Travel is in our DNA. It's an emotional journey and story that has played out since the dawn of humankind. Getting to the root of this travel instinct can help us build better brands and lasting relationships with our customers. Luckily there's a framework for that.
Editor’s Note: Last week we released a big editorial package called “The Supertraveler Manifesto.” In it we proposed a new framework at looking at the traveler’s journey and below is that part of it.
After years of work in travel behavior research I’ve come to understand at least two things well.
First and foremost, try to avoid using the word ‘consumer’ whenever possible. It’s dehumanizing and it kills our understanding of the individual inside all of us. Secondly, conceptualizing an archetypical, one-size-fits-all model of the traveler is difficult, if not impossible. So many different personas and personalities live among us and even within us. We are chameleons; very different people when traveling alone or with significant others, on bachelor parties, or on honeymoons.
Some in the industry have tried, but most have largely failed to capture the full complexity and spectrum of traveler emotion. Formulaic concepts like the booking funnel, search-shop-buy, traveler personas, path-to-purchase, and other simplifications have missed the mark when it comes to building modern brands and connecting with today’s traveler mindset.
These frameworks can help target customers, but if and only when we’ve already discovered our own identities as airlines, hotels, or travel agencies. Focusing on click-through rates and page views can help create order out of chaos, but building lasting relationships with customers requires empathy and a keen sense of the emotional ups-and-downs that travelers endure.
Stepping outside of the travel industry – and in fact outside of the business world all together – has helped us understand the high-stakes emotional journey that is travel.
The Hero Traveler
Here, we rediscovered a classic paradigm and applied it to understanding what we as brands can do to connect with the new digital consumer. It’s The Hero’s Journey – based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. If you were a film or literature major then you’ve probably heard of him.
Campbell outlined human behavior through the lens of mythology and recurring themes present in ancient cultures, all the way through modern cinema. Some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters were inspired by Campbell’s vision. Think Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Indiana Jones, and the Matrix.
He conceptualized the “monomyth.” In comparative mythology, it is the common template for a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure and, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
Campbell’s work applies to both adventure travelers and everyday travelers because at the end of the day, we all want to be heroes. We’re all looking for something more out of travel. We want travel to transform us. It’s an outlet for self-discovery.
Travel is in our DNA.
Meet the original experiential travelers: Legends forged from adventure seekers and desperate men and women compelled to leave their homes and villages, only to return years later as changed people with unbelievable stories of love, riches, danger, and distant lands.
Only a handful had the impetus or the courage to do it. For those who stayed behind to tend to the flock, they relived these experiences through the stories and oral histories first told and retold by their local hero travelers, and then by later generations.
Some reeled in anxiety while others cried with admiration and inspiration to explore for themselves. These individuals would carry the torch. It was this ancient cycle of stories and spark, notion and reaction, inspiration and the need to explore, that over time, gave us that travel instinct.
Travel has also played a pivotal role in shaping our modern culture. Our morals, beliefs, and motives have been handed down to us by the ancient culmination of stories about ordinary people overcoming adversity and triumphing over evil, as well as the vast opportunity beyond the horizon.
The epic novels — these first travel books helped form the foundations of our modern moral belief system. The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and countless other eastern and western world epics that carried the same reoccurring theme of travel and self-discovery all the way through until today.
Back then, travel was a matter of survival. Danger lurked around every corner. The only certainty was uncertainty. The survival instinct prevailed.
This was the ultimate reward: life in perpetuity, passed on through the stories we tell.
So why should travel brands care?
Because the modern-day traveler experience is a story that has been relived and retold throughout the ages; Campbell understood deeply that the quest for self-discovery never ends.
He also mapped out 12 stages that all epic stories and poems share. It’s a psychological journey as much as it is a chronological one.
12 Stages of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Campbell’s mapping of the monomyth, as applied to modern travel, is the fact that people step outside of themselves when they are on the road. They leave the ordinary behind and step into a special world where the same rules may no longer apply. It’s a transition and cycle that can manifest in different forms. Every travel experience is unique, but a common vein in human psychology can exist in many forms of travel.
Here are Campbell’s 12 phases of the hero traveler’s psychological journey. Travel brands can draw many lessons from each of these steps. It’s an old yet flexible framework, not a step-by-step manual, on how to understand and connect with the modern traveler.
We now have the power to connect with travelers during the full length of their journeys. When and how to interject has perplexed many brands.
Here are some thoughts on each step as it applies in myth, and how it translates into modern travel:
The Ordinary World
In myth: The hero is oblivious to the adventures to come. It’s the safe place, the everyday life where we learn crucial details about our hero.
In travel: This is the time for travel brands to really get to know their customers: To find out who they are and what type of experience might bring forth a call to adventure.
Call to Adventure
In myth: The hero’s adventure begins when they receive a call to action. It may not be as dramatic as a gunshot, but simply a phone call or conversation when they least expect it. Whatever the call is, it ultimately disrupts the comfort of the hero’s ordinary world.
In travel: This is understanding your customer base and their situational awareness to find the perfect moment to plant the seed. These could be seasonal, geographic, or cultural distinctions that set your traveler apart.
