Future Hospitality

#5: Finding Balance in Our Always-On World: Jon Staff

May 19, 2020

Jeremy Wells: Hey Jon, we’re really excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jon Staff: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited.

Dustin Myers: So I think a lot of people are familiar with your concept at this point, but for those who are not, can you just give us a snapshot of Getaway and some of the philosophy and events that led up to creating this concept?

It’s tiny cabins in the woods about two hours away from where you live and you go there to disconnect, to recharge, to do nothing at all

Jon Staff

Jon Staff: Yeah. Getaway is, I mean, at its core, it’s a very simple concept. It’s tiny cabins in the woods about two hours away from where you live and you go there to disconnect, to recharge, to do nothing at all. And that’s where it really gets to, if you want to call it the philosophy of it, that’s it, which is, you know, this is not a resort. This is not, you know, you go to some cool town you’ve never been to and you go see and do a whole bunch of stuff. This is about having a little bit more balance in your life about taking the time to reflect on where you are and who you are and maybe to celebrate with your loved one, maybe to get back in touch with yourself, maybe to grieve some loss in your life, but it’s a reaction to a world that at least until very recently, it felt always on that we were always working. We’re always connected to technology, we were always, many of us, surrounded by the noise of the city. And all three of those things are really great but need to be balanced with their counterparts of real-time for leisure or disconnection, real time away from work, and real-time disconnected. So that’s where we come from and that’s what we’re trying to do with Getaway. And now we’re fortunate to be doing it all across the country.

Jeremy Wells: And you guys have been around for about five years, right? A little over five years.

Jon Staff: Yeah. Yeah, I started this while I was in graduate school. So this was my little, I guess, side hustle while I was in school five years ago. It’s been really over the last three years that we’ve been able to grow the business.

Jeremy Wells: When you were starting out and it was a fledgling little startup out of the gate, this whole idea, I love the idea of balance and I think everyone can benefit from that in their life. I would assume that you’ve kind of personally even struggled with balance as your startups are a lot of work and you’re working many hours at that point. How did you balance that yourself and just in your personal life, this concept of work-life balance, getting away? How has that kind of shown up in your own life throughout this process?

Jon Staff: Yeah. Well, you’re totally right that I’m like Patient Zero of whatever Getaway is trying to solve, like occasionally people are like, “Oh, maybe Jon has it all figured out and then he’s going to like share the wisdom with us.” I’ve been thinking about balance and all this stuff a lot and talking to a lot of people about it and reading about it and experimenting in my own life. So hopefully, maybe I’ve come up with some things to share, but really I’m trying to continually solve my own problem, which started with, “I’m 25 years old. How am I already burned out?” All I’ve ever done in my career is startup companies, which I love, and I love creating and building and adding new things to the world, but very quickly fell under the trap that I think so many of us had fallen into, which started with I remember getting my first iPhone and I thought it was so cool that my boss bought me an iPhone. And I quickly figured out that I could be the hero because I could respond to things at all hours. And I remember cooking dinner and answering email and getting praised for it and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got this whole career thing figured out.” And then a year later, two years later, whatever, I was going, “Oh no. Now everybody’s doing that. How do we put that genie back into the bottle?” At that moment, I was really genuinely like struggling with like, “Okay, how do I figure out how to have a life where it’s not constant work and constant stress and constant anxiety?” And I didn’t know how to figure that out. But basically what I did was I started lying to people and said I’m going to move into an Airstream trailer. And I wasn’t lying like in the malicious way, but I was lying like I wasn’t doing anything to get myself an Airstream trailer way. But I think there’s a lesson in there because I told this to enough people that finally Person Number 25 said, “Well, if you’re really serious about that, I’ve got a friend that has an Airstream trailer. Why don’t you call her?” So I call her Bianca, and Bianca says, “Sure, I’ve never met you, but if Kristen likes you, pick it up at my house,” which was in LA. So I flew out to LA, I bought a truck and I traveled for about five months and 8,000 miles through the West and kind of figured my life out, not completely, but a little bit, and discovered tiny houses and thought I want one of these. I want to stick it in the woods far enough away from where I live so that I can escape frequently, but I want it to be a place where I don’t do work and there’s no Wi-Fi and nobody bothers me. And then the startup genie kicked in and said, “Maybe other people want that,” this being as you mentioned five years ago, it was much less obvious that people wanted to go to a truly tiny space in the middle of nowhere to do nothing. But through launching a pilot and then a second pilot and then having the good fortune to grow this business it turns out there was a lot of folks that are looking for that sort of experience.

