How travel became the new designer bag

We want to see the world and share our stories—and for our work to give us the time to do it

Owning a luxury designer bag—complete with ostentatious label and $4,000 price tag—is no longer the status symbol it once was. Today, it’s all about showing off life-changing travel experiences.

Make no mistake, the urge to impress is still there. But a cultural shift has taken place: Stuff doesn’t impress like it used to. Now, exciting, adventurous stories with friends on- and offline (and the willingness to pay for the best access) are what achieve social status.

The impacts of this shift are far-reaching, well beyond the boom in the travel industry. (According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the global travel and tourism sector grew at 3.9 percent in 2018, capping off many years of continuous growth.) Not only do we spend our money on travel, but the desire for travel also impacts how we make money. Job seekers are asking for more time off as a negotiation tactic, and more companies are offering unlimited time off or flexibility in working remote (advances in communication technology allow you to dial in from anywhere in the world) to attract top talent. And employers reap the many benefits of people who travel—increased creativity, improved mental health, a shift in perspective. After all, the travel you do affects every aspect of your life, including work. 

“Travel is more accessible than ever, and transformational experiences are driving people to question their sense of values: ‘What do I stand for in this world? Do I want to just think about myself?’” says Simon Mayle, event director for International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) Events, a company that tracks travel trends and hosts global conferences. 

Stuff doesn’t define us like it used to. The access-over-ownership economy is thriving (see: Zipcar, Rent the Runway, Airbnb), and in the “story economy”—the concept of storytelling used to improve marketing and branding, which was enhanced by the introduction of Instagram Stories in 2016—people are buying stories and memories over things.

Even LVMH, arguably the most powerful luxury brand in the world (and parent company of Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Dom Pérignon, and Veuve Clicquot), recognizes that future growth in luxury depends on experiences. In April, LVMH finalized the acquisition of Belmond hotels, owner of iconic properties like Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro and luxury train lines like the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, for $3.2 billion. 

Travelers also want experiences that are truly transformative, says Ciao Andiamo founder Jonathan Pollock, a member at WeWork 175 Varick St in New York. The company focuses on immersive travel experiences to Italy. “The interest and demand for local, authentic experiences in food and wine is continuing to increase rapidly,” Pollock says. “In Italy, culinary traditions remain at the center of life and culture.”

Pollock launched Ciao Andiamo eight years ago, as the experiential travel trend was taking off. “[It was] at the forefront of the experience culture movement, and [we] knew this would only grow stronger over time,” he says. “Our mission has resonated with travelers since day one, and we have people return to Italy with us as many as four, five, and even six times already, each time exploring different regions.”

Immersive travel experiences that expose you to different cultures and ways of life have a lasting impact. Exposure to diversity creates more empathy and open-mindedness—another cultural shift that manifests across modern life and work.

Some hotels are marketing to the appeal of diversity and inclusion in travel. “People are choosing hotels based on the values that hotel represents,” says Mayle. “We’re seeing hotels really start to stand for things.” One example: Hyatt, which sponsored WorldPride this year, has developed a “For a World of Understanding” campaign, focusing on diversity marketing. “They’re trying to show that the world is a much more beautiful place if we travel and understand different cultures,” he says. The economy hotel brand Ibis has a “We Are Open” inclusivity campaign, saying they’re open to all types of travelers. 

In the end, relationships are at the core of experiential travel, Mayle says. “The new way of showing off that designer handbag is by taking people with us—by sharing those experiences through destination weddings, birthday celebrations, or family travel.” 

No buttery-soft, designer “it” bag can offer up the emotional and relational benefits of travel.

Annie Fitzsimmons is an editor at AFAR Media. Prior to AFAR, she was an editor-at-large for National Geographic Travel and a founding member of their editorial council. 

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