Bored with unique experiences: how the phrase loses its meaning

Unique experiences. Two words that invoke anticipation, excitement, wonder – but why oh why am I so bored with them?

The race in travel & tourism to provide unique experiences to travellers is relentless. Just this past month, examples include Airbnb throwing a contest offering participants the chance to spend a night in a custom-designed bedroom on the Great Wall of China (although it had to withdraw the contest after an online backlash).

Or, just look at the new wave of unique experiences being offered in the Maldives. They include The Muraka, the world’s first undersea residence at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island; an ice rink at Jumeirah Vittaveli (I’m still baffled why anyone would want ice when the bluest water is all around); and the Sculpture Coralarium at Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, although the fate of this underwater art museum cum coral regeneration project is still unclear at the time of writing.

It’s not unique experiences themselves that bore me; it’s that the term ‘unique experiences’ is so over-used that it has lost its meaning and become an industry cliché.

Here’s a typical example, from a speaker at ILTM Asia Pacific opening forum recently: “We believe that nowadays this market (Gen Me and Gen X) is defined through the combination of the richness and uniqueness of the travel experience itself, not just the hotel brand or the flight class. Accordingly, this experience must also deliver a level of social bragging rights that allows travellers to express their individuality. It needs to be aspirational, enviable – and, above all, Instagrammable.”

The industry is taking the need to provide unique experiences all too seriously that it may be counter-intuitive. The first issue I have is, unique for whom? Travel is an experience in itself and unique to an individual. This past year, I’ve been to places that are unique for me, for example Paestum in southern Italy, and others that aren’t, for instance, New Zealand, even though I’m sure it is for others.

Moreover, unique experiences can easily be copied in today’s global world and social media sharing. There are many undersea or underwater restaurants now. There are so many tours and activities that ‘living like a local’ has also become another cliché. Isn’t it exhausting to keep trying to come up with unique experiences when a differentiator today can quickly become a standard tomorrow? And in doing so, isn’t the industry actually helping to create the ‘very demanding, always want something new, something Instagrammable’ customers it laments about today?

Who says we have to empower the customers so completely? Why not lead and shape the customer towards mindful travel rather than ‘insta’ travel (Instagram, instant gratification travel) which is so fleeting – like a spoilt kid who gets a new toy and seeks what’s next?

Ask new questions to shape the new traveller, e.g. what’s a unique experience that cannot be copied?

For me, that always has been great customer service – it’s unique to the place that offers it, is unique for everybody, and is almost always the first thing I remember about the travel and something that stays with me.  Is it an Instagrammable experience? No, it’s far more lasting and what keeps me loyal to a place, brand and service.

I fear the incessant chant on something as nebulous as the need to provide unique experiences is sidetracking the industry from discussing more meaningful issues.

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