James Wallman On The Power of Well-Designed Travel

A firm believer that well-designed travel is the key to success, Stuffocation and Time and How to Spend It author James Wallman chats with The Wordrobe about favourite trips, the importance of excess and why experiences trump material objects when it comes to finding happiness

As Joel Spolsky, the creator of Trello once uttered: “Design adds value faster than it adds costs.” We expect great design when it comes to our technology, our homes, our media and our food – so why should our travel be any different?

A firm believer that well-designed travel is the key to success, Stuffocation and Time and How to Spend It author James Wallman chats with The Wordrobe ahead of his brand-new six-day ‘Morocco and the science of how to get more from your time‘ New Scientist Discovery Tour, which will be taking place in 2023.

For the first time ever, James Wallman will be helping adventure-minded travellers put his expert experience frameworks into practice as they roam through the Marrakech medina where haggling is customary and winding alleyways lead to impressive riads and historical palaces. Sophie Ritchie caught up with James to find out more about the upcoming experience, as well as his latest travel trend predictions, career highlights and why he finds the word ‘wellness’ positively dull.

Tell us more about your career background. How did you get into the industry?

After Classics at Oxford, what next? I didn’t fancy politics, so I wandered and bounced from marketing and sales for a tech firm in Silicon Valley to being a ski guide in France, a holiday rep in Greece, and then onto working in digital marketing in London.

I then settled down to become a travel journalist which took me from Amsterdam and Australia, Uganda and the UAE. During this time, I also did some work as a trend forecaster, mainly in food and travel, and from there I was hooked on trend forecasting. 

I love it because it’s hard – it’s the future and no one knows what’s going to happen – so you just try to be as not-wrong as possible. Through this work I came across the problems with society and capitalism in the 21st century and began to realise that materialism is the root cause of both our system, but also many of our problems. As such, I came to understand that experiences, experientialism, and the Experience Economy are an increasingly important part of our future.

What’s been your favourite experience you’ve designed to-date?
I’d like to offer two. Firstly, a private jet experience that followed the Andean spine down South America. Secondly, most experiences that I have with my family since writing Time and How to Spend It are my favourite, most memorable are the time we went to Paris / Disney, or when the kids and I go camping. 

The key to any experience is using the STORIES checklist which I wrote about in Time and How To Spend It. This stands for Story, Transformation, Outside & Offline, Relationships, Intensity, Extraordinary, and Status & Significance. When designing the arc of an experience, consider how to make the ending matter and ensure there’s story and flow in order to transform our use of time and make it an enriching experience. 

Could you explain a little more about why experiences rather than material objects are the key to happiness?
To be clear, stuff is great. I love my watch, my phone, my hiking books as much as my kids love their Lego, their bikes and so on. But experiences are just far more likely to bring all the things that make us happy. 

Here’s a few reasons…

  1. “Hedonic adaptation”: people get bored of material goods more quickly. 
  2. “Positive re-interpretation”: even if experiences go wrong, people view them through rose-tinted glasses, that is, they positively re-interpret them.
  3. “Fuzzy comparison”: experiences are harder to compare. When people spend on experiences, they are less likely to compare them to other alternatives, and fret less about whether they are choosing or have chosen the best option. This is positive for individuals, and there is also a pro-social benefit: if people are less aware of social comparisons, this will lead to a less stratified, less consciously divided, and therefore happier, society. 
  4. Smaller footprint: experiences are inherently less material. This is not the case with all experiential purchases, e.g. a flight to Borneo, but since experiential goods are, by their nature, not material, in the long term they are more likely to be less bad for the environment. (Also, consider the upstream and downstream waste that are part and parcel of every material good.)
  5. Experiences are pro-social: research suggests that experiential consumption brings out our better nature.
  6. Flow feels good: being in the state that Mihaly Czsikzentmihalyi calls “flow” is essential for happiness. It is far easier to get into that state with an experiential good than a material good.
  7. Experiences give us identity: people think of experiences as more important to who they are. 
  8. Experiences bring us closer to others:  because we tend to do things with other people.
  9. Social media: As more Britons share more of their lives on social media, experiences are now better at giving social status than material goods.

