If you haven’t heard the term experience-based travel before, you’re not alone. But you should know that this is where the travel industry is going next.

Modern travellers have become tired of the formulaic experiences and excursions they’ve had with traditional holiday companies — and they’re craving something more.

They want more immersive experiences that go further and deeper, telling the real stories behind their destinations and the people who live there. And to have more profound and authentic adventures than they could ever find in any guidebook.

Those who’ve already had such experiences admit they’ll never go back to booking off-the-shelf holiday packages again.

What Is Experience-Based Travel?

Experience-based travel, also known as experiential travel, is a shift towards more mindful travel. At its core, it’s about being fully present and fully engaged. It’s about mixing with local people, so you can experience their country as they do and immersing yourself in the environment and culture for a richer, more genuine experience. Equally, it’s travelling more consciously, in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the communities you visit.

How Big Is the Experiential Travel Market?

The market is growing with the shift away from the over touristed destinations and trips. With the global pandemic bringing into focus what it means to travel, holidaymakers will need to ask themselves the question; what do they really want from a trip abroad? More people are seeking meaningful experiences over top-ten bucket list trips. The appetite for experiential travel will only increase as people seek to connect with each other once again with the lifting of restrictions.

Who’s leading the trend?

Millennials are leading the way with their desire for more meaningful experiences. In a pre-pandemic study focused on holiday trends for this generation, 60% indicated that having an authentic cultural experience was essential for future trips and over 78% expect an educational adventure.  As the world begins to reopen, millennials with this mindset will be the vanguard, travelling to reconnect with the world once again. Having had to settle for Instagram and Facebook inspiration during lockdown to travel vicariously whilst at home, the lifting of restrictions will undoubtedly see experiential travel at the forefront of their minds. It’s not enough for them to just sit around a pool or relax on a beach. The thirst for learning and experience will be the driver for future holidays post-covid.

Why Is There A Shift Towards Experiential Travel?

You already know the drill with traditional travel. You travel to a major city or tourist resort, you book your excursions and you spend that time being ferried around on packed tour buses to some of the busiest tourist spots.

But the hotels and operators that offer these experiences are growing out of touch with what modern travellers really want from their trip.

Because when you travel like this, you see your destination as a tourist — an outsider. And you end up with the same holiday photographs as everyone else, having been to the same old, tried and trusted places.

Instagram, Netflix and YouTube have shown the modern traveller something different — and it’s made them hungry for it.

Experiential travel allows you to get inside a country, meet its people and feel its beating heart. And it gives you the opportunity to make some of your greatest memories — ones you’ll never find in a guide book.

The more people who see this alternative form of travel, on their streaming services and social media platforms, the more people want to experience it for themselves.

But that’s not the only reason for the shift.

With climate change high on our agenda, tourism has been highlighted as a major cause of ecosystem destruction in certain areas. Countries like The Philippines and Thailand have had to take drastic action by closing hotspots that have started to be impacted by the effects of mass tourism.

In 2018, the island of Boracay was closed by the government for 6 months after it was discovered hotels had been pumping sewage waste directly into the sea. Maya Bay, a popular spot on the tourist trail in Thailand has been closed indefinitely to let the marine life recover after years of destruction by boats overcrowding the small inlet.

Travellers are becoming more aware of these issues. They’ve called for the industry to be more responsible and to look for ways to protect the natural environment. And they’re avoiding the kinds of destinations where people, wildlife and natural environment are being exploited.

Traditional Travel vs Experience-based Travel

Quantity Over Quality

Traditional travel agencies work on numbers. Their aim is to book as many trips as possible and they don’t give too much thought to the experience you’ll have.

They’ll normally give you options based on your budget, the kind of destination you’d like to visit and how long you want to be away for.

Experiential travel companies do things differently.

They’re interested in what you want your experience to be and the kind of culture you want to immerse yourself in.   For example, a client was looking for an immersive getaway from Hong Kong over Christmas last year. Knowing he had travelled extensively around Asia, finding somewhere different,  exciting and adventurous was a priority.

