Go beyond experiential travel to transformational travel with a lasting impact.
In theory, we’ve always known that travel has the power to transform. On a true journey, the sights, personal interactions and chance to experience local culture can all come together to provide powerful experiences that can be life-changing.
The move towards experiential travel over the past several years has uncovered the tip of this iceberg, putting the focus front and center on experiences that are authentic and immersive. But today’s travelers are seeking to go beyond immersion to travel of a different sort—travel that transforms through life-changing experiences and meaningful connections.
“Transformational travel is not new,” says Michael Bennett, Ed. D. “It’s getting travel back to its roots, what we were supposed to be doing all along, such as experiencing things, sharing perspectives and meeting people.”
Bennett sees transformational travel as “a movement, not a trend.” And to that end, he was one of the founders in 2016 of the Transformational Travel Council, formed “to provide resources, education, inspiration, and consulting to both travelers and the travel trade in the hopes of creating more immersive, meaningful and intentional travel experiences.”
Bennett adds that the key is for travel to have a positive personal impact on travelers that continues past the trip. “They come home and use travel as a tool for growth and learning,” he says. “If travel shifts our perspectives of the world, of our self and others, then we will shift our behavior. Ideally those behavioral shifts are positive shifts. When you have positive behavioral changes, they trickle down to those around you, including family, friends and the community.”
Travel research backs up the idea that travelers are seeking something more when they travel. Some of the Top Travel Motivations found in Virtuoso’s 2018 Luxe Report include exploring new destinations, seeking authentic experiences and personal enrichment. And the Global Wellness Summit’s 2018 Global Wellness Trends Report names “A New Era of Transformative Wellness Travel” as a trend. “Travel experts now argue that ‘transformational travel’ is the evolutionary wave, which doesn’t discard the focus on authentic experiences, but takes it to a deeper emotional level,” says the report.
Transformative Travel Products
Travel destinations, hotels, tour operators and other travel suppliers have all taken note of this enhanced interest, offering experiences to travelers that provide an ongoing impact, one that allows them to return from their trips in some way physically or spiritually changed.
“Transformational travel stays with you beyond the trip itself and remains imbedded in the core of your being once you return,” says Dianna Upton, product manager, Asia, for Travel Beyond in Wayzata, Minnesota. “You return from your travel experience a changed person and it may alter your outlook not only on oneself but on the world around you. Its power is that it may also inspire you to in turn change the way in which you interact with others and with the environment.”
For example, Upton is seeing hotels “beginning to offer their own ‘local experts,’ who can take clients to insider events, hidden neighborhoods, artists’ home galleries, etc.,” she says. Within destinations, she notes that tour operators and tourist boards are adding a number of cultural experiences designed to connect travelers with residents who can share powerful experiences, such as “dining with a local family, engaging with university students around the world about current events and how they view our home country, visiting countries with past turmoil to spend time with those who have survived and overcome incredible odds to hear their stories of hope and change.”
Singapore is one destination that has made transformational travel a large part of its brand marketing with its “Passion Made Possible” campaign. (See more details in the sidebar.)
“What came out in our research is that people are looking to connect with something deeper than themselves,” says Kershing Goh, Regional Director, Americas, of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). “They want passions and to align themselves to a value system.”
The STB took this to heart to create their new program, says Goh. “As a destination, it means we are providing much deeper connecting experiences to evoke such transformation, be it small or big, in travelers as our primary goal,” she adds.
Meeting with locals in personal settings is one way travelers can make an intimate and profound connection with people in the destination they’re visiting. In Singapore, for example, Tahnya Butterfield, co-founder & chief experience designer at NOSHtrekker, says the company “offers travelers the opportunity to dine in the home of a local Singaporean who has a place in the country’s past, present and future.”
But the experience goes beyond simply sharing a meal. “Our hosts share their stories through curated menus that reflect a certain time and place in their lives, and therefore, in Singapore’s history,” says Butterfield. “As a result, a visitor will hear a first-hand account of what it means to be Singaporean and experience it with all his/her senses. This makes history and culture tangible and memorable.”
For example, guests can dine at the home of the daughter of Singapore’s first Fire Chief—and hear first-hand stories of the times before Singapore’s Independence and what it was like to live in the Central Fire Station. “The food served is true to their ethnic roots and the anecdotes shared over the table are a mix of family recollections and historical facts,” says Butterfield.
“We want guests to leave a NOSHtrekker experience feeling like they have learned something new and experienced a new dimension of culture/heritage—something not taught to them in history books or travel guides.”
Positioning Transformational Travel
Transformational travel is a product that is right for a range of clients, says Goh. “Generally, transformational travel is a trend for all demographics,” she says. “Singapore welcomes a broad spectrum and range of all travelers who are looking for that kind of connection. It’s the role of the destination, travel agents and suppliers to ask ‘How do we allow for that connection to happen, that personal transformation to happen and how do we look to package products beyond the top 10 things to do in Singapore?’ Travel agents need to go much deeper and provide the amazing story behind attractions like Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay and how it came to be.”
Dan Ilves, senior vice president, leisure sales & marketing for the TravelStore in Los Angeles, says that when planning transformational travel, agents need to explain to clients that “often doing less and getting more out of it is the best advice they can offer.”
To that end, transformational travel can mean creating an itinerary that slows the pace and allows time in a destination for true immersion. Ilves explains: “Typical travelers want to cram as much into a trip as they can, for economic reasons and the reality of time constraints. If immersive experiences are a prelude to having a transformational experience, then it can be rather hard to do that if you only spend one or two nights in a place, or you don’t have the time to process the immersive experience.”
Upton stresses that “the client’s motivation/goals for the trip” are “critical” when planning transformational travel. “Asking questions and listening is of the utmost importance,” says Upton. “Many clients want to visit a destination, see the highlights and that is it. Others want to travel off the beaten path so that they are away from other tourists, but engaging with the local community in a meaningful way is not so important and they just want authentic experiences that are beyond the usual.”
Those really looking for transformational travel take it a step further. “They want meaningful interaction and engagement with local people,” says Upton. “They want to come away changed forever, whether that means volunteering, taking part in a special religious festival, hiking to the top of a mountain, volcano or ancient temple, or just spending a day with a local family going to the market, cooking lunch, sharing stories and laughs—that is up to the travel professional to work with the client and create the experience.”
Upton also adds that it is important to “never be afraid to ask and push the envelope” with suppliers. “More and more travel providers are willing to work with us and be creative,” she says. “Don’t just accept the first proposal that someone gives you if you don’t think it goes far enough into being truly the immersive experience the client is looking for. If it feels ‘cookie cutter’ then shop around until you feel that someone is really working with you to tailor make the trip to exactly what your clients want.”