Time in nature is a key component of transformational travel. // © 2018 Jessica Sample
Feature image (above): Transformational travel is trending. // © 2018 Getty Images
“Old ways don’t open new doors.”
I whizzed past this sign, erected in front of a church, while traveling along a dusty road in San Marcos, Calif. It was almost too perfect: My destination was Golden Door, one of the country’s first and most storied wellness retreats, and I was looking for an omen of things to come.
Since the retreat opened in 1958, it has attracted throngs of women and a smattering of men, each attracted to “the Door” for unique reasons — among them personal transformation.
I, for one, was stuck in a physical and mental rut. I had abandoned my yoga practice and couldn’t remember the last time I poured my heart out — or purged nagging thoughts — into a journal. I was feeling on edge, set off by comments I’d once brushed off with a laugh, and lethargic, unable to muster the life force to tackle my to-do list. I was struggling to get my monkey mind in order, and without clarity, it was not only hard to meet goals, but to even set them at all. New Year’s Day came and went without so much as a seedling of a resolution in sight.
I needed to recharge, and I was hoping to instill some enduring good habits. So I turned to travel, which has, again and again, provided me with the tools needed to shake up my life.
Transformation Is Taking Off
Call my trip goals lofty — cheesy, even — but I’m not the only one hoping that her travels might also inspire a meaningful inward journey.
“Transformational travel” is quickly becoming the industry’s favorite buzzword — slowly ousting “experiential” and “authentic.”
Last year, based on new research, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) declared that the adventure travelers of today are most motivated by transformation.
And the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) named “a new era of transformative travel” as one of the top global wellness trends of 2018.
Meanwhile, media outlets such as Vogue and U.S. News & World Report have crowned “transformational” as one of travel’s top modifiers.
Leslie Wahlgren, a travel consultant for Kahala Travel, agrees. When I asked her about the year’s hottest trends, she barely paused.
“Clients don’t say ‘transformational travel,’ but that’s what it is,” she said. “It’s been super, super huge for me.”
So, What Exactly Is Transformational Travel?
The Transformational Travel Council (TTC), an industry group founded in 2016, is arguably spearheading the spread of the transformational travel trend. Through research, speaking engagements, consulting, media interviews and workshops, the organization is helping tour operators and travelers understand what this kind of travel consists of — and how to do it well.
TTC’s three key tenants for transformation travel are traveling with intention, openness and mindfulness; engaging in challenging physical and/or cultural experiences; and taking time for personal reflection and meaning-making.
ATTA’s study of U.S.-based Outside magazine readers has similar findings, stating that these new transformation seekers are looking for “life-changing experience,” “personal growth and challenge” and “gratitude and mindfulness.”
For the past few years, the Pure Life Experiences conference has given an award for transformational travel, which it defines as an “immersive, perspective-shifting itinerary that challenges and inspires the sophisticated traveler on a deeply personal level, creating emotion through the powerful medium of storytelling and transforming their life for the better.”
“Clients want to make an impact and feel like they’re not just seeing a destination, but becoming a part of it,” travel consultant Wahlgren said. “It’s a trip where you’re bringing back something other than the fact that you were in an amazing destination.”
The Evolution of Innovation
As the niche becomes popular, the industry is coming up with specialized products that echo key tenants of transformation, such as storytelling, deep immersion in nature and emotionally charged experiences.
Consider the short list for Pure’s 2017 Transformational Travel award: arctic glamping in a remote part of Manitoba, Canada, with Churchill Wild; Split Apple Retreat, a cutting-edge wellness haven located on the edge of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park; and the winner: Cascada Expediciones’ demanding Dientes Trek in a virtually unexplored and isolated part of Tierra del Fuego, Chile.
GWI’s 2018 Global Wellness Trends Report highlights innovative future travel experiences such as Six Senses Bhutan, where guests experience key components of Bhutan’s culture of happiness through stays at a circuit of five intimate lodges set around the country. GWI also highlights Iceland’s proposed Red Mountain Resort concept, where guests follow the saga of an Icelandic hero in a personal nature-filled quest for self-discovery.
Beth McGroarty, director of research for GWI, also points to extreme offerings such as Black Tomato’s “Survivor”-like Get Lost custom itineraries, which feature the motto “sometimes you need to get lost to find yourself,” as well as retreats centered around the use of mind-altering mushrooms. She says these experiences are poised to inspire change in participants, but agrees that there’s no one way to engineer a transformational travel experience. That’s personal.
“But these are all examples of how people are trying to reinvent travel so it impacts clients on a more emotional level than ever before,” McGroarty said. “When you think of ‘authenticity’ and ‘experiential travel,’ those were fabulous developments for travel. But, in some ways, they are still ‘sit-back,’ consumerist models. Transformational travel is different.”
