For many professionals, 2020 became the year of working from anywhere, but Olúmidé Gbenro was well ahead of the curve. Over the past five years, Gbenro — an online entrepreneur and social media advisor to celebrities, influencers, and Olympic athletes — had embraced an on-the-go lifestyle, calling the U.S., Mexico, Germany, and Indonesia home. Gbenro was living a life first defined by Tsugio Makimoto and David Manners in their 1997 book Digital Nomad.
The world, though, wasn’t quite ready for Makimoto’s and Manners’ shared vision of existing on the move. Most people were still tethered to their desks, mortgages, and permanent residences. When Gbenro first started couch surfing, he felt like he was one of the few working from anywhere, but in recent years, he noticed a surge of others like him who were hustling for freelance work in order to find a new home to match their lifestyles.
Gbenro saw a need for education among the audience, which inspired the launch of the Digital Nomad Summit in 2020. Originally planned to unite approximately 300 attendees in June 2020 in Bali, Gbenro was forced to pivot to an all-online format due to the pandemic. With nearly 1,000 virtual participants, Gbenro told Convene that the inaugural edition helped “give legitimacy to the movement.”
Gbenro is already looking ahead to a follow-up gathering that will include a face-to-face component and a digital option in 2022 after some of the uncertainties of the pandemic have been resolved. Some traditionalists may wonder why a group of digital nomads would need to come physically together: After all, if they can work from anywhere they want, why would they need to have one central location to bring the community together?
“We are all at different levels of knowledge in earning an income online and being location independent,” Gbenro said. “So, we want to continue to identify the leaders, the seven-figure entrepreneurs who understand this world to show the blueprint for success.”
All signs point toward a wide adoption of the movement — and plenty of event competition for Gbenro. From the weeklong Nomad Cruise that offers keynotes and workshops between Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, to the 7in7 conference series — an event for nomads on each continent (the group just hosted its fourth edition in New Zealand, capped at 100 attendees) — the calendar is filling up for anyone who wants to support themselves and call the road home.
According to data from MBO Partners, the number of American digital nomads increased to 10.9 million in 2020 — a 49-percent increase from 2019. With more employers embracing a flexible remote work model, those who embrace the digital nomad lifestyle are expected to number 19 million within the next three years with 45 million other Americans considering the benefits of digital nomadism.
“There are people who got woke because they had to listen to their own thoughts for the first time in the pandemic,” Gbenro said. “The Digital Nomad Summit will help them figure out how to take that first step to having the freedom to decide how to live their lives.”
Part of that freedom relies on Gbenro’s outreach to a segment that is especially close to home for the meetings and events industry: tourism boards and destination marketing organizations. “There’s a term among digital nomads that we call ‘slowmadding,’” he said. “These are the people who stay for months at a time. Instead of staying for three days and going somewhere new to post on Instagram, these individuals find the destinations that fit their needs. It’s very different than tourism. We’re staying longer. We’re eating local food. Some of us are getting married while we’re there.”
Some forward-thinking destinations are already working to attract this audience. In Dubai, for example, individuals can apply to be part of a virtual working program that costs a little more than $600 without any need to pay additional taxes in the UAE. Estonia has a similar program. Many other destinations are devising their own plans.
“These places will see us migrate toward the hubs that welcome digital nomads,” Gbenro said. “It’s going to be a competition between these countries.”
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David McMillin, former Convene associate editor, is a freelance writer based in Chicago.