Dustin Myers: Yeah. I think in the hospitality industry there can be like the herd mindset of everybody doing the same thing and this is a very different, especially five years ago, just a very different approach. So from the Airstream journey days to this point, I guess what were some of the key moments when you were like, “Wow, other people want this as well. This isn’t just a solution to my issue, but this is something that could actually work”?

Jon Staff: The first one that really struck us being, primarily Pete Davis, who I started the company with and I was, he and I, he was also sort of burned out. And so we shared this view that, like for our own vibes, at least, that we want to get off the internet and into nature. And so we did this pilot of three cabins, North of Boston in New Hampshire and we didn’t put any Wi-Fi in. And the truth is we didn’t put it in because we didn’t want it and didn’t think it should be there, but also because we had no idea how to make it work anyway. But we really worried that it would be a bridge too far for people that they would riot if there wasn’t Wi-Fi. And so the genuine surprise was among those first few hundred guests, people would write to us and say, “Thank you for not having Wi-Fi. And actually when I rounded the last bend, my cell phone bars went down from two to one or one to zero. And that was the best feeling I’ve had in a long time.” Or the most honest ones would go on and say, “Okay. I got there. I was trying the thing you wanted me to try, but a little bit skeptical and I sat down next to the campfire and I was still thinking about work or I was feeling phantom cell phone vibrations in my pocket or whatever,” and I love that honesty. But then they would go on to say something like, “But after an hour or after two hours, I felt this feeling wash over me that I haven’t felt in a long time.” Or, “I had this conversation with my husband that we didn’t even know we needed to have, but we really needed to have it.”

So it was those stories. At the beginning, we didn’t have all this language and the brand wasn’t as defined of course as it is now, but it was all those guests stories that said, “Okay, wait a minute. We don’t need to be worrying about not having Wi-Fi. We need to double down on this.” So we put in the cell phone lockbox that’s now in every Getaway cabin and invites you to lock up your devices for the duration of your stay. Years in like if it was just me or just Pete and I or just the team and I that believe all of this stuff, obviously we would have long ago been out of business, but every day we get dozens and dozens of notes from our guests who say, “I got something out of this.” And sometimes it’s, “I got a special birthday celebration,” but sometimes it’s, “I just lost my job or I just figured out this new nonprofit I want to start or I got to like actually have a deep connection with my kid for the first time in a while.” And so it’s really been driven by our guests reacting to this experience and then trying to make it better and truer to what they’re getting out of it.

Jeremy Wells: I find it so interesting, this idea, and I’m sure that there has been plenty of studies done about this, but this idea of disconnecting from everything like technology and like the world around us somehow allows us to reconnect to things that are important in our mind. Why do you think that is? I mean, what’s going on, I guess, in the human mind in your opinion and why is it important for people to disconnect for periods of time?

Jon Staff: Yes. This is the part where I point out that I’m not a brain scientist. But I have done some reading and like the technical answer to that is in part the thing in your brain called the default mode network, which is you’ll probably be most familiar with it as the thing that gives you good ideas when you’re in the shower. And there’s real science that proves the shower gives you good ideas for a reason, which is your context has shifted such that you’re not distracted by whatever, your normal distractions are, your email inbox, your dishwasher needing to be unloaded, your dog chasing you around the house, whatever it is. The shower kind of protects you from that. There’s also science that shows our brains are best able to access that part, the default mode network when we have just enough activity going on that we don’t get bored, but not so much that we get distracted.

So nature is great for this because it gives us things like waves lapping on the shore or leaves rustling above our head or campfire flames flickering in front of us. All three of those things are enough activity that keep us engaged.

Jon Staff

So nature is great for this because it gives us things like waves lapping on the shore or leaves rustling above our head or campfire flames flickering in front of us. All three of those things are enough activity that keep us engaged. So they’re very different than watching paint dry, but they’re not so much activity that it blocks those deeper thoughts or ideas from coming to the forefront. So I think that’s a big part of it. Implicit to all of that, just speaking personally and I guess less scientifically in my own life, it’s really about changing contexts like I do this for living and I still come home at night and I still fall into bad habits. I think I’ve gotten a little bit better over the years, but I come home and I’m still thinking about work too much or I’m checking my email when I kind of “should not be” because it’s hard. We all have patterns of life, but for me, when I go into nature or go to a Getaway cabin or whatever, that shifting context is like, “Okay, I’m not falling into those old habits because my laptop’s not sitting there or my phone’s not ringing or we’re not ordering the same takeout we get every night.” I think that’s a powerful thing. I also think it’s important to point out because we can guilt ourselves so much and, “Oh, why can’t I draw better boundaries between work and home or whatever?” And it’s because it’s really hard to break those ingrained patterns.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, and I think that’s a perfect segue into talking about the book. Obviously, most of us wouldn’t be able to live at Getaway and experience that level of white space and margin all the time. And so bringing some of those principles and practices into our everyday life is an obvious need. So today, I know I’m seeing a new book. Is that right?

