Transformational experiences as luxury travel’s new mantra

Luxury travelers have a new reason for traveling
Today, inner journeys are as important as the external ones. Looking inward is
inherently linked to a modern interpretation of luxury, where the most valuable and rare things are deemed to be time, privacy, attention and the ability to disconnect. Modern luxury offerings revolve around these new scarcities, which also separate the new class of affluents from the rest. Forget about owning the infinite amount of new season GUCCIs: self-actualization is where the cutting-edge rich are at.

Therein lies the catch. Status symbols are by default tangible: if we can’t experience the social differentiation they create, it doesn’t exist. This makes transformational experiences as the ultimate status symbol tricky: they are internal, intangible and personal. They need to be socialized to be visible.

So far, this socialization has been unfolding on social media. Inspirational quotes, photos of feet on the beach, considered hashtags, relaxing playlists, meditation corners and images of carefully prepared quinoa dishes are all meant to make our transformational journey palpable.

This inner-outer conundrum demonstrates the emerging inverse relationship between consumption and wealth. Those who can afford to create physical, mental and spiritual space for their inner transformation are the new affluents. In contrast, less affluent individuals aim to acquire products that make them more socially visible and devote a higher share of their total spending to conspicuous consumption than the rich. Citing the
Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Customer Expenditure Survey, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, professor at the University of Southern California and author of “The Sum of Small Things,” notes a shift in today’s affluents spending towards education, personal trainers and transformational travel that she calls “inconspicuous consumption.” According to Currid-Halkett, between 1996 and 2014 the most affluent one percent fell further behind the national average of their spending of socially visible luxuries. In contrast, those with
the middle income were by 2014 spending 35 percent more than the average as the percentage of their annual spending. This change in spending among the affluents forces luxury travel and hospitality to reconsider their own articulation of value, and how they create, distribute and capture it.

Until recently, travel and hospitality companies were obsessing over the experience of the trip as the focal point in the guest’s customer-decision journey. The new luxury economy shifts this focus deeper in the journey, to the potentially infinite period after the guest re-emerges from their trip. Have a memorable travel experience is a table stakes; coming home as a different — more open, actualized and fulfilled — person is the new unique selling proposition of the hospitality companies.

Transformational travel is the answer
To help their guests advance to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, hospitality enterprises large and small are making a U-turn in their corporate strategies. In his well-known and widely used depiction of primacy of human needs, Maslow hypothesized once the most primal needs are met — like food, sleep and safety — humans strive to fulfill other, life-nonthreatening needs like social bonding, intimacy, self-esteem and recognition. At the top of Maslow’s pyramid is self-actualization or, reaching one’s fullest potential as a human being.

Today, self-actualization is a big business. Spiritual guides, meditation retreats, earthing, wellness supplements and life coaches are all meant to help us reach the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Reflecting this shift, Global Wellness Summit recently named transformative travel as the trend of 2018. Transformational Travel Council (TTC) is an organization launched to provide both travelers and travel services with tools to encourage personal and professional growth while on the road. In its transformational iteration, tourism is not about traveling far geographically. It’s about going deep inwards.

Michael Bennett, co-founder and Vice President of travel
products at Nomad Hill, calls this self-advancement process the “hero’s journey.” Divided into the departure, the initiation, and the return, the hero’s journey leads us into challenging ourselves, learning and acquiring wisdom and then sharing it with others. Each traveller has their own version of the hero’s journey. This creates a rich ground for luxury hospitality companies to thread on. Their job is to give travelers stories to tell by making their journeys as personal and as closely tailored to our inner growth path as possible.

The first step in this process is for travel brands to go beyond the basic question about the purpose of one’s trip (business or pleasure) and understand what their customers are trying to get from the trip on the social, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. Modern high-end travelers expect travel to change them in the positive way and to give them stories to tell for years to come. Some of them will want to connect with nature; others will want to reconnect with their inner selves. Yet others want to explore, belong,
grow, or be challenged. Today, successful travel bloggers do this well. They stitch together narratives that are dreamy, imaginative and emotional. They recognize that we are all storytellers, and also that travelers trust each other more than paid advertisements. Curated peer-to-peer travel experiences with a clear story arc foster a human, personal connection with a destination and each other.