Girl surfing in Siargao, the Philippines

The Philippines seemed like the perfect fit, with the right blend of relaxation and excitement. From surfing with The Philippines’ women’s champion to joining an intimate group boat trip around remote islands, followed by a 3-day yoga retreat immersion to reconnect with himself.

Rather than plan out every day in detail and organise generic trips, like many travel agencies would do, this traveller got what he wanted and needed from this journey. By giving him custom-made road trip itineraries, he was able to explore the islands by motorbike, find local spots to have lunch and discover beaches that barely have any tourists.

Unethical vs Responsible Tourism

Traditional travel agencies recommend tried and tested tourist spots, where there are activities tourists typically like to do.

Take elephant riding, for example. Elephants are wild animals and don’t naturally comply with being ridden. They are subjected to unspeakable cruelty in order to break their spirit and make them submissive and obedient.

Many tourists would be horrified if they knew the truth. But, chances are, they wouldn’t be able to rely on their traditional travel agency to tell them. Because it’s often more advantageous for those agencies to turn a blind eye.

Experience-based travel companies will help you learn about your destination of choice. You can make ethical and responsible decisions about the activities and experiences you choose to partake in — especially where those activities might be exploiting the people, animals or the environment.

If you want experiences with elephants, they’ll be able to recommend ethical alternatives.

If ethical travel is important to you, the advice is to look for travel companies that have environmental and social responsibility entrenched in their values. They’ll be able to advise you on the best tours, food and wildlife encounters. And they can recommend other operators that aren’t promoting or engaging in harmful practices.

Feeling-based over destination-based

With traditional travel agencies, it’s all about the destination. They’ll ask you for a list of places you want to go. Then they’ll match one of those places with a holiday package that suits your budget and the kinds of things you want to do.

It’s basically a box-ticking exercise that delivers a final result at the end. And, when you stop to think about it, doesn’t it seem like a mindless way to travel?

Experiential travel companies will ask you different kinds of questions. Their questions will be designed to find out how you want to feel during your trip, such as would you like to be invigorated? Are you looking to connect to the place you’re going to? Would you like to be taken out of your comfort zone? Are you looking for a deep sense of relaxation?

When an experience-based travel company can understand how you want to feel, they can recommend the perfect destination. Somewhere that will give you a rich and wonderful experience, as opposed to somewhere you think you might like because the pictures in the brochure looked nice.

Take vs Give Back

On an average holiday, you’ll travel to a destination where you’ll sunbathe, eat, sleep, sightsee and buy a few trinkets. Then, after one or two weeks, you’ll head home.

This has always been the norm. But the local communities rarely benefit from this kind of tourism or from the money you spend. There is a term in the travel industry called ‘tourism leakage’. This is when large multinational chains, cruise ships and tour operators don’t funnel funds back into the local community.  The money effectively leaks out of the system. A 2017 study found that 4 and 5-star hotels in Bali, Indonesia experienced a 55.31% leakage. This means that when you spend $202 for a night at the Fairmont Sanur Beach hotel, $111.73 gets siphoned off to the various international suppliers and franchisors. Some regions in India have nearly 90% leakage.  So, local communities actually have less after a tourist leaves than before they arrived.

What if you could give back to the places you visit in a more helpful and meaningful way?Elephant in nature park, Thailand

Experience-based travel can immerse you in activities and experiences that benefit the local area. For example, you could help locals with a beach or park clean-up for an hour or two, or volunteer some time to help a local school or animal sanctuary. Visiting Elephant Nature Park, a rescue centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a great way of sustainable tourism. You could go further and stay at the property for an extended period to volunteer as a helper at the reserve. This is an incredible way to give back to a worthwhile social enterprise and an amazing opportunity to interact with wonderful animals.

These are the types of activities that make a difference, introduce you to the locals and help you to experience your destination through the eyes of the people who live there.