The Promise of Wellness
Although it’s true that some travel categories limit immersion to viewing people from afar, or to eating something regional, hasn’t wellness travel always been about creating personal change?
Maybe. But, apparently, it’s time to step it up.
“Wellness travel is getting more competitive,” McGroarty said. “There are so many more great options. We need to go further. The old destination-spa model of going from a meditation class to the pool to another class is just not wrapping people up in a true story of transformation. Those in the wellness travel space need to figure this out, because transformation is the promise of wellness travel.”
According to GWI’s report, wellness destinations are leaning into storytelling and offering “a true circuit or ‘necklace’ of linked experiences, rather than the disconnected ‘beads’ of traditional programming, amenities and itineraries.”
“If you think that a hotel can give you just a spa or fitness room and then say ‘come for our wellness’ — that’s not about making a mindful journey,” said Kathy Van Ness, chief operating officer and general manager of Golden Door. “Once you’ve had your massage or facial and leave the hotel, the very next day, you will go back to what you did before.”
A Story of Change
My Golden Door narrative started a few weeks before arriving at the retreat, when a guest services employee interviewed me about what I wanted to get out of my visit, causing me to consider my intentions for my stay. With that intel, the staff created daily custom itineraries featuring personal training sessions, fitness and mindfulness classes, skincare and massage treatments and garden-picked meals.
There was literally nothing for me to plan — so I followed the storyline Golden Door created for me.
My personalized schedules helped me rekindle my yoga practice and my love of hiking as requested, but with new touches: Group hikes took place at 5:45 a.m. and pushed me to quicken my usual pace. And yoga — which I thought I had done to death — revived itself in one-on-one classes at the retreat’s wooded studio, where floor-to-ceiling windows look out to the leaves and branches of surrounding trees.
I tried boxing, archery and fencing for the first time and came out of each class elated. I forgot what it was like to try to learn something new — how it opens you up to possibilities and awakens long-dormant parts of yourself.
Consecutive days of de facto digital disconnection (bolstered by a busy schedule and cute bedside sleeping bags for mobile phones), challenging exercise, mind-body practices, healthful fare, cortisol-zapping spa treatments and uniquely warm social interaction with inspiring women may not alone be enough to conjure transformation; however, they can surely set the foundation for change if change is desired.
By my third day at Golden Door, I felt calm, strong and inspired, and I stopped balking at the idea of checking in with myself. As if on cue, that day I was given the option of attending an intention-setting Full Moon Circle.
After pranayama-breathing exercises at an altar crafted by Michael and Robin Mastro, a Vedic astrology-practicing husband-and-wife team who offer services such as advising you on where your home has energy blockages (note: no remodeling required), I finally conceived my 2018 resolutions with two days of January left to spare.
I might have been just a few hours from home, but embracing practices out of my comfort zone — such as energy healing and Vedic altar rituals — felt like an immersion into a new culture.
The next day, I woke up at 4 a.m. to watch the “super blue blood moon” and repeated my intentions to myself as I walked the retreat’s mountaintop labyrinth under the glow of the blushing moon.
Now, with the words so clearly etched into my brain, I repeated my mantra while floating in and out of consciousness during yoga nidra, after my next sunrise hike and when walking the bridge that connects the property from its gilded entrance to the outside world.
There, at the bend in the bridge — which Japanese tradition says thwarts evil spirits from entering the property — I repeated my intentions to myself one last time before opening the doors.
“I want to feel vitality.”
“I want to feel serenity.”
“I want to feel clarity.”
How to Create Transformational Trips
Below are best practices from Michael Bennett, co-founder of the Transformational Travel Council.
1. ASK WHY. “As someone who has direct interaction with clients, you should engage with them in a different way. It’s not just about where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you’re there. Talk to clients about why they’re going: What’s their motivation, inspiration and call to adventure? Think through that. I always find that the easiest and most powerful question is, ‘What do you want?’”
2. LATHER ON THE GOOD STUFF. “Consciously design the itineraries. In every trip, make sure there is physical activity, time in nature and cultural immersion. Schedule in downtime so clients can reflect, meditate and be in conversation with other travelers. That way they can process and make meaning from their experiences.”
3. FOLLOW UP, FOR REAL. “When clients get back from their trip, be in conversation with them, but not just about if their transfers showed up on time and how the hotels were. Ask them: ‘What surprised you? What actions will you take?’ This kind of follow-up will deepen the relationship and hopefully lead to repeat business and referrals — but it will also do so much more for your clients.”