Julya Karma DJing in Amsterdam. Photo courtesy W and Cercle.
Over five days in October, Amsterdam’s already-busy restaurants, music venues, “coffee shops,” and bars are packed even further by electronic fans hoping to do and see it all at Amsterdam Dance Event, an electronic music conference. Unlike a traditional festival with a single venue, ADE spreads across the city, throughout the old town’s existing structures, for a patchwork of 1,000 shows, talks, and workshops. Given so many possibilities, the pressure to check every box is high: Everyone is constantly on their phones, studying set times, weighing lineups, figuring out the coolest place to eat between throwing their stuff down at their Airbnb and seeing the next DJ.
It’s a problem that plagues most travel, never mind in Amsterdam and never mind at a festival. Always, the experience is shaped by the struggle to do the “best” thing, to have researched every block, to have captured it all in photos that might make it into our faux-casual Instagram carousels.I’m certainly not immune. Before a trip, I’ll perform some half-assed searches about where to eat and what to see while telling myself I’ll be casual and spontaneous, thus refusing to book any actual excursions, museum tickets, or restaurant reservations. Looking to eat in a new city, I’ll walk around to the point of delirium, crisscrossing between bookmarks in Google Maps, invariably unable to just show up and get a table anywhere. After an hour of subjecting my travel companions to my hangryness, we’ll finally luck into something. Maybe we’ll end up with an excellent, under-the-radar experience. Maybe we’ll overpay for a mediocre burger. Upon being invited to visit Amsterdam for ADE, I decided that, for once, I wasn’t going to force this dynamic upon my trip. Instead, I was going to really, truly roll with the punches, get off my phone, and go wherever the day (or mostly, the night) took me. And I was going to do that by leaning into the hotel experience. My open-mindedness was probably aided by the fact that my travel was paid for by Marriott’s W Hotels and the French music company Cercle. They’re an interesting pairing: a hotel line synonymous with a sort of pre-iPhone aspirational youth culture and a contemporary music company highlighting the aspirational youth culture of today. Together, they thread a certain needle, balancing the supposed preference of young people to focus their travel spending and energy on unique experiences with the simultaneous total exhaustion of constantly seeking those things out.
Cercle is known for hosting DJ sets in compelling locations like Petra, Jordan, and beneath the Northern Lights in Finland, as well as the YouTube streams accompanying them. In Amsterdam, their collaboration with W manifested as a series of daytime workshops and talks at the hotel, ranging from a cooking class to a talk on mental health. At night, Cercle curated parties and DJ performances at the top-floor W Lounge. Honestly, nothing too crazy. But critically, whether one participated in any of that—I went to a cooking class but skipped out on the mental health stuff—there was still a sense of participating in Amsterdam, even without entirely leaning into what Amsterdam is most commonly known for. The W sits at the center of Amsterdam’s most touristy areas: Go ahead and walk through the Red Light District or smoke pot inside a bar if you want (I didn’t). At night, the lines out the lobby's door seemed to prove that the W appeals to both the traditional Amsterdam tourist and maybe, optimistically, people who actually live there. I skipped that line entirely by simply walking up a few flights of stairs from my room to the packed party above. I never had to anxiously question what I was doing on a given night. I could hear the answer already. And thus, the typical pressure of zillennial travel fell away. I could remain mainly at the hotel, attending the talks and parties they hosted, and continue to feel enmeshed in the local nightlife and ADE scene without stressing over where to be next.
At one panel, DJs Mochakk and Indira Paganotto discussed the relationship between social media and success. Each of them has over one million followers on Instagram, where they are both obviously rather active, sharing new tracks, concert footage, and updates on upcoming shows. But at the talk, both explained how, despite their popularity online, social media had little to do with their success as DJs. You can get millions of views on TikTok, for example, but that does not necessarily translate to more bookings from venues.And yet, whether we are DJs, writers, or just everyday users of social media, many of us view these numbers as aspirational. Even if we’re hoping for just a few dozen likes, they’re still a big reason why we spend so much time on our phones when we travel or do anything else that might be deemed cool: so we can present it in the best way possible online and siphon off a little of that “best thing” feeling for ourselves.In Amsterdam, my iPhone health app was proof that I didn’t escape my phone entirely. I averaged around five miles of walking a day, gawking at ostentatious weed paraphernalia for sale, contemplating attending a sex show (next time), and drinking mint tea at Barney’s. I made friends at a cocktail bar named Tales & Spirits, a favorite of a previous visit to Amsterdam, and went out with them to a few bars the next night. My new friend, who lived in the city, lamented that all his usual spots were off the table—thanks to ADE, everything he liked was simply too crowded. But he, too, was still participating in the events, staying out till 6 for artists like Charlotte de Witte and Armin van Buuren. I had some late nights myself, but genuinely my favorite part of the trip was coming back to a made bed, deciding whether to order room service, and not worrying about what I was going to do next. It’s foolish, maybe, to have skipped out on other happenings. I got out plenty, but sure, I probably should have gone out even more. That itself is its own type of touristy trope: the tourist who barely leaves the hotel. But isn’t staying in it precisely what a hotel is for? It’s something a lot of young people seem to have forgotten about travel: We are, in fact, tourists. You’re not going to live exactly like a local, no matter how down-to-earth your short-term studio apartment rental may be, no matter how carefully you research where to eat dinner. There is something freeing in putting down your phone and accepting that fate. It’s a lot easier to do that with a heavy hotel robe on.