What is an experience worth? Like the long-lasting memories that come from them, the experiences of travel are what make it priceless and unique.
Today’s traveller seeks experiences. More than the amenities and creature comforts, more than the attractions and canned entertainment, more than the must-sees and photos, the real-life experiences are what compel people to travel.
Here are reflections from the WHL Group about what the buzzword ‘experiential travel’ means, and our own favourite memories of it.
“To me the experiences that make travel so compelling are usually ones that sneak up on me. They’re the encounters that simply bring a smile to my face, affect me profoundly and enrich my life immeasurably. When I think about experiential travel, I think about volunteering to take a bunch of local kids in Nigeria on their first scout camp just outside Lagos; I think about going out with friends in Vienna to cut fresh Christmas trees in the country and the stop on the way home at a beautiful wine cellar to eat local delicacies and drink the local wine; I think about the night an American friend and I went to a little French restaurant for dinner in Geneva, Switzerland. Neither of us speaks French, so selecting what to eat was a challenge. The dish we picked, according to my poor French, was goose liver in chocolate sauce. Of course we both thought ‘that can’t be right.’ So we ordered it only to discover that it was indeed goose liver in chocolate sauce – and it was delicious!”
“Sometimes the simplest moments during your travels can provide the greatest memories and experiences.
Such was the case on a recent trip I took down to central Vietnam, where after stopping in a small village for lunch, we found ourselves special guests at a local wedding party. With the encouragement of a few hundred other guests (and a few beers), we were on stage with the bride and groom singing a traditional Vietnamese love song. I’ll be honest: we were not good, but we were all in agreement that it was the most memorable experience of our trip. Experiential travel does not have to cost anything. It’s just about engaging with the local people and truly experiencing their culture from the front line, even if you do end up the laughing stock of the village!”
~ Luke Ford, CEO, Gunyah
“Experiential travel is about valuing the experiences you actually have over what you’re told you should being doing by someone else. We’re all different, we all enjoy different things and our travel should reflect that. My experience of the Louvre, for example, was terrible – crowded, noisy, expensive – and that was something we’re told we should do as visitors to Paris. What I actually remember about that trip is drinking some decent red wine in a quiet bistro, because that was the experience I enjoyed. We should let our own experiential preferences guide us, not somebody else’s book.”
“Travelling is always a new experience, but when you feel the place instead of just look at it, you have captured experiential travel. There are so many things that can turn a simple trip into a deeper experience. Suddenly you turn onto the wrong street, you find a new place, meet a new local friend and you make deeper connections.
I was travelling with a few friends last January in Santa Marta, Colombia. We had only one day left when we met a local guy name Victor and it is incredible how our day changed. That is the day that we always remember. You understand the difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
“For me, experiential travel means blending in and really feeling (experiencing) a place – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the people, their way of life, their language and culture – not as a tourist with a digital camera, but by taking the time to explore and engage. Even if at first it feels uncomfortable, you’ll come away with an experience of a lifetime, not just some pretty pictures.”
~ Rob Shortland, CEO, whl.travel
“Experiential travel to me is delving into the mundane, daily life of a place. Last year I spent three days in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It rained – downpoured – the entire time. And all the museums were closed due to a public holiday. So I rode the public transportation system, sat in cafes and wandered (under an umbrella) through the local parks. I feel that I gained more insight into modern-day Sarajevo by experiencing the patterns of daily life than I would have if I’d taken the typical tourist route.”
“Experiential travel is about using all your senses when you travel and enhancing your travel with rich and unexpected experiences that will become your stories and memories. When I was in Myanmar a couple of months ago, we were riding on the back of a truck to visit a pagoda and happened to drive through an Aung San Suu Kyi rally. A big group of local villagers had gathered and was playing music and chanting to support her. We got off the truck and joined them, shaking hands, learning their songs and waving their flags. This brief encounter was more memorable than any attraction or site we visited and the best memory and story from the entire trip.”
~ Ashley Hiemenz, Product Manager, Gunyah
“Travel is all about experiences. Even when you return with tangible souvenirs, it’s the memories that those souvenirs stir inside you that are the true experiences that inspire travel. When I was in Hong Kong last year, a friend invited me out on a junk (a traditional Hong Kong wooden boat) for an afternoon at sea, just like the locals do. The company was a mix of locals and expats, and it was one of the most enjoyable travel experiences I’ve had. Everyone on the boat was from somewhere different, and the food and drink we had was just as diverse. I still crave those Filipino spring rolls and the Danish dream cake, two foods I’d never tried before. With such an eclectic crowd, you can bet the conversations we had were lively and fascinating. This is what travel is really about – experiences that resonate long after they’ve happened.”
“Instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching the game, play the game. That’s experiential travel.”