Wherever your interests lie, there’ll be an organisation or event you can get involved with. A few hours of your time could make a world of difference to the people you are helping. And those few hours could be some of the most rewarding, enriching and memorable you’ll ever spend.

Share Your Expertise

Lokal is a non-governmental organisation in The Philippines that supports and empowers the local community of Siargao through impactful and sustainable projects that promote local culture. Lokal encourages guests to upskill the local community during their stay.

Past participants have included marketers, photographers and high-level business professionals.  One such person was a prominent journalist who taught the kids of Burgos the art of storytelling and empowered them to write about their community and experiences.

If you’re thinking of contributing on holiday and sharing your skills, mention it to your experiential travel advisor when you make your booking.

What Are The Experiential Travel Trends for 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had an adverse effect on many of our 2020 travel plans.  With strict quarantine restrictions still in place in many countries and the fear of the unknown still present,  the industry is suffering from a lack of traveller confidence. The return won’t be smooth but hotels and operators will be looking to get more personal with customers to understand their concerns and personalise their experience. This is a big plus for an experiential-minded tourist who wants a unique holiday.

It’s expected that people will want to reduce prolonged exposure to others in the confined space of an aircraft. So they’ll choose to travel less often, but will take longer trips when they do. Taking longer stays allows you to be nimble if things drastically change. If a  weekend trip gets cut short, on the other hand, it’s a whole trip wasted. Travellers need the time to fully relax and disconnect, a short break now is just not enough to recharge.  There has been a large uptick in extended villas, houses and apartment rentals this summer for the UK and mainland Europe. This trend is here to stay for the foreseeable future as consumers seek space and longevity in travel, rather than a quick escape.

These longer and more meaningful breaks could replace quick weekends away. And each trip could comprise several different destinations, with travellers moving from one to another.

Quieter And Remote

It’s inevitable that the hustle and bustle of busy cities won’t have the same appeal following the pandemic. And the fear of crowded places will push tourists to discover quieter and more remote areas.

When you fully explore a country you’ll take your tourism to lesser-known parts of well-known regions.

For example, people are becoming more interested in visiting the lesser-known parts of cities or alternatives altogether. Places like Paros in Greece are just as beautiful as Santorini but without the crowds. Similarly,  the island of Ischia is serene compared to the heaving Capri in Italy.

What Is Experiential Luxury Travel

So far, you’ve read about experiential travel as a grassroots experience. But it can also be luxury, focusing on experiences that are exclusive and personalised for you.

Luxury travel has traditionally focused on opulence: Five-star hotels, Michelin-starred dining and high-end shopping. But a more cultural luxury experience might include beautifully designed boutique hotels, authentic food and local artisan crafts.

Even better, it’s having the opportunity to meet and engage with the creators.  Meet the chefs, designers and crafters who’ve made your experience so unique and unforgettable. It’s also about learning the stories behind their creations and hear their anecdotes.

This type of travel goes beyond the appearance of a hotel or property.  It puts the emphasis on experience, local culture and the destination.  Luxury experiential travel is becoming a more meaningful way of holidaying.

Who Is Experiential Travel For?

Experiential travel was first popularised by modern millennial travellers who were inspired by influencers on Instagram, Netflix and YouTube. These travellers were doing things differently. They were having better, more authentic travel experiences and documenting their journeys for their audiences on social media.

Millennials are still driving the market for experiential travel, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively for them. It just means that the less connected generations haven’t caught on yet.

Because experiential travel is customisable, it’s suitable for anyone who’s truly interested in where they’re going and why. This is especially true if you’re feeling that your travel experiences have become a little too familiar.  You might also be craving something that will stimulate your senses of curiosity and wonder.

Experiences can be tailored for individuals, couples and small groups — and for people of any age. They allow you to do what you want to, on your terms. Whether that’s getting out of your comfort zone, or doing something you’ve always wanted to but never found time for.

In short, you’re never too young or too old to start travelling experientially.

Josh is the founder of Many Moons Travel and an expert in arranging experience-based travel for honeymoons, solo travellers and special occasion trips.