Transformational Travel with Michael Bennett
Interview by Everett Potter
I met Michael Bennett of Muddy Shoe Adventures at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Ireland two years ago. He had lots to say about something called “transformational travel,” so I thought it best to have him explain what this movement is all about.
EP: What is “transformational travel?”
MB: Transformational travel (TT) is an emerging style of travel that intentionally combines challenging physical adventures with immersive cultural experiences and inspirational group discussions. Travelers are often — but not always — joined on their adventure by an expert program leader who leads them through a series of discussions and conversations that help them reflect on and learn from their experiences and begin to apply what they are learning to situations, opportunities, and challenges in their lives.
EP: How did the idea originate?
MB: In 2009, after a series of life-changing travel experiences of my own, I set out on a quest to explore the transformational power of travel in more depth. The intention of my doctoral dissertation was to identify the critical elements of a truly life-changing adventure experience, specifically within the adult population.
My findings largely mirrored Joseph Campbell’s concept of The Hero’s Journey: People felt called to go on an adventure and set out on a journey that challenged them in a variety of ways – physically, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, etc. Throughout the process of overcoming those challenges, they learned important lessons about themselves, other people, and life in general. Having gained wisdom, skills, and new perspectives from their adventures, they returned home with an action plan for transforming their own lives. The outward journey of the travel experience ended up being a catalyst for the internal journey of personal exploration and discovery.
By the time I completed the research, it had become clear to me that, while programs such as Outward Bound and NOLS existed to help young people transform their lives through travel and adventure, few (if any) of these programs were available for adults. I launched Muddy Shoe Adventures as a way to support adults in adventuring out on their own Hero’s Journey and using those experiences to change their lives.
EP: Tell us about your partners.
MB: We work with several key partners not only to deliver our TT programs, but also to help spread the word about the concept of transformational travel. Jake Haupert of Evergreen Escapes, Kurt Kutay of Wildland Adventures, Don Mankin of Adventure Transformations, and I recently launched the Transformational Travel Association (TTA) as a platform for us to work collaboratively in sharing resources and information about transformational travel with people, promoting our TT adventures, and even offering programs and services for tour operators, accommodation providers, and tourism boards looking to create more transformational experiences for people visiting their destinations.
EP: From the standpoint of adventure travel, what does it mean to “get out of your comfort zone?”
MB: Adventure travel and “getting out of your comfort zone” are synonymous. The whole point of an adventure travel experience is to push your personal boundaries, expand your horizons, and shift your perspectives. And while some people still think that adventure travel only includes activities like scaling mountain peaks or navigating down raging rivers, organizations like the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) are doing a great job of promoting the fact that cultural experiences can push our comfort zones as much (or more) than any physical activities. Adventure experiences — whether they are physical adventures, powerful cultural experiences, or spiritual encounters — invite us to reconsider our perspectives and beliefs about the world and about who we are. This process of exploration and discovery is what “getting out of your comfort zone” is all about. Adventure travel just happens to be a natural catalyst for it.
EP: You mention that part of the process is to “engage in rich and inspirational discussions about what they are experiencing.” Could you tell us more how this actually works?
MB: A critical part of the transformational process is taking time to reflect on and make meaning from your experiences. We have found that, in addition to personal reflection, group discussions are particularly powerful in that they naturally provide a variety of new perspectives, thoughts, and ideas for people to consider. On our TT programs, a trained program leader joins the group to foster these conversations. Sitting around the campfire or the dinner table after a day of hiking or whitewater rafting, they ask questions that invite clients to share and reflect on what they experienced (what?), learn from those experiences (so what?), and begin integrating what they are learning into their life (now what?). These conversations help people process their experience while building bonds with their fellow travelers.
EP: What are the end goals?
MB: Simply put, the end goals of any transformational travel experience are to inspire, empower, and support people in using travel experiences to create positive changes in their lives. That could mean starting a company or launching a new career, moving across the country or the world to follow a dream, connecting with their spirituality in a powerful way, or shifting their perspectives and living a more mindful and compassionate life. Beyond the individual, we have also seen how these changes positively impact the families and communities of those transformed through travel. In short: TT is not only about transforming lives … it is truly about transforming the world. That is what the Hero’s Journey is all about!
For more on Transformational Travel