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Transformational Travel: From Abstract to Actionable

History records that Caesar instituted January 1st as the first day of the year partly to honor the month’s namesake: Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. And so, we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors each January 1, hoping to make the next year better than the rest.

Top of mind for everyone this time of year, is the question: who do I want to become?

I want to become a healthy person, so I will take 10k steps every day.

I want to become a thoughtful & well-informed person, so I will read a new book every week.

I want to become a creative person, so I will sign up for an art workshop.

Unfortunately, despite these reasonable goals, most people abandon their resolutions a few weeks in. Why? There are hundreds of books out there on creating new habits, all with brilliant suggestions like habit stacking and other habit hacks. But changing habits starts with changing our self-concept and our internal narrative.

Who Am I? Who do I want to become?

Self-concept is how you perceive yourself. It’s the beliefs you hold about what you stand for, what you’re capable of, your values, abilities, virtues. It drives your behavior, forming with every experience and interaction you have. It is the story you tell yourself about your life – who you are, who you are not, and who you aspire to be.

It is uncomfortable for one to deviate from their perceived self-concept. For example, you may want to become a creative person, but you have 30+ years of “proof” that you’re not creative. Your art teachers favored other students’ work over your own. Your parents never celebrated creative expression and instead, encouraged you to pursue more athletic hobbies. You went to school for business which prized logic over creative thinking.

Our memories are constantly shaping us and our behaviors. So, when we see other people doing something and think “wow, that would be cool if I could do that!” our inner Negative Nancy pipes up with all the reasons that we couldn’t possibly do that based on past experience and our perception of our capabilities. Whether or not our recollection of past events is even true or not (after all, memories are subjective), they still have a powerful hold on us.

How do your guests view themselves? Clumsy vs. adept, weak vs. strong, dumb vs. smart, adventurous vs. cautious, curious vs. apathetic… these labels people give themselves have a strong influence on their ability to create new habits and make changes in their life. A lack of self-belief, trust, and resiliency have the power to hold people back from the change they desire.

Neuroplasticity, Novelty, and Growth

The icing on the cake? As we get older, our ability to change behaviors becomes more difficult. Our neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to change) peaks in our mid-20s. But we are not hopeless! Change is possible at any age, and modern science has shown that changing your behavior and thought patterns can rewire the neurological pathways of your brain to literally change how you think, feel, and view yourself.

But it requires a few often-overlooked key factors: three of the major components required for neuroplastic change are novelty, challenge, and attention.

Our normal, everyday environments make it easy to fall into undesirable patterns and ways of being. But something magical happens when you enter a different destination! A change of scenery wakes up your brain and takes it off autopilot, requiring you to pay attention to your surroundings.

Our surroundings and exposure to different cultures effects our feelings, beliefs, behaviors, and therefore sense of identity and personality. The questions, “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” are therefore intimately connected. Conclusion? Novel, challenging experiences in new environments are the key to unlocking our potential.

Designing for Transformational Moments

So why is it that some people travel to new places and try new things, but don’t change? Three other components required for neuroplastic change are intention, repetition, and time. Your experience can be the spark to ignite change, but if the traveler attaches little meaning or importance to it, and/or they view it as a one-time occurrence, change will be hard to come by.

On top of this, most of the time you will have very little influence on what happens after people leave your experience or property.

So, what CAN you focus on?

Let’s first start by addressing an important distinction: small t transformation and capital T Transformation. This concept was first brought to my attention by Nasya Kamrat (fellow World Experience Organization member). Nasya shares:

We always think of transformation as these major, massive moments, but actually it can be small or incremental. This changes what designing for it means – it could mean allowing for a change of perception that leads to a big transformation, but through incremental moments. Memorable experiences are connected to emotion; meaningful experiences are connected to discovery about yourself and the world around you; and transformative experiences are about change. For “small-t” transformation this can mean a narrative change that can happen in the moment; but for “big-t” Transformation this means a change in identity, which is most likely to take place over time.

You can start designing for transformation by focusing on those small-t moments: helping guests shift their perspective and change their personal narrative. Create an experience that acts as an empowering pattern interrupter. A new environment often introduces new choices, each decision an opportunity to reinforce our self-identity, or change it.

Put people into situations that invite them to operate in a way that they desire to be. Help them see that their limiting self-beliefs about themselves are not written in stone. Immerse them into an experience that helps them start to change their narrative from:

While a completely new narrative would be impossible to develop in just a few hours or even a few days, a novel experience can be a powerful catalyst depending on where someone is at in their journey. It can often have a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ effect for people who are ready to make changes in their life. Others may need to rack up a few more tallies/proof in their empowering narrative before they are able to alter their self-concept and make necessary changes.

But we would argue that the initial ‘wake up’ is the most important. That’s where the real story begins. When we do something or act a certain way during our travels that’s outside of our norm, we are showing ourselves that we are capable. Essentially, we become our own role models! “If I did it once, I can do it again.” It is not your job to convince people what they want, it’s your job to show them what is possible for them.

The Rule of Intensity & The Ideal Self

Let’s return to the example we gave above – the person who believes they are not creative but wants to be. Perhaps one creative workshop isn’t enough to help someone change their beliefs about their creative capabilities. But could a week-long immersive creative retreat help them shift their perception of themselves? We would wager yes.

Because an important principle of neuroplasticity: intensity matters. Research has shown us that the more intensive a program, the more likely a person is to achieve results and the more likely these changes are to be maintained over time. This is why immersive multi-day experiences are incredibly valuable.

You might be thinking now, “hold on – someone who views themselves as a completely unimaginative person with not one creative bone in their body would never book a week-long creative retreat. That goes against their self-concept!”

Yes, that’s partially true. But if you recall, the self-concept is not just who you think you are, but also your ‘ideal’ self: who you aspire to be. The desire to book the retreat is there, but more often than not, fear of failure or judgement stops people from hitting the ‘book now’ button. I believe it was Suzy Kassem who said, “doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” So, if someone can quiet the inner Negative Nancy long enough, they may be able to make a decision that alters the course of their life forever.

To Sum Up (OR TLDR)

We can pick up new behaviors and habits that enrich our lives, but it requires first changing our beliefs about what is possible for us. How do we instill confidence and self-belief? We have to change our internal narrative. The limiting beliefs that hold us back must be broken down, while empowering beliefs about ourselves are built up. This can (and does) happen inside of an enriching and empowering experience.

Making this narrative shift becomes easier when we are not burdened with our mundane daily stressors and constant identity reminders. When we travel, we switch off from our typical autopilot ways (attention), engage in new experiences with a different culture (novelty), and can often face scenarios that test us (challenge) in meaningful ways (intention). Attention, novelty, challenge, and intention are many of the key components required for neuroplastic change.

Travel and hospitality have forever been about creating ‘comfortable’ moments for guests. But as we have learned earlier, challenge is crucial for neuroplastic growth. If we make an experience too easy for people, or we make it solely about entertaining, relaxing, or having fun, there is little growth in that. So, are you willing to buck tradition in order to help your guests flourish?

If you want to embrace the transformational travel movement, if you want to have a greater impact in your guests’ lives, start by helping guests see themselves in a different light. If every experience shapes who we are, how is your experience shaping people? What experience can you create that tips the scales closer to their ideal self?

If this is something you are intrigued by and would like to explore how The Storied Experience can help you create a transformational experience, let's chat.


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