Luxury travel and hospitality has every opportunity to emulate these hero narratives and encourage guests to create their own. Some of the ways to give travelers narrative ammunition is to create a deep and meaningful connection with the locale. Stories around local food, ingredients and dining customs root guests firmly in the cultural moment they are experiencing, as well as in the past and the future of the place and the people they are visiting. There is nothing more mind-opening than sharing a meal with someone with a story radically different than our own.

To this end, Singapore Tourism Board launched a campaign “Passion Made Possible.” Campaign revolves around curated menus that tell the story of Singapore’s history through the personal narratives of the locals who made them. Visceral and memorable, food offers the first-hand account of what it means to be Singaporean.

Transformational narratives like these are most likely to be found in the East. With its long history of spirituality and superior customer-first service, Asia is giving us a transformational tourism playbook. This is the home of ikigai — having a reason to jump out of bed every morning — and omotenashi, which depicts hospitality centred around care, rather than expectation.

Western hospitality should take notice. A holistic, spiritual growth-oriented approach deeply rooted in purpose, values and experiences of people who embody them seems to be a winning formula. Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is the basis of all Eastern learnings. “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting,” says Buddha. Going all the way when travelling means experiencing things that the locals experience, sharing perspectives with them, bonding through the local rituals and learning from people different than ourselves. It also means
actively expanding one’s worldview.

How brands can tap into transformational travel
If dining with Singaporeans or chanting in a local shrine are a step too far, there is earthing. A fast-growing movement has been wholeheartedly embraced by the mother of all personal transformations, the online destination GOOP, and it took the world of modern affluents by storm. Based on the belief that connecting to the Earth’s natural energy is key to our physical, mental and spiritual health, earthing has been credited with curing insomnia, depression, inflammation and arthritis. A quick Instagram check
reveals that there are more than 183 thousand posts hashtagged #earthing.

There are clearly many believers in vitamin G, where G stands for ground.
In the unlikely event that one can’t find a stretch of grass to earth on, a good old-fashioned walk can have a transformative effect. At least, that’s what Street Wisdom built its business around. Under their “Answers are Everywhere” slogan, this startup mixes psychology, cognitive science and mindfulness into “walking-based problem solving.” Go for a long, slow walk with one of Street Wisdom guides, who will mix walking with mindfulness exercises that will help you see the familiar neighborhood in a more attentive way, and you are due to find an answer to any troubling question that you
may have.

Luxury travel and hospitality industry has the further opportunity to empower people to make meaningful, lasting change. They have the platforms and the know-how to continue playing the role of a guide in their guests’ lives after the trip. Just like spiritual guides or life coaches, hospitality companies have opportunity to keep the transformational conversation going. They can offer a network of spiritual guides and advisors available for one-on-one hotel-sponsored sessions with guests who chose to continue their transformational journey at home. Chats, messages and facetime are all possible tools to facilitate this process.

Education is another way for luxury hospitality to support their guests’ quest for self-actualization. Curated compilations of written, audio and visual materials that build on the trip experience and summarize the ethos of the locale are an ownable and branded way for hotels to stay part of their guests post-trip lives. Another way are lectures, fireside chats and workshops.

If modern affluents require both the spiritual transformation and a wide audience to evidence it, then high-end hospitality’s role is to give them inspiration and ammunition to live their best lives. This can be in the form of sustainable lodging; locally harvested food narratives; local immersion; feeling connected with nature or ongoing spiritual guidance and education. Combine this self-actualization-designed offering with numerous opportunities to socially advance thanks to it, and you’ve got a winning combination. The first step for hospitality brands implementing it is to understand that, unlike external travel, our inner journeys never end.

This article was originally published at Beyond Media Magazine in November 2018

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.