What’s awaiting adventurers in Morocco with New Scientist Discovery Tours?
The Morocco and the science of how to get more from your time with New Scientist Discovery Tours is a chance to get a taste of this amazing part of the world. I’ve been for work, for play, for a friend’s 40th and always spend days in Marrakech’s medina. This tour is principally based on the insights and framework of my two bestselling books and has been curated via the emerging art and science of experience design. 

During the tour we’ll see, we’ll experience, and we’ll play. I will be accompanying guests on the tour itself and coaching them through the science of how best to spend time based on the STORIES framework – the first scientifically evidenced way of designing how you spend your time – using immersive workshops and walking seminars. I’ll also be setting challenges and helping guests on how to design their own time for future trips. 

From the smoky grills of Jemaa el Fna and haggling in the markets to unwinding during a hammam treatment, we will enjoy both joyous and challenging moments, as well as educational and transformational experiences.

I will also run online workshops for the group before and after the tour in order to maximise the experience. Through this one-of-a-kind tour, guests will discover that you can get a life’s worth of memories in just a few days. 

What does wellness mean to you? 
I wish we could find a better word. Wellness feels so calm, worthy, dull. Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’ – the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency – has always bugged me so much; excess is so important in the meaningful life. We shouldn’t seek just a calm balance, but instead a spiky, crazy, wild, balanced with calm, settled, and good. 

I wish we had a good translation of ‘eudaimonia’- the Greek word for well and your spirit (daimon in Greek = animus in Latin)… but we don’t. I wish we all aimed for a eudaimonic life!

I find that ‘happiness’ measures are so flat and uninspiring. Look at London for example: expensive, so big, so far from the ocean and mountains, but also really interesting and inspiring. Eudaimonia – in my view – is about taking a holistic approach and how the combined physical, mental, psychological, spiritual, social, cultural elements shape that. 

And it’s not just ‘health’ and ‘wellness’. It’s hard and easy. It’s fun and meaningful. It’s time so well spent your hair should be on fire (and you’re putting it out by diving into a warm blue sea). 

Do you have any predictions for 2023 travel trends? 
Firstly; much better designed travel, borrowing from other experience design fields. Why shouldn’t tourist experience designers learn from theme park or immersive or brand experience designers? 

Second, workations. 

Third, escapist, experiential travel: story-infused trips – a bit like LARP (live action role play). 

Fourth, ‘immersive anchors’ aka experiences as place-making. Just as the Guggenheim put Bilbao on the map, so Meow Wolf has put Denver and Santa Fe on the map. Bristol is becoming quite the experience destination: put Wake The Tiger (a new fantastical interactive art experience) together with The Wave (Bristol’s inland surf destination), and you can have a very powerful mental/physical flow experience.

Where’s next on your travel bucket list?
I don’t really have a bucket list. I won’t get the chance to see / do all the things I’d love to do on this big / small blue dot anyway. I’m a tourist always and everywhere. I’m going to Birmingham, Utah, and Breda in the Netherlands soon and all of them appeal to me. Just the going. The thrill of going somewhere. 

I’d really like to visit the Lofoten Islands sometime, the Cyclades or Dodecanese in Greece (though I’ve never been to Halkidiki, so I wouldn’t mind going there). I’d love to walk/climb the Via Ferrata in the Dolomites. Chennai with the family (my wife’s from there). LA because of all the interesting experiences going on there and the people I know through work.

Finally, what’s one thing you can’t travel without?
For me, it’s curiosity, open-eyes, and at least a few local phrases. I love to travel and always have. I’m not bothered by tourist sites. Instead for me, it’s the thousand little things that grab my attention: the signs, the fonts, the local foods, the labels on the beer, the way people order their coffee, the way people greet each other, the sounds they make when they tell each other stories. 

And then, trying to strike up conversations with local people.

James Wallman is the best-selling author of ‘Stuffocation’ and ‘Time and How to Spend It’, founder / CEO of the World Experience Organization and expert experience economist. More information and registration for ‘Morocco and the science of how to get more from your time’ is available at newscientist.com/tours/morocco-science-your-time/

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