Could you take the dramatic arc of Star Wars and superimpose that on a trip?
Luxury travel agency Brown and Hudson is pushing the boundaries of the travel industry, reimaging what travel can be and breathing creativity into the industry. In 2018 they launched psychology-based trips, which begin with a deep assessment of travelers’ values and personalities to craft bespoke trips tailored to each individual.
We caught up with Brown and Hudson founder Philippe Brown on the shifting definition of luxury travel, the science of expectation and how travel can be used as a diagnostic and reflective tool to help clients better understand themselves.
What makes Brown and Hudson unique?
We have a deep connection to the reality of travel, rather than the run of the mill business of selling travel. And that’s quite an important difference, because it means that you are accountable for everything that happens to someone when they’re on the ground. That ties in with the pre-trip interview process we go through. It makes sense that if someone is asking you to create an experience that could be worth half a million pounds or a couple thousand pounds, that you would invest the time in trying to understand their needs, their motivations, their fears, their attitudes towards risk, and their values.
We involved someone who took our basic questions and then developed them in two areas: personality traits and values. Personality traits are things that people inherit, the kind of traits that stay with them for a lifetime, and values are what you develop as a result of your surroundings and social motivations, and these can change over time.
We’ve gotten to a place now where we use the information we glean to create an experience, and, by working with a couple of different psychologists, we feed that back to the client to give them a better understanding of who they are as travelers and how travel can benefit them.
What is your process for ‘diagnosing’ travel?
It’s basically an interview process. Clients are asked a range of questions on a scale from ‘that’s me’ to ‘that’s not me at all.’ Some of those questions could be, ‘I’m a control freak; I don’t like leaving things to others,’ or ‘I like to be creative and I’m constantly finding new ways to express this,’ ‘I thrive on new experiences and always seek them out,’ ‘I need to feel I belong, whether it’s to the people I’m with or the place I’m in.’
We involved an expert in behavioral psychology, and he opened our eyes to new ways of questioning. And then we started thinking about the act of travel, which is essentially just living as you do in your home city, but you’re living in a new city, and how that change affects you; it affects your psychology, it affects your hormones. We think of clients as living organisms who will react in a certain way when they visit an orphanage, for example, and the hormones that are released will affect their mindset.
We had a client recently from Kazakhstan. One of the questions we asked was ‘if you could have anyone to dinner tomorrow night, who would it be?’ and another was ‘what’s one of your fondest childhood memories?’ And that particular person answered that they would invite Vladimir Putin to dinner, and that their fondest childhood memory was being taken by their uncle to see Soviet military parades. That gave us real insight into what their particular experience should include. It’s a very intimate process.
How is the perception of luxury travel shifting?
For most of our clients, their definition of luxury is utterly personal. We have some clients who give us a very, very strict brief, and they seek nothing more from us than to deliver exactly that brief. Others give us carte-blanche.
But the one thing that unites all our clients is that – in Burger King language – they want it their way. And their way is something that can be one thing when they’re planning the trip, and then can vary when they’re on the ground. So, there’s inbuilt flexibility in how we interpret responses to the psychological assessment, but then also in how we deliver on the ground.
But in travel at this level, where you’re dealing with people who are investing substantial sums, what we create needs to be able to fit that person and evolve with that person on a minute-by-minute basis.
Consumers are living in an increasingly hyper-digital landscape. How is this impacting the travel experience?
The best films have an incredible dramatic arc that sucks you along. The best computer games or virtual reality games are designed to be addictive, engaging, surprising, entertaining, educational – and they work in such an amazing way that players do not put them down.
So in the travel realm, the question I ask people is, ‘is real travel as compelling as the most amazingly crafted computer game?’ Because it probably should be! If not, we’re going to lose out to digital; we have clients who come to us and say ‘look, our kids aren’t excited by travel anymore, what can we do? Where should we go?’
It requires a whole shift of mindset, of training, of obsession for detail.
There’s a great book called Stealing Fire that’s all about changing one’s state in order to achieve better things. In it, they talk about an experiment conducted with an AI therapist; it was found that people were more willing to open up to an AI therapist than they were to a human being. And, because of the vast amounts of data it could process, this AI therapist actually gave better diagnoses and analyses than a human could.
So in that context, if you start thinking about computer games and how they’re designed, and then you start thinking about artificial intelligence possibly working better than a human, it makes you question where and how you’re adding value.
As an industry, we need to wake up – I always say that I feel the travel industry has been on holiday for the past forty years. It took Brian Chesky – who wasn’t even a travel guy – to develop Airbnb. Which, beyond low-cost airlines, is arguably one of the biggest changes to hit travel in a while, and he wasn’t even in the industry.
How can the travel industry continue to take inspiration from other industries? Why is this important?
I would say: look around. Look beyond travel. Study the greats. Study the psychology of people when they’re traveling.
There are some Dutch academics who conducted research into when people were most happy in their travels, and they found that people were as happy when they anticipated the trip as they were during the trip, which is kind of interesting – to me that’s a huge opportunity for travel companies, to be selling the travel obviously, but also to be thinking ‘ok, how can we accompany these clients in their journey during the six months before they even leave the country?’
That’s a massive opportunity. Something we do, is we think about who’s traveling, why they’re traveling, how they’re traveling. If it’s active, for example, then maybe there’ll be micro-experiences before they leave that help them develop the skills necessary to make the most out of their ‘Luxepedition’ or their expedition. If it’s a family going to the Galapagos, we could send the kids to London zoo to start understanding the things they might see, or hang out with Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, or spend a night in the natural history museum.
By thinking differently about how people travel and looking at the science of anticipation, suddenly travel companies could be selling way more.
What do you predict for the future of travel?
There’s a company called What Three Words. They’ve mapped the world into three meter by three meter squares. And for each square, they’ve attributed three words that have nothing to do with the location. So, it could be cookie, screw, and green in the three metre square that you’re currently sitting or standing in. They map the world, and give every square a value, and they’re promoting this as the new way of localizing everything. And apparently this is a system that is more effective in some situations than GPS. Now, I have yet to really wrap my head around this, but it’s being picked up by all sorts of interesting organizations as a new way to find them.
So with that as the context, I think it wouldn’t be that complicated for someone in Silicon Valley to take each country, map the experiences you can have in that country – whether it’s hanging out at an elephant sanctuary or zip lining or rafting or walking – give values to all the experiences, and map out the world in that way.
Then what you do is you have people interact with a system, and their inputs are evaluated by an AI and the AI says, based on your emotional, physical and spiritual needs, these three destinations – or however many – could suit your needs and solve your problems if you like.
I think in three years we could have something like that. And if that is the case, then travel professionals need to get way closer to their clients, and need to be delivering experiences – they need to do more than just sell products and tickets. They need to be thinking about how people are existing, how they’re being impacted, the dramatic arc of their trip, what hormones are flowing, when. For example, is there a reason why it might be good to have the start of their trip be a little bit challenging? Could you take the dramatic arc of Star Wars and superimpose that on a trip?