At the Palm Springs International Airport, Aimee DuFresne and Farouk Chaabi experienced something they had been waiting for — The Moment.
The two had been traveling nomadically with all of their belongings packed into a Prius, crisscrossing the country multiple times over four-and-a-half years. Usually they traveled for long-term stays, housesitting or pet-sitting for people they met online.
Sometimes they had events to promote DuFresne’s independently published book, Keep Going: From Grief to Growth.
They made a deal to not stop moving until a place felt like home. That would be The Moment. Then, in January 2018, they stepped off a plane in Palm Springs.
“We knew it right away. This was it,” DuFresne says. “This was home.”
They could live anywhere and tried plenty of places. DuFresne coaches people, mostly online, through grief and other monumental life shifts. She’s also a specialist in decluttering and organizing. Chaabi is a sommelier and wine educator who leads Zoom tastings and luxury wine tours through France and Italy. The two could call anywhere home, so why not Palm Springs?
They are among a growing number of digital nomads for whom the whole world is an office, doing business beyond the confines of the traditional workplace environment.
“So many people come here for a vacation or a getaway. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place that felt like that all the time?”
– Aimee DuFresne
According to the 2019 State of Independence in America study, led by research firm MBO Partners, 7.3 million workers in the United States are digital nomads and have the ability to work anywhere they can connect to the internet.
That was already an increase of 2.5 million from the 2018 study. The trend is certain to accelerate in 2020, as many people began working from home — or, at least, working outside of the office — during the COVID-19 pandemic. (A study by the software company Slack found an estimated 16 million U.S. workers began working remotely in March 2020.)
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To put DuFresne and Chaabi’s decision into context, they arrived when the Palm Springs International Film Festival was taking place. Downtown bustled with filmmakers and tourists, and the restaurants were busy. As a bonus, there was also semblance of home for Chaabi, who was born in Tunisia, then raised in the Northern Rhone Valley.
“The food, the dates, the oranges, even the cacti reminded me of home,” he says. “There was a sense of the familiar here, even though this was something new.”
Plus, the weather was considerably better than in Chicago, where the couple had been staying. They boarded a plane at 3 degrees below zero and disembarked to sunshine. They even liked the heat, later experiencing Palm Springs in the summer and purchasing a house.
“So many people come here for a vacation or a getaway,” DuFresne says. “Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place that felt like that all the time?”
Other countries are now vying for remote workers for exactly that reason, with nations like Barbados, Bermuda, Estonia, and Georgia recently launching special visa programs — because working from home doesn’t mean staying at home. The idea is to make the place where you live feel more like a getaway.
“We recognize more people are working remotely, sometimes in very stressful conditions, with little option for vacation,” wrote Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley in a welcome letter for the island’s new program. “Our new 12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp [is] a visa that allows you to relocate and work from one of the world’s most beloved tourism destinations.”
Though there aren’t any programs specifically designed to entice digital nomads to Greater Palm Springs, people come here for the same reason remote workers look to tropical islands or countries with a low cost of living: Those who have been priced out of major cities will find the desert communities affordable. With sunny weather, world-class events, and outdoor adventures, the quality of life is high. And this is a true destination, a place where people come to unwind.
Essentially, you can be as productive next to a swimming pool in Palm Springs as you can in a cubicle in Glendale. Maybe even more so.
For the destinations, it’s easy to see why highly skilled remote workers are being courted. They are a boon to the economy — supporting local businesses without siphoning any local jobs — and they boost the tourism industry, becoming de facto ambassadors of place.
Even automakers are getting in on the trend, with Volkswagen and Nissan both unveiling vans targeted at “VanLifers,” the remote workers who travel, live, and work in camper vans.
Most digital nomads, according to MBO Partners, are like DuFresne and Chaabi. Fifty-six percent (4.1 million) are full- or part-time independent workers, such as freelancers, self-employed entrepreneurs, or independent contractors. A minority (44 percent, or 3.1 million) report having traditional jobs that can be done anywhere.
“The geography of the Coachella Valley is just about perfect.”
