After 14 years in the NFL, All-Pro wide receiver Anquan Boldin went into 2017 undecided about whether to play one last season. He wanted to take some time before the season to clear his head, so he and his wife Dionne booked a vacation to South Africa with Explorer X, a Seattle-based travel company that focuses on the concept of “transformational travel.”

Not long after Boldin returned from the trip, he announced his retirement, leaving millions of dollars in potential checks uncashed. Instead, he’d decided to focus on philanthropic work in the community. 

Explorer X co-founder Michael Bennett had a visceral reaction when he heard the news: “Holy [expletive], I broke Anquan Boldin!”

The truth, however, is that he helped show the Boldin family — Anquan and Dionne have two sons — an off-the-beaten-path direction to which they’d like to devote the rest of their lives. 

The family spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, and on safari during that trip, logging huge distances in both miles and belief.

“I don’t know too many people that can say they were 5 feet away from a lion in its own habitat and walked away,” Boldin said. “Also, we were able to go the prison where Nelson Mandela had been locked up and actually take a tour from one of the guards that was actually a guard at the facility while Mandela was detained there. So the entire trip was refreshing and it was also an eye-opener for us.”

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On their trip to South Africa, the Boldin family followed Bennett’s approach, which includes things like reading suggestions, journal prompts and meals in the homes of local families rather than five-star dining. The result, they say, was a meaningful, transformational experience that really helped them take a step back from their lives and reflect.

“Going away for that time, it allowed us to get away from everything, clear our heads, be together and make a decision as a family. Getting away allowed us to consider the pros and cons of either playing or retiring,” Boldin said.

Travel — as practiced by most Americans in the 21st century — has increasingly come to be seen as wasteful and aristocratic, a driver of environmental damage and cultural insensitivity, and the pandemic has only increased the pace of the discussion about the future of travel. 

As the Boldins discovered, there are a lot of alternatives to the model we currently practice, enabled by jumbo jets, giant cruise ships and interstate highways. There are ways to make travel sustainable, educational, regenerative, philanthropic. Jake Haupert formed The Transformational Travel Council in 2017 to help embrace and focus this way of thinking. 

The council promotes travel that’s intensely personal, however that’s achieved. It has more than 300 members and its concepts are gaining popularity as people seek something … more.  

“I started to see how people were traveling and what traveling had become in the last 20 to 30 years, especially with the onset of online travel agencies and Expedia,” Haupert said. “There was just a significant disconnect in terms of the power of travel and what was actually unfolding in the field and on the trip. It was centered around and continues to be around entertainment, and then people traveling with a sense of entitlement, and often looking at it from the perspective of, ‘What can I get out of it,’ instead of, ‘What can I give?’”

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Thanks to the pandemic, there’s a lot of that sort of inner reflection going on. And the growing number of companies like Explorer X that help the traveler focus on something other than margaritas consumed and selfies logged with Mickey and the gang are already seeing huge interest as we shake off the COVID-19 blues.

“We already have 2,000 nights booked this summer,” said Corey Weathers, owner of sustainability-minded ROAM Beyond, a Washington-based company that matches adventurers seeking a wilderness experience with sustainable accommodations in Washington and Montana. “The mindset of the traveler right now versus last May is dramatically different. I mean, you almost can’t compare the two.”  

“We’re looking for remote and wild places, we’re looking for quiet spaces, we’re looking for dark skies, we’re looking for places that sort of create the sense of awe and wonder so you can hopefully find more clarity,” Haupert said. “And with clarity, you have a clear vision of who you are and who you want to be, right? And then you have the opportunity to build up confidence and be more courageous when you come home and hopefully enact some sort of transformation.”

That aspect is what attracted the Boldins, who met Bennett through then-Arizona Cardinals teammate Larry Fitzgerald. They’ve been to Europe, Egypt and Australia and have now scheduled around 10 trips with Explorer X. 

“I think we work well together because he gets our vision not to travel as tourists,” Dionne Boldin said. “We like wherever we are to understand the culture and see if there’s a need there that we could perhaps address somewhere down the road. We’re always looking to not just travel, but to allow travel to transform us.

“That’s the reason we started taking our kids. It’s our goal to raise children that are culturally aware, not just knowing that there are beautiful places to see, but there’s so much more to a country than just what you see.”

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Bennett crystallized the transformational travel concept while seeking a doctorate in education at Pepperdine University. He built the idea around Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, a monomyth shared by many cultures that can be used to illustrate many things about life. Campbell often summed up the hero’s journey as this: “Follow your bliss.”

“And I was like, ‘This is exactly what happens on a travel adventure,’” Bennett said. “There’s the departure and separation where people are longing for something new and something different, whether it’s the feeling of being alive or a new perspective or whatever that might be. And then we go on this incredible experience with challenges and trials. And then we come home where we use what we’ve learned to create change in our lives and our communities.”

But the modern adventurer must also put in the work before leaving on the adventure to get anything out of it.

“If they don’t engage, they come back and say, ‘Wait, I don’t feel anything different,’” Bennett said. “Well, you didn’t do anything, man. You can’t sign up for a gym membership and sit on your couch and expect to get ripped. You’ve got to go to the damn gym.”

Jenn Spatz agrees with that way of thinking, and her Global Family Travels tours are meant to be hands-on, often with a charitable component that can expose families to different ways of life and different ways of interacting with people you meet on your journeys.

“I started the business with the idea of inspiring people to kind of become global citizens and learn about the community challenges and really authentically connect with the destination and the people at the destination that you visit,” Spatz said. “So I’m hoping that there are people who are seeking more meaningful travel now. You always remember the beauty of the destination, but the things that you really come home with are the people you met and the experiences you have learning from each other.”

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Spatz teams with international nonprofits to match clients with appropriate experiences. Trips have included a visit to a remote Himalayan village, where a large-scale garbage cleanup with schoolchildren was conducted, visits to Costa Rica focused on sustainability and an African safari with the conservation effort around painted dogs at its heart. Up next, she’s working on a climate-change-themed tour of Iceland.

“It fills my soul and it fills my heart to see other people going and enjoying themselves and learning and coming back and sharing their experiences,” Spatz said. 

She notes you don’t have to leave town to have this sort of transformative experience. She has begun partnering with local nonprofits to design local tours, both for tourists and for those who want to know more about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. They include a city garden tour, an experience built around The Center for Wooden Boats at South Lake Union, a look at the coal mining history of Newcastle and a street art tour of Seattle.

“We sort of pivoted to look at what we could do to learn about the history of Seattle in fun and engaging ways,” she said. “There’s so much to learn here in our own backyard. So we took our three travel pillars and went and interviewed community partners like the Black Farmers Collective and The Center for Wooden Boats to create these experiences that are immersed in the communities that we work in.”

Having a space to practice that journey is what drove Weathers to found ROAM Beyond. The company was an outgrowth of his original venture, Homegrown Trailers, which started when his buddies predicted the end of his climbing trips after his daughter was born. He couldn’t find sustainable, recreational vehicle-style trailers, so he built one. 

“I was never an RV person, and honestly I had not really thought of it up until that point, but it took us on a really interesting path over the next six or eight months of talking through, does it make sense?” Weathers said. “And I was doing sustainability work at the time, working with energy efficiency and building conservation projects, so I was very much in that world and in that mindset. And so we built the first one just purely as a fun side project, which ultimately gave us a prototype to the company.”

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Soon after putting the RVs on the market, Weathers and his partners noticed something interesting (and a little concerning). RV rentals were hot. RV sales, not so much. