxury eco-lodge, offers hands-on learning workshops on the production of coffee, cocoa, and sugar cane on its onsite sustainable farm that supplies more than 70 percent of the food served on the property.
As I made my way through the Cancun airport, this time proactively dodging throngs of burned tourists in big chain hotel-branded t-shirts getting their last hurricane at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, I overheard one older patron say, "My only memories of Mexico are of the nachos and the pool bar." It occurred to me, then, what the biggest draw of the new wave of all-inclusives is for my generation: a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture from the comfort of a savvy local's slightly oversized home. And while it won't be the sticky ice cream that I will take away from the trip (even though the pumpkin seed version served over molten chocolate cake at Cueva Siete was incredible), it's the swimming through a cave in a cenote, hand signaling with the Mayan people to ask for another cup of the delicious coffee made over open flame, and inhaling the scent of local herbs while participating in an ancient Mayan ritual of temazcal that I took away from Riviera Maya. And that's something you can't put a price tag on—if you're lucky, it's included.