Refusal of the Call
In myth: Although the hero may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage they will have fears that need to be overcome.
In travel: Travel is a big investment in time and money; there are many excuses and real-life challenges that people can make for themselves before making the decision to travel.
Meeting the Mentor
In myth: At this crucial turning point where the hero desperately needs guidance, they meet a mentor figure who gives them something they need. It could be wise advice, practical training, or even self-confidence. The mentor’s offering helps dispel their doubts and fears, giving them the strength and courage to begin their quest.
In travel: A central question travel brands must ask themselves here is how to become the mentor, the guide that helps customers fulfill their mission. Is it through reviews, is it with loyalty points, is it by offering a seamless search experience? Clearly, it’s all of these things, but which will convince your traveler hero to make the jump?
Crossing the Threshold
In myth: The hero is now ready to act upon the call to adventure and truly begin their quest, whether it be physical, spiritual, or emotional. This action signifies the hero’s commitment to their journey and whatever it may have in store.
In travel: This is the point at which there is a sudden shift in attitude in the traveler’s mindset. Commitments have been made, and risks have been taken. It’s a liberation of sorts, and a period of anticipation, excitement, and positive thinking on the part of the traveler. Brands should take advantage of this opportunity to convey their true identities.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
In myth: Now finally out of thier comfort zone, the hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges that test them in a variety of ways. The hero needs to find out who can be trusted and who cannot. They may earn allies and meet enemies who will, each in their own ways, help prepare them for the greater ordeals yet to come.
In travel: After that initial period of optimism and after crossing the threshold, the traveler must endure the initial acclimation period into the special world. These can include inconveniences such as long lines at taxi stands or airport check-in. Travel brands should be cautious at this stage and try to emerge as the hero’s ally, not the enemy.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
In myth: At the threshold to the inmost cave, the hero may once again face some of the doubts and fears that first surfaced upon their call to adventure. They may need some time to reflect upon their journey and the road ahead in order to find the courage to continue.
In travel: There are many things that can throw a traveler’s original plans off track. These can be internal and external: budget, weather, or even food poisoning. Here, it’s important to keep in mind that the traveler journey is not yet completely defined, even after concrete plans have been set in motion. It’s the stage before the traveler reaches the pinnacle of the trip, that one experience that will leave her satisfied about her decision to leave the ordinary world.
In myth: The hero must draw upon all of their skills and experiences gathered upon the path to the inmost cave in order to overcome their most difficult challenge. Only through some form of “death” can the hero be reborn, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection that somehow grants them greater power or insight necessary in order to fulfill a destiny.
In travel: This is the breaking point. Either the traveler finds what she was looking for or fails in her mission and begins to reenter the ordinary world unfulfilled. Travel can be a race against time. Catching the traveler at this moment in time can be both a blessing and curse for the travel brand.
In myth: After defeating the enemy, surviving death, and finally overcoming their greatest personal challenge, the hero is ultimately transformed into a new state, emerging from battle as a stronger person and often with a prize.
In travel: Here the traveler has succeeded in planning and executing a satisfying travel experience. At this point she might be more receptive to interaction with you, the travel provider, but probably more difficult to upsell on additional items.
The Road Back
In myth: Now they must return home with their reward but, this time, the anticipation of danger is replaced with that of acclaim and perhaps vindication, absolution, or even exoneration. However, the hero’s journey is not yet over and they may still need one last push back into the Ordinary World.
In travel: After the hype of the reward starts to wear thin, the traveler sets back into the realization that it’s soon time to go home. Here, travel brands should become the mentor once again, helping travelers through the process of negotiating this situation. Don’t run the risk of cutting the experience too short.
In myth: This is the climax during which the hero must have their final and most dangerous encounter with death. The final battle also represents something far greater than the hero’s own existence, with its outcome having far-reaching consequences for their ordinary world and the lives of those they left behind.
In travel: Reentry back into the ordinary world can be the most sensitive and dangerous time for travel brands to interact with the customer. For successful travelers, facing reality can put them on edge. For the unfulfilled traveler, a satisfaction survey would be the last thing she wants to see.
Return with Elixir
In myth: The final reward that the hero obtains may be literal or metaphoric. It could be a cause for celebration, self-realization, or an end to strife, but whatever it is, it represents three things: change, success, and proof of the journey.
In travel: This is where the traveler wants to record and understand how her investment has changed her. She is reliving the experience through photographs, remembering the good parts, and romanticizing the bad. For travel brands, this is an opportunity to re-implant themselves into the traveler’s field of view and possibly into her long-term memory.
Bringing the Humanity Back into Travel Brands
Sometimes it’s difficult for professionals within any industry to look outside themselves and to examine their products and services as true customers would. Putting ourselves into the hero’s shoes is critical in fulfilling our own brand success. Travel, in particular, is difficult because so much of the travel experience is outside of our control. Yet there are steps we can take to strive toward a better connection with our customers. Perhaps, the first step is to stop treating travelers like consumers, and start treating them like the heroes they really are.
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