Jon Staff: Yeah. Super excited to announce a new book coming out, which is called Getting Away: 75 Everyday Practices for Finding Balance in Our Always-On World, which is coming out through an imprint of Penguin Random House, on sale now for publication on June 9th. And the idea behind this book was Getaway has, like I didn’t start Getaway with any hospitality or real estate background. I started it for the reasons we talked about before, which is I wanted a little bit more balance in my life and then thought maybe we can figure out how to give that to more people and really believe in that mission. We know it’s not curing cancer, but we do think it’s important for all of us to figure out how do we live in this world, which it’s almost cliché to say because all of us are talking about balance a lot now, but we have to remember that the internet is like 20 years old, at least in being deeply embedded into most of our lives. The iPhone is like 12 years old.

I’ve always had this fear and anxiety that we’re going to backslide into being a hotel in the woods.

Jon Staff

And so it’s not a surprise that we’re all still struggling with, how do I spend my time the way I want to spend my time in a world that has massively changed due to those technologies and other changes, including urbanization and so forth over the last many years. And so that’s where Getaway, the company, comes from. But as we’ve had some success with tiny cabins in the woods, two hours outside of major cities, I’ve always had this fear and anxiety that we’re going to backslide into being a hotel in the woods. I’ve always thought about us as being able to do something a little bit different and more focused than what a hotel does.

And so this book, Getting Away, is about all this stuff we believe and think is important. A lot of it can happen at a tiny cabin in the woods, but a lot of it can happen at home. A lot of it can happen with your partner. A lot of it can happen in your office. A lot of it can happen walking around your town or city. And so this book is 75 practices that are meant to give you some other ways to have balance in your life without going to a cabin in the woods. And it’s not like a magical 10-step formula that’s going to give you more balance in your life. Not every practice is going to work for everyone. These come from kind of me and my life by and large.

The truth is like some of them are deeply embedded into my life. Some of them are things I have to come back to every couple of months to try to form the habit in a deeper way. But it’s meant to be an offering to folks to say, “If you’re struggling, if you want to adjust your life a little bit, here are some ways that might work for you.” So that’s the book coming out, coming out now.

Jeremy Wells: Jon, I know I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that book, and I think we all need a little bit more balance in our life. Are you able to maybe share a couple of those 75 practices with us?

Jon Staff: Yeah, for sure. And the idea is that they’re pretty simple intervention. Some are simpler than others, but one that has made a real difference in my life was re-subscribing to the print edition of the newspapers. So we get the weekend, we can copy the paper and that fills Saturday with a disconnected activity. One of mine and the team laughs at me because I always bring this one up as an example, but I love to take a bath and light a candle and read a magazine, turning your notifications off. A friend gave me this idea that she does, Jas Davis, which is no screens while moving policy. So whether she’s walking, riding the subway on a bus, and of course, driving a car, making sure that is disconnected time where you can think through things as opposed to distract yourself from your daily distractions. One I’ve been doing COVID-19 time is, I never thought I would do this, I’ve taken up gardening and my potted plants are now fully enclosing my home to the point where I’m going to have to kick my partner out soon, if I keep potting plants. So it’s stuff like that.

Jeremy Wells: That’s great. I love the moving one too. It’s a really great idea to keep in mind because I know for myself whether I’m commuting or driving or going for a walk or anything like that, I always have headphones in. I’m listening to something or looking at something and that’s a great time to kind of, like you said, step away from that and just use that time to focus and to enjoy peace and quiet or nothing at all.

Jon Staff: My big source of guilt is Twitter. I’m a frequent reader, seldom contributor, but it’s just so easy to get sucked in. And so a few months ago I said, “Okay, I got to like do better on this front.” And so I deleted the app off my phone and then it was good for a while, but quickly figured out, “Well, you can just log in through the browser on your phone. You don’t need the app.” But I was doing okay. And then I live in New York. And then for those who know New York, I’m traveling from JFK Airport back to my place in Brooklyn, which is just about like the worst stretch of road and traffic that you can imagine and then here came Twitter again because it’s just so easy to fall into these habits.

