Our group of 15 women runners follows the narrow, singletrack trail descending mossy Strangarhals Ridge in Goðaland, a mountainous region in Iceland’s southern interior highlands. Before reaching the Krossa River valley bottom, we are stopped prematurely by a 20-foot-wide glacier-fed river. The only way ahead is through its icy waters.
In groups of four, we link arms and ford the thigh-deep river, grimacing at the muscle-numbing cold and concentrating on staying upright despite the flow’s force pressing against our legs.
Janine, a lawyer from New Jersey — who had never before run on trails let alone in the mountains — hangs back until it is time for the last group to cross. Gripped by fear, she stays silent in her horror at having to enter the fast-moving water. Nevertheless, when Icelandic guide Addi extends his arm, she links her elbow with his and carefully steps into the river.
Once safely on the other side, she joins the other women in cheers and hugs of congratulations. The river crossing had been a formidable accomplishment for all, but for Janine in particular, it meant facing memories of a friend she’d lost in a whitewater rafting accident years before. Walking through the water that day changed her relationship to that memory and transformed her self-image as a runner.
As the tour designer and leader, I couldn’t have orchestrated such an experience, and yet, it ended up being a pivotal moment for us all. The group’s energy shifted as everyone experienced a boost in self-confidence and trust in me and our guides.
When I started offering women’s trail-running retreats in Colorado seven years ago through my company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness, my intention was simply to help women safely and efficiently run trails in the woods. But after the first few retreats, it became obvious they were gaining more from the experience than just trail-running skills.
Women were coming to the retreats at times of great upheaval, change, or loss in their lives. They sought space to heal, grow, or in some way transform their struggle. The time we spent together on the trail was mostly the mechanism by which that growth and connection occurred.
I put a great deal of passion into designing running retreats with the potential to deeply impact women runners. But I wasn’t immediately sure how best to authentically present that potential of transformation in my marketing. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of employing buzzwords like “transformative,” “self-discovery,” “authentic,” and “life-changing” in the hopes of attracting the type of clients who would gain the most from these retreats.
Doing so would have been disingenuous. Transformation isn’t a commodity that can be packaged and sold.
What makes a travel experience life-changing largely hinges on the client’s mindset, self-beliefs, attitude, and emotional state. As a tour operator, I am only able to assemble a set of circumstances that supports her potential for transformation.
So I’ve spent years testing and refining various combinations of activities, structured time, free time, workshops, leadership style, and destinations to find those that best support my clients’ transformational process. Anything that doesn’t support that process is cut from the itinerary.
The result is that our company has garnered a reputation for delivering a very specific type of travel experience that is distinct from all other running-vacation companies. Transformational travel has become our point of differentiation and our competitive advantage without having to rely on the use of empty buzzwords.
The following four steps can help your company bake the potential of transformation into the travel experience rather than tacking empty promises of transformation onto an ordinary travel experience.
1. Craft the experience to serve the clients’ needs and desires.
Delivering a transformational travel experience requires a deep understanding of your clients’ needs and desires. Listen closely to how they describe their biggest challenges and fears at this point in their lives, and craft experiences that specifically help them overcome those obstacles to growth.
Understanding their pain points helps you speak to them in a way that resonates on a personal level, building deeper connection and trust. This process also helps you avoid empty promises of generalized transformation, and instead speaks specifically to what they will learn to do differently or change about themselves as a result of traveling with you.
For example, my clients are very diverse in terms of running fitness level, but all share a common passion for running as a lifestyle and way to manage life stress. With that understanding, our marketing doesn’t promise to teach them “how to improve running performance” but does talk about “learning how to stress less so you can run more.”
2. Take them to their edge (with proper support).
Simply taking people outside their comfort zone doesn’t necessarily stimulate positive change. Growth arises from the application of the right amount of stress: too little has no effect and too much can have negative effects.
There’s a balance between making an adventure just challenging enough so your clients feel exhilarated and increasingly confident versus taking them too far, making the adventure overly stressful or creating a high chance of failure.
Taking clients to their edge also means having a responsibility to provide the support of professionals who help them feel comfortable going there. Build the specific types of support your clients need in order to meet the challenges you’ve placed before them into the tour. They’ll follow your guides’ lead and go to the edge of their comfort zone only once they feel sufficient trust and are willing to accept the group’s support and encouragement.
3. Create opportunities for connection.
While they may not be aware of it, one of the primary reasons people seek out transformative travel experiences is to reconnect to themselves and to others. The pace of modern life with its pressures, stressors, and busyness make it more difficult than ever to feel connected, and yet connection is essential to one’s personal satisfaction and happiness.
Stepping away from one’s usual routine in a foreign place presents an opportunity to re-establish those connections, which is essential to self-discovery and growth.
In a small group transformational travel setting, this works best when the participants are all seeking similar outcomes. It matters less if they are of the same demographic as long as they can connect meaningfully with one another around their shared desire for type of personal growth and activities being offered. This requires crafting marketing messages that speak directly to whom the tour is best suited and deters those for whom it is not.
Feeling connected to the group helps your clients better support one another and openly share their thoughts, observations, and feelings around the group experiences as they unfold.
4. Help clients reflect on their experiences.
You’ll know when your experiences are truly transformational when your clients become advocates who enthusiastically tell their peers about their experiences.
Their testimonials, social media posts, and conversations with friends resonate more deeply with potential clients than any marketing campaign. In fact, asking your clients for testimonials you can publish isn’t entirely self-serving.
When your clients take the time to thoughtfully chronicle exactly how they have been changed by their travel experience, its effects are more deeply ingrained and longer-lasting. Not only do these testimonials build your reputation (without relying on buzzwords), they also inform you of how well your company is fulfilling the promise of transformational travel.
And that’s ultimately what transformational travel is: an ongoing commitment to support your clients’ need and desire for growth. Chances are you won’t get it right at first. It takes time, experimentation, and iteration to zero in on what your clients truly need to be transformed.
It’s also a promise that you’ll keep evolving the transformational process as your clients’ interests and needs change over time. But it’s worth the work: You’ll not only make your services better and better, your clients will come back for deeper and more profound transformations again and again.