– Rich Henrich
Rich Henrich has done both types of work. As the founder of the Albuquerque Film Festival, he was lured to the Coachella Valley in 2012 as a consultant on the AMFM Fest (Arts, Music, Film, and More festival) in Cathedral City.
Henrich returned in July 2019 to make this his home base. His primary business now is RookSEO.com, a digital marketing agency that boasts a diverse roster of clients, from the city of Savannah to Kodiak Cakes. He has also launched a streaming platform, FilmIndie.tv, showcasing independent cinema from around the world, and is an actor, writer, and film producer.
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“When I started to look at the logistics of where the valley was, it was very easy for me to do a lot of business in L.A., but I could also reach out and broaden the business to markets in Vegas to Phoenix to San Diego,” says Henrich, who lives in Indio. “The geography of the Coachella Valley is just about perfect.”
Prior to relocating, Henrich had lived in Los Angeles and Albuquerque.
“I found the quality of life is higher here than in L.A.,” he says. “And New Mexico is like being on an island, which has its own beauty, but I wanted to be in a place where I could be much more connected. That’s what I find here.”
Curating a sense of community is still essential, even for remote workers, he said.
“In theory, yes I can do my work anywhere, but it’s important to be in a place that you enjoy,” Henrich says. “You want to have some kind of connection. You may have digital roots, but you still have to root in somewhere.”
That was also the allure for musician and promoter Bob Ming Tan, who spent years touring the West Coast and has won accolades for his club promoting.
“For me, it was about getting on the road as much as I could,” he says. “There was always a new show, a new place to play, and I had to keep moving."
But when it came time to settle down, it seemed obvious to do so here, home to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Stagecoach, and other internationally known events.
“The music scene out here has been pretty amazing, actually. And more than that, the friendship and the connections are more like family,” says Tan, who now works for Conflux Gaming, a video gaming company that runs tournaments and events. “I could move to another place, but this one has everything I need.”
“In theory, yes I can do my work anywhere, but it’s important to be in a place that you enjoy.”
– Bob Ming Tan
For Annie Arnold, Palm Springs was the last place she intended to start a business, because “this was just a vacation spot for my family.”
Now, her family calls it home.
Arnold and her husband, Brad, both worked in the film industry in Los Angeles until 2010, when they decided to leave the city to raise their young daughter but remain within driving distance. They opted for Palm Springs because of the low cost of living (relative to other places surrounding L.A.) and because the freeway carpool lane would make for a quick-ish commute.
“I never felt the magic of nature until I lived here.”
– Annie Arnold
Once they moved, Arnold looked into other types of employment. They had a 10-month-old at home and Brad’s work schedule was unpredictable, so Arnold needed a job that offered flexibility, but she also wanted a career that could flourish without leaving Palm Springs. Creating her own business seemed like the best solution.
Since 1938, Arnold’s family had a wine store in Long Beach called Morry’s of Maples, so she knew a lot about the retail side of the wine business and was passionate about it. But she was also a new mom, exceedingly aware of what she was putting in her body and the environmental impact of everyday decisions.
“When I started looking into organic wine, it was just perfect for me,” Arnold says. “It fell right in line with everything I believed in, and here was this niche that was completely un-nurtured and underdeveloped.”
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At the time, there were some wine clubs that offered a minimal selection of organic wines, but Arnold wanted to offer customers a wider selection that could be purchased with ease. She built her business online, and Organic Wine Exchange was born. Arnold is a sales rep and a retailer of organic wine, with 95 percent of her customers located outside of the Coachella Valley, and she also leads online tastings with winemakers all over the world.
Arnold could pick up her business and run it from another locale, but the Coachella Valley has turned out to be an optimal home base.
“Never in my life did I think I’d live more than 15 minutes from the water, let alone in an actual desert. But when I discovered the beauty of this place, it was unlike anyplace I’d ever been,” she says. “There are streams and waterfalls in the desert, and so many hikes right in our backyard. Literally, our backyard faces the mountain. I never felt the magic of nature until I lived here.”