I don’t have to be an absolutist. It’s about experimenting and seeing what works and adjusting it.

Jon Staff

As I do these things, I try to be easy on myself and say, “I don’t have to be an absolutist. It’s about experimenting and seeing what works and adjusting it and so forth.” But try to try to always point out that like these in particular, like these apps are built with many millions of dollars, billions of dollars of effort towards, “How do we get Jon to open this app when he’s in that cab on his way from JFK back home?” The opposition is strong and it’s important to recognize that.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, that’s huge. It definitely is designed to addict you to it and is very successful without intentional effort against that. So in other news, this is also a big day due to the Austin location announcement. Can you tell us more about that?

Jon Staff: Yeah. You’re catching me at a time with lots of news. So the book’s out, and then today, at least as we record this, our Austin location, Austin and San Antonio location is opening. So it’s called Getaway Hill Country. It’s actually just under an hour from Austin. It’s about an hour and a half from San Antonio, in the Texas Hill Country, as the name implies. And I think it’s 70 acres. It’s about 40 cabins that are spread out, like at all of our locations. So as you drive in, you’ll see the other cabins, but you have your own view into nature, out your big window. You have your own private fire pit and picnic table and Adirondack chairs and that’s out of sight of other cabins. This is piggybacking on our opening a Dallas location I guess six, eight months ago, which has gone really well. It’s really remarkable to spend some time in Texas, obviously a big state, but to see how different it is from the Piney Woods to the Hill Country. So I’m excited to be in hosting guests there later today.

Dustin Myers: That is awesome. Congratulations.

Jon Staff: Thank you.

Jeremy Wells: Jon, when you’re picking a new location for these, as you call them outposts, which I love that term, one, I guess, how do you select where you are putting these, what goes into that decision? And I noticed like at each of your outposts, you always have ideas of things you can explore or engage with, whether it’s a winery or something in nature, a trail. Are all those and more go into the decision of where you put these?

We’re different than a lot of companies in how we search for real estate, which is one, it’s got to be quiet, serene, and beautiful.

Jon Staff

Jon Staff: Yeah. We’re different than a lot of companies in how we search for real estate, which is one, it’s got to be quiet, serene, and beautiful. It has to be about two hours from a major city because we are committed to this idea that you’re able to escape, but you don’t spend all your time getting there. So you can have quality time spent in nature, but then unlike other companies that have to be at Main and 1st or whatever the equivalent of that is out in nature, it’s like that’s kind of it. And in fact, we kind of love it when we’re just kind of really off the beaten path because in everything we do we’re trying to make it known that the point of this time at Getaway is to really do nothing. And so we don’t need to be in historical resort area or whatever you want to call it. We can kind of be anywhere where it’s quiet, serene, and beautiful. And yes, we’ve got walking paths on our properties. And if there are trails nearby, we point them out, but I’m such a crazy person that I don’t want to ever point out the wineries because I think wineries are great, but it’s like there’s another time to go to the winery. This is the time you sit by the campfire or sit at the picnic table or read a book in your cabin in nature. So that has been an area of compromise on the team. But the primary thing is just it’s nature, it’s quiet, and it’s a space for you to do what you want with.

Dustin Myers: I love it. The title of this podcast is Future Hospitality, and we want to just talk to the leading minds in the industry and you were definitely one of those. So one of the questions we asked towards the end is, what do you see shaping the future of the industry?

Jon Staff: Well, to pick the obvious one, it’s funny that like Getaway has always been socially distanced based on everything we’ve been talking about and we’ve always been careful to say like the city’s not bad. We love the city, like technology’s not bad. It obviously like. provides huge power and conveniences to our lives. And work’s not bad. We hope you love your job. We want everybody to have a job that they feel passionate about and committed to and where they’re treated well. But all of those things need to be balanced. Getaway is a balance to them, including that the fourth thing on that list after city work and technology would be seeing other people. I’m a little bit of a misanthrope, but most people like other people. I like other people in small doses. But the fourth thing on that list would be like other people are great, like socializing is great, like dinner parties are great, parties are great, like Coachella is great, but you need time where you can kind of escape like, “Am I showing up in the right way for these people and how do I look and am I interesting? What am I talking about?”

