Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 9

Keava (Estonia) - Prague (Czech Republic)

Why we travel: A tale of two conferences

As The Amazing Race 15 approaches the finish line, the remaining teams of travellers are becoming more and more focused on the footrace, to the exclusion of anything else about the places they pass through. This week in Prague, some of the racers recalled having almost forgotten to look around at Old Town Square -- one of the city's foremost tourist attractions -- before running off after their next clue.

It's often like that with real travel. As the journey nears its end, we get more and more focused on the geographic destination and lose sight of the goal of the trip.

The difference between those two ways of thinking about travel were epitomized by the two travel conferences at which I spent this week: the annual PhoCusWright conference of travel executives, and Hostelling International - USA's celebration of the centennial of the worldwide movement that began in 1909 with the opening of the first youth hostel in a castle in Altena, Germany.

(A campaign to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating the occasion was unsuccessful, but my honorarium for leading a workshop at the HI-USA convention included a 100 Jahre Jugendherbergen -- "100 Years of Youth Hostels" -- 10 Euro legal tender silver commemorative coin of Altena Castle.)

The PhoCusWright conference was held in Orlando, home of the ultimate in constructed travel experiences, Disney World. As ever, it was fascinating -- more on that in a future article -- but also as ever it was confined to one view of travel: travel as a commodity to be bought, sold, packaged, marketed, and merchandised. That's a perfectly reasonable perspective if you are part of the "travel industry", but it's far from the only way to look at travel.

HI-USA, by contrast, describes itself as, "A national non-profit with a mission: To help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hostelling."

Hostelling International counts itself as the world's third-largest "lodging chain" (measured, I presume, by the number of guest-nights per year). Like a hotel chain, it generates its revenues mainly by "putting heads in beds". In big gateway cities and other destinations popular with backpackers, it competes with growing numbers of for-profit hostels. It worries about its brand, its marketing, and the color of the ink on its bottom line. It has to, or it won't survive. It has almost no endowment to carry it through downturns in the cycle of travel. It's trying to change that (can any of you help?), but the goal of its current fundraising campaign is to raise US$3 million over 3 years, a pittance by the standards of many nonprofit institutions.

In these circumstances, it would be understandable if HI-USA were increasingly driven by business-like concerns. But it's just the reverse: HI is going back to its roots, and re-emphasizing programs to serve its underlying mission of travel not as an end in itself but as a means to youth empowerment, leadership and diversity training, education, cultural awareness, international understanding, and world peace.

The gala final session of the HI-USA convention celebrated some of the people who have contributed to the organization through their work over the decades since its founding. They were well-travelled and inspiring storytellers, yet few of their stories were descriptions of placed visited. Places were merely settings for their stories of people, relationships between them, and the changes brought about in those people by hostel-style travel.

I left the PhoCusWright conference with a renewed sense of the ways that technological innovation has created new travel possibilities and tools. But it was the HI-USA conference that renewed my appreciation that the things that make travel worthwhile in spite of its inevitable environmental costs extend beyond escapism, the desire for more notches on your travelling stick, or the consumption of packaged travel "products".

Travel is, as we were reminded repeatedly at PhoCusWright, the world's largest industry. But the HI convention the next day brought me back to the reality that while there is an industry that provides services to travellers, travel itself isn't an industry, a product, or a commodity. Travel is an aspect of our lives: something we do, not something we buy. We may pay for transportation, just as we may pay for schooling, but we can't buy experience any more than enlightenment -- even if, in the best of worlds, travel sometimes brings us both.

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 22 November 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Quite agree that "Travel" products are commodity to be bought and consumed. But travel itself means more than that. Every traveler has their own definition and meaning for travel, even if untold.

Posted by: Jean, 30 November 2009, 06:00 ( 6:00 AM)
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