Once upon a time man was a nomad. He travelled from place to place with his group. He travelled in search of prey. He travelled in search of grazing pastures for his cattle.
His travels enriched not only his animals but also his mind, he experienced new cultures, new languages and a whole new way of life. He uncovered new adventures. Its interesting to know the origin of the word ‘adventure’ derived from the Latin advenire, ‘to arrive, come about or befall’. As travel is more or less a matter of letting things befall one, of submitting to the new and unfamiliar in the pursuit of pleasure, it is, by definition, an adventure.
But now we are leading fully settled lives. We do not always feel the necessity of traveling. We do not gather the experiences of traveling as was so abundant in a by gone era. We have forgotten the romance of travel.
For many of us, the glory of travel is change, change from our routines, change from the irritations of weather, work and culture. We swap city for country, affluence for simplicity, fast- for slow-living (or vice versa), sloth for action and security for risk. Seeing new places, trying new things (e.g. foods, activities, languages), meeting new people – it is all about change. Simply by changing our surroundings alone, we are able to change our mindset and free ourselves from the stresses and strains of everyday life.
Travelling enriches us, by traveling we learn about new place and the people living in these places. We gather new experience and new knowledge. Travel gives us knowledge and pleasure at the same time. Travel gives us wisdom. We experience through travel. As opposed to books where we read the experience of other people or the second-hand knowledge of other people. Travel gives us first hand experience. We develop the qualities of painstaking, patience and frugality as we travel. We learn how to contact unknown people. So, traveling is a great teacher too. Faihein, Hiuensang and Marco Polo were the great travelers of the old. Faihein and Hiuentsang traveled from China to India. Marco Polo traveled from Venice to China.
So, at a time of year when most people’s travel plans are bare, waiting to be filled with ideas and inspiration, it is the perfect opportunity to take a step back and pick apart what drives us to travel? Yes there are the obvious answers, rest, indulgence, escape, excitement, but what underlies these desires? Do we travel to consume, to experience adventure, is it about change or is it deeper than that?
Travel allows us to live out fantasies of adventure, escape and ‘paradise on earth’. It is an opportunity to test ourselves in unfamiliar circumstance, to prove that we are more than our 9-5 cubicle job suggests.
Travel affords us an opportunity to consume. Modern society is preoccupied with consumption. We consume not simply to survive, but to achieve happiness, to build our status and self-perception. Travel is not immune from this insatiable consumerism. When we travel we consume cultures, experiences and vistas like brands. So travel makes a commodity of local culture. Everything comes with a price, a visit to the palace – £12; mountain trek – £35; traditional dance performance – £8; sense of self-worth – priceless. Today’s holiday brochures boast bargains like a Littlewoods catalogue; instead of homeware and cheap electronics, we find tigers, temples and tribal villages. All are commodities, just the same. We buy these things for the same reason we buy any other nonessential product: to look better, feel better or else appear better. We are, in effect, cultural cannibals, consuming culture so as to assimilate some aspect of it. Thus, New York confers cosmopolitanism, India spirituality, the Caribbean serenity and so on. And then there are optional extras, side dishes if you like. A five-star hotel suggests status, a wine tour imparts taste, the prefix ‘eco-‘ accords ethical acumen. In the realm of the tourist-cannibal, you are what you eat.
Take flying for instance. It’s not the flying I mind – I will always be awed by the physics that gets a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. The rest of the journey, however, can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity, from the pre-dawn X-ray screening to the sad airport shops peddling crappy souvenirs. It’s globalisation in a nutshell, and it sucks.
And yet here we are, herded in ever greater numbers on to planes that stay the same size. Sometimes we travel because we have to. Because in this digital age there is still something important about the analogue handshake. Or eating Mum’s turkey at Christmas.
But most travel isn’t non-negotiable. (In 2008 only 30% of trips over 50 miles were made for business.) Instead we travel because we want to, because the annoyances of the airport are outweighed by the visceral thrill of being someplace new. Because work is stressful and our blood pressure is too high and we need a vacation. Because home is boring. Because the flights were on sale. Because New York is New York.
Travel, in other words, is a basic human desire. We’re a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here’s my question: is this collective urge to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know – still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for doughnuts: one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun, then I think the current security measures at airports have killed it.
The good news, at least for those of you reading this while stuck on a tarmac, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about a holiday, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoilt tropical beach: it’s about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.
More often than not you will be spending your nights in a hotel. These establishments understand the nature of travel and have embarked on countless studies to relate to the traveller. They embrace you when you arrive and offer you a sense of belonging a sense of ‘home’. They have honed in on every detail so that that the ‘brand’ is constant.
Hotel operators understand that when we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back home. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems. This is why so many organisations favour to take employees to various destinations around the world to help promote self motivation and team spirit.
We work closely with many operators and design is not just a superficial element to make a property more attractive than the next its also a psychological tool that embraces you and offers a sense of security in an unknown place. These properties are not merely magnificent reflections of architecture, nor collections of chapters of history of guests of time past. They are, rather living storybooks – places where people go to see and feel the stories of celebrated lives and times gone by, as well as create new moments which will be preserved as some of the finest moments of one’s life. They are centres of living history.
Taking into account the growing pressures of daily life, especially in a year defined by global economic crisis, the ‘brand’ offers a tonic. To lose the romance of the Brand in travel and traveler experiences would be to replace the world’s rose gardens with plastic flowers. The promise of a travel experience goes deeply beyond the tangible. Even before exploring what a hotel can offer, look closely at what the Brand stands for, find the romance and the stories tucked away within the name and unlock the experience within the promise. Despite our ability to often see it, Brands are treasure chests of stories, emotion and traveller connection. And very importantly, despite their inability to say it, there is no question it is that emotion – the romance of the Brand – that travellers across the world search for… and are in need of.
When challenged the desire for travel becomes defended – time will be made to reconnect. But as days, weeks and months pass with time increasingly fading in one’s life, ultimately its absence is accepted. It is even resigned to. Despite all the technology we have to keep people connected, ironically life seems to have many moving further and further apart.
Familiarity generously extended to travellers, as a dimension of the experience of a place is a given. There is one dimension of the traveler experience. It exists innately within a handful of brands across the globe. To experience it is to experience something of the well established formula of that brand. It is authentic and pure, omnipresent and completely embracing. It warms the air and softens the step of the property. It inspires travellers to pause, to look more closely and more deeply at all of the detail of the experience, to soak up all that the experience has to offer. It causes lingering, reflection and unexpected delight. And it holds at its heart the essence of uniqueness. It is the BRAND.
A piece written for Hospitality Interiors.