So anyway, we’ve always been naturally socially distanced. One of the questions that comes up a lot when we’re talking to investors is, “But why isn’t there a communal lodge to hang out in? Why isn’t there a communal fire pit where people can get to know their neighbors?” Why isn’t this or that sort of gathering place?” I never say never, but I’ve always been committed to the idea of like, “This is a place where there isn’t any of that social pressure.” And so to your question, I think we’re going to see hotels who have spent the last however many years saying, “Let’s make the rooms as small as possible. Let’s make the common spaces as big as possible Let’s throw away the check-in desk and turn it into a DJ stand and have our lobby be a rave.” Rethinking that.

it’s like not that we don’t think human interaction is important or the kind of classic hospitality mantra, but it’s about personal interaction between the staff and the guests.

Jon Staff

I don’t think we’re going to be socially distancing forever. I sure hope not. But I think we are, if I’m kind of making the Getaway pitch, it’s like not that we don’t think human interaction is important or the kind of classic hospitality mantra, but it’s about personal interaction between the staff and the guests. There’s a place for that. But I also think there’s a place for, “You know what? I want my own space and I’ve got the people I love. I already know them.” It’s not the court behind the check-in desk. It’s my husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, son, daughter, best friend, and I want to go to a place where I can really bond with those people. So it’s a long way of saying the future of hospitality is just Getaway and when we’re going to take over the world.

Jeremy Wells: I love it. That’s awesome. Jon, as the final question here, kind of piggybacking on the idea of the future of hospitality, but more personalized. I know we covered in this podcast the book you have that you’re releasing. That’s big news for you. But as you kind of keep your eyes on the future for yourself and in this industry, what are some things that you’re excited about or that get you passionate and excited, whether it’s trends heading in a certain direction or technology or just personal development? What is something that excites you about just your own personal future in this industry?

Jon Staff: Yeah. I want to figure out how to be a different sort of workplace. And actually COVID, which none of us wanted and obviously would like to have disappear as quickly as possible, has nonetheless provided some natural experiments and time to think and time to experiment. I’ve never stayed in my apartment for two months before, and quite honestly, I would have said, “I’m not sure I can,” before this happened. Lo and behold, like, “Yes, I would like to go out to dinner, and yes, I would like to see my colleagues a little bit.” But I’ve learned about myself. I actually can stay home and like I can settle into a quieter, slower routine. And that’s actually quite enjoyable. And I connect that to the idea of how do we work going forward and I’ve always cared a lot about Getaway being a workplace where “the inside matches the outside” where we have a brand that’s about having balance in your life and disconnecting and recharging frequently and how do we make sure that is true for our team. And it’s really difficult in a context where you have ambition and you want to grow a lot, easier to do if you’re content having one location or two locations or whatever. And I think that’s a valid choice. But we’ve always said, “No, we want to impact a lot of folks’ lives.”

Those are two things that are very much intention. And so we’ve run experiments over the years, some of which have worked, some of which haven’t worked. But for example, we do this thing called “Get a Day”, which is one Friday off every month that I hope we can expand soon. So everybody gets at least one three-day weekend a month, and if there’s a holiday in that month, then you get two as a like a little down payment on like we want to make sure you’re having some semblance of balance in your life. We encourage everybody to install this tool called “DND Email,” which I have installed, and it stops your email from coming in at whatever schedule you set. Literally, emails don’t come into my inbox at night or on weekends unless I go through some convoluted override process to go find them.

So we’ve tried to do stuff like that, but with the current circumstances, I’m excited about thinking more about like, “Okay, what are we learning here about people’s productivity, about people’s preferences, about how we get more done with less, quite frankly and how can that inform our being hopefully a leader in how we work and how we work differently?” It’s super hard, but I would love to kind of crack that code and make some contribution that others adopt rather than just go back to, “Okay, coronavirus is over. Let’s go back to the way it was 60, 90 days ago,” because the reality was it wasn’t that good. There was a lot broken about that world, and I hope we can fix some of it with what we’re going through now.

Dustin Myers: That’s so good. We were big fans of Getaway. We’re excited to continue to watch as it evolves. I loved your vision for creating a workplace that takes advantage of these principles and incorporates these principles. So we’re super excited to watch that. How can people find out more about you? How can they order the book?

Jon Staff: Yeah. So the best is just to go to our website, www.getaway.house or on Instagram @GetawayHouse or you can find me, Jon Staff, somewhere on the internet.

Jeremy Wells: Jon, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure.

Jon Staff: Thank you.