Journey to realisation: building meaning into your brand experiences

EyeforTravel’s guest columnist, Bill Baker, takes us on a ‘clichéd’ journey through the great American Southwest and finds meaning on many different levels. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for travel brands?

Meaning has been defined as ‘the end, purpose or significance of something’. In the travel and tourism business, meaning revolves around what matters about the experiences you create for your customers: more specifically how and why it matters to them. The meaning derived from a brand experience can ultimately be more powerful than the mere emotions associated it. Because while emotions shape how we feel during that experience, meaning has the potential to transform how we live as a result of it, affecting how we see ourselves, see others and see the world around us.

To help you explore and identify the meaning your customers should derive from your tourism and travel experiences, outlined below are areas of realisation to consider. Each area contains a few questions to consider from your customer’s point of view.

1. Realisations about myself — What did I learn about myself from this experience? What new characteristics of myself did I discover or rediscover? How has the experience changed the way I want to live my life?

2. Realisations about my relationships with others — How has the experience created or renewed my connections with others? How has it changed my understanding or appreciation of relationships with important people in my life? What changes do I want to make to those relationships as a result?

3. Realisations about the world around me — How do I now see the world differently because of this experience? What did I come to admire and respect about my surroundings that I didn’t before? How would I like to see the world change in the future?  

To bring it all home, a story to illustrate the meaning my partner and I derived from a recent road trip.

For years, I had heard from a wide variety of people that visiting the American Southwest – especially the Grand Canyon – was something everyone must eventually do. As people told stories about their visits, they would naturally talk about the unimaginable majesty and scale of the natural wonders they saw. But as I listened to them, I always got the sense that there was something more to their stories: something unsaid, deeply personal, and profound.

Admittedly, I was always a bit reluctant to dedicate hard-earned vacation time to visiting the Grand Canyon or natural wonders of the Southwest, feeling that the experience was somehow clichéd (as well as being fairly certain all these things would still be around in the future so there was no hurry to see them). Despite these hesitations, my partner and I decided it was time for a visit, and in October 2012 we took a Thelma & Louise type road trip (minus the guns) visiting five national parks in southern Utah before finishing our trip at the Grand Canyon.

As we toured through Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks, a slow and steady transformation took place within us. In the moment, each national park seemed to somehow top the one before. By the time we rolled into Grand Canyon National Park, we were both as still and, at the same time, awake and alive as we’d been in years.

Three months on, what I took away from that trip is that I need to, on a more regular basis, unplug my smart phone, unclutter my mind and allow myself to truly be in the moment: a hard but necessary thing to do.

It was in these awe-inspiring moments, that I not only renewed my deep appreciation for my partner of 15 years, but also came to understand that we could help each other unplug more often. And finally, after touring through an area of utterly unique beauty and interacting with scores of different people along the way, I came to see the United States in a new light. Having lived outside of the US for 15 years, I had lost touch with my native land. This trip renewed my connection to and pride in my sometimes-maligned home country and my fellow Americans.

Meaning revealed

Of course nature, in all its glory, played a large role in revealing these different levels of meaning to me. However, the US National Parks system also played a role, and I was incredibly impressed with what they do and how they do it. The park stewards seem to understand that the significance of a park experience comes from both the sensory celebration and quiet reflection that accompany being among such stunning landscapes: natural wonders that, while millions of years in the making, take your breath away in an instant.

Everything about the attitude and approach of the National Parks organisation enables this meaning to unfold—the neighbourly demeanor of the entrance gate greeters; the informative maps and insightful wayfinding throughout the parks; the incredible access to special locations via roads and walking trails; the modest, bare-basics accommodations in the parks and the near impossibility of finding a Wi-Fi signal anywhere within them (helping you to unplug!)

“Journeys are the midwives of thought,” says Alain de Botton in his book, The Art of Travel. When we travel, we reflect, and in those moments of reflection we are given the rare opportunity to simply sit back and think about our lives, relationships and surrounding environment. The meaning we pull from those moments serve as the fuel and framework for the stories we tell others about them.

By envisioning and articulating what that meaning should be, travel and tourism marketers can ensure everyone within their organisation understands the deeper significance of the experiences they are creating for people, and compel them to work collectively to create those experiences and enable that meaning to unfold. In doing so, they can make certain that the stories customers are telling about their brands are ones worth telling. And that’s pretty meaningful.

This guest article was produced exclusively by Bill Baker, founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling, which has worked with tourism and travel brands such as Relais & Châteaux, Travel Alberta, Hilton, Montana Tourism and the Tourism Ministry of Spain

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