“Do we experience swimming by looking at a lake? Do we experience a spicy meal by gazing curiously at the chilli on a plate? Do we experience a culture by peering furtively at it through the curtains of a hotel room or photographing a fleeting moment from a racing tourist bus? The answers are obviously no. To experience something you have to engage – leap into that frozen lake, chomp with gusto into that piquant platter, step out of the shelter of a hotel room or out from behind the windshield of a bus. My favourite way to travel – even over long distances – is by bike. Although there are times when I enjoy the exhilaration of eye-tearing speed, usually I’m moving at a human pace, open to (and at the mercy of) the elements and only able to heft the bare essentials, which means I’m always obliged to reach out to those around me. More importantly, I am not invisible to others, not a meaningless silhouette in a window. As curious as I am about the place I am visiting, I am also an object of curiosity and easily snared. And the rewards of being accessible are legion: insider hints, invitations to local happenings, suggestions about local food and much more. They’re generous offers of ways to connect with a place. To experience it, not just skim across its surface. That, to me, is what travel is about: wading in until you find you’re feet are no longer touching bottom.”
“Experiential travel is about going beyond the beaten tourist tracks and getting into the spirit of a local culture. It’s about visiting sites not found in most guidebooks, eating at a restaurant favoured by residents and staying at a local guesthouse instead of choosing big chain hotels. For me, experiential travel means an amazing trip that gives something back to the places I visit. My experiential travel tale: My friends and I booked a random jeep tour from a local travel agent in Kemer, Turkey. We had such a great time and at the end of the day we became really good friends. The next day we were taken into the mountains for a birthday party for my friend. We had our party in that the pictured ‘alpine house’ and enjoyed an amazing lunch. The goat was our guest.”
“Experiential travel is not just about visiting a place, it’s about having a taste of what it’s like for people who live there. More than just the sights and sounds, it’s about learning other lifestyles, daily rituals and values. What do they buy from the grocery store? What do people do for work? How do they unwind afterward or spend their weekends? What God do they believe in? What makes them happy? I will see what I can, listen to the sounds, taste the food, smell the aromas and feel the atmosphere, but on top of everything, I want to understand the hows and whys of what they consider to be ‘everyday life.’”
“Of all the travel memories I have, the ones that are the most vivid are from when I hopped off the sidelines and got involved. Last year I was travelling in Southeast Asia and got to try my hand at a few local crafts. The results weren’t particularly good. In some parts, women weave silk on traditional handlooms. The skill is passed on from mother to daughter and the ability to weave is considered a sign of maturity and eligibility for marriage. Having had a go at it, I can say that things aren’t looking good! It’s probably time to warn my mother.”
~ Jennifer Aston, Director, whl.travel Africa regional office
“Travel should be about more than the sights you see and the pictures you happen to take! To me, being part of the culture and places you visit is worth a lot more than a few sights and snapshots. Forget about what you’ve seen and instead focus on what you’ve experienced.
As travellers, what will we remember when we’re 90 years old?”
“Experiential travel makes me think of a scene from one of my favourite movies, Amélie. Walking through a street market, Amélie plunges her hand into a bag of beans, just because she likes to see how it feels. To me, that is the idea of experiential travel – plunging in for a full sensory experience to find out how a place really feels.”
“For my 40th birthday, my wife and I took a small private-boat trip around the island of Phuket in Thailand. On the actual eve of my birthday, we tied up to a wooden raft with a small hut built atop it where a Thai couple and their three kids lived and raised fish. That night, our host pulled a lobster from one of the nets suspended in the water by a series of wood-plank walkways. He then cooked it for us over a small clay pot. As the full moon rose overhead and the blissful silence enveloped us, I was given a birthday gift I’ll never forget: that of a true experiential travel moment. As I looked back on my 40 years, I reflected on how differently the years pass for people in other cultures and circumstances different than mine.”
~ Michael Franco, CEO, Lime&Tonic
“To me, experiential travel is all about living through an authentic adventure that makes you feel alive. It’s about letting go of promises, stepping out of your comfort zone and opening up to the mysterious unknown. Do you mostly travel by train? Try hitch-hiking! Do you always stay in the same hotel? Try Couch Surfing! Do you usually follow guidebooks? Ask locals where to go! Climb a mountain, ride a bike, taste new food or simply wander around… Savour every moment, take what each place has to offer and above all, have fun doing it.”
~ Jakub Riziky, Intern, The Travel Word
“I think the main question I ask myself around travel is not ‘What did I see at XYZ destination?’, but rather ‘How did it make me feel?’ It’s the priceless moments that are all about a specific place and point in time, both for myself and the destination. One of my favourite quotes is ‘No man ever steps foot in the same river twice. For it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.’ This is how I feel about travel – my own experiences can never be repeated, and that, to me, is what experiential travel is all about. Travel that’s personal and intimate and challenging and life-affirming.”
~ Adrian Cordiner, CEO, Green Path Transfers