The Plus Factor: Welcome to the Era of Transformative Travel

Photo: Stocksy/Lumina

This week on The Plus Factor, we're talking about redefining travel. No longer are wanderers content to simply get that money shot, devour something yummy, and drink cocktail after cocktail. Now, they're looking for immersive experiences that will transform more than just their Instagram feeds. 

I've traveled extensively, and yet some trips stick with me more than others. Standouts include Rio, when I fell in love with a local; Bali (where I stayed for months); and a recent five-day retreat spent in total silence. Why these experiences lingered in my mind and spirit more than trips to destinations equally as impressive has to do with how they challenged and changed me... forever.

I'm not alone in seeking out these types of "vacations." Intrepid Travel, which curates hyper-local, adventure-forward trips in some of the most far-flung places in the world, says their business has grown by more than 66 percent in the past two years. Personal transformation, says Leigh Barnes, the company's regional director for North America, is at the core of their business.

"Visiting a lesser-known country like Belarus, or cooking a traditional falafel with a family in Jordan...these are the life-changing experiences and shareable memories that North Americans are wanting to include on their vacations," he says.

"In an age of so-called connectivity, we have never been more disconnected from humanity, and often, from ourselves." —Elsewhere founder Drea Sobieski

Travelers from all walks of life are now looking for this evolution in what was the "experiential travel" trend. "Before, [it] was more about experiencing something local than it was about coming away from a trip changed," explains Deanna Ting, senior hospitality manager at travel-centric trendspotting platform Skift. Now, as a report commissioned by Skift suggests, "We're seeking our monk, and travel has become our preferred road to the monastery."

Ting explains that after the economy crashed in 2008, people began to prioritize the accumulation of experiences over possessions, and this bolstered the travel industry. "In an age of so-called connectivity, we have never been more disconnected from humanity, and often, from ourselves," says Drea Sobieski, founder of travel magazine Elsewhere, noting that travel is now seen as a way to take a time out from "real life" and social media. (Analog travel was, in fact, one of Well+Good's 2018 Wellness Trends.)

But this new trend isn't merely "experiential" travel. In this new era, the most in-the-know travelers want nothing less than to come home profoundly changed.

"The more popular this concept of being well and feeling well has become, the more it's also led into this concept of feeling like you've been transformed after you've traveled somewhere," says Ting. More specifically, Sobieski says: "We want to become the best versions of ourselves, and travel can allow us to do this."

This hunger for change is transforming the travel industry itself, with more offerings for adventurous, health-minded globetrotters than ever before—here's what you need to know.


What is transformational travel?
Photo: Stocksy/Duet Postscriptum

Fitness is definitely on the menu

Earlier this year, a Well+Good survey showed 40 percent of respondents would rather go on a fitness retreat than spend time at a five-star resort. Why? Simple: Transformation.

Instead of working out in advance of a vacation and then over-indulging on margaritas and nachos while lazing on the beach, travelers are now hoping to work their love of mind-and-body-altering fitness into their vacations. "Travelers are increasingly looking to get active while abroad," says Barnes.

Fit&Fly Girl co-founder Rebecca Garland, whose trips operate on the premise that there's a demand for balanced itineraries, says that the effects of including fitness in travel are truly life-changing. "My clients have learned new ways to care for themselves—whether that's incorporating fitness back into their everyday life, getting back on track with healthy eating, or just remembering to start taking time for themselves again," she says.

What is transformational travel?
Photo: Stocksy/Leander Nardin

Hotels and resorts launch immersive—and educational—programming

Recently, I visited the One & Only Palmilla, a five-star resort in Cabo, and was surprised to find an experience with a local shaman on the spa menu. On the same trip, I participated in a program called "Catch, Cook, Cocktail." I went on a fishing expedition, learned how to cook my catch with the hotel chef, and then participated in a mixology course.

These types of hotel and resort offerings, says Ting, are becoming increasingly common. "Many hotels, especially on the higher end, are trying to offer a transformative experience for their guests through programming," she explains. Much of this programming, she says, is also health-centric, but in a different way than it has been in the past. "It's no longer about encouraging people to eat well or encouraging them to work out, it's really more about overall holistic wellness."

Speaking of that "Catch, Cook, Cocktail" program, learning new skills is a major pillar in the transformational travel trend—gone are consecutive days of beach lounging. Instead there are growth opportunities, says Garland. "[Our trips] often include learning, such as going to someone's home in Buenos Aires and learning to make empanadas in their kitchen or going to the perfume capital of the world and learning to make your own perfume at a parfumerie," she says.

What is transformational travel?
Photo: Stocksy/HEX

Community counts

Another recurring theme has to do with that disconnect Sobieski described. "We are becoming more and more isolated from each other—whether that's due to social media, smartphones, or working from home," explains Garland, whose company runs group trips. "Travel not only provides the opportunity to connect with your travel partners but also to connect to people in various cultures around the world."

"Travel provides the opportunity to connect with your travel partners but also to connect to people in various cultures around the world."

Indeed, Jennifer Haddow, owner of Wild Women Expeditions, says some of her clients specifically sign up for the sisterhood. "A lot of women come to us because they feel a disconnect with communities of other women they had when they were younger," she says. For The Love of Travel founder Tara Cappel agrees. "Most people are really hesitant about traveling with strangers but it turns out to be their favorite part," she says.

What is transformational travel?
Photo: Stocksy/Jonathan Caramanus

Destination retreats reign

Community, fitness, and learning coalesce well into one of today's buzziest categories in travel: the destination retreat. (In fact, Well+Good has jumped on this trend, hosting several super-curated getaways a year that are all about fitness and learning—and heavy on the sisterhood, of course!) "The rise of retreats that are both highly specialized and specific, as well as geared toward personal fulfillment and achieving wellness, play a big role in the transformative travel trend," says Ting.

Such retreats combine a number of varied experiences, all of which are specifically geared towards growth. Cait Fraiser, co-founder of Wanderwell says her company’s focus for retreats is on five pillars: culture, movement, meditation, self-care, and discovery. “We believe that balancing these five components into any experience allows for transformation,” she says.

This collection of experiences, says Tal Rabinowitz—founder of The DEN, which runs both silent and non-silent meditation retreats—is made more efficient when it takes place on the road rather than in your hometown. "Experiencing a new culture, meeting new people, and trying new things opens you up in a way that you don’t do every day," she explains. Garland agrees: “Getting out of our comfort zone is the fastest way to experience significant personal growth.”

Since retreats are by nature group activities, person-to-person bonding, and the growth which comes with it, are also factors here. “It’s amazing to experience these life-changing adventures as part of a group with like-minded people,” says Well+Good Council member Kelsey Patel, who often leads retreats. “Everyone comes together knowing they're there for their own reasons, but as a little family having these first-time experiences together—it’s incredibly special.”

Want to get *all the transformation* on your next trip? Go it alone. Plus, if it's authentic experiences you're after, try these tips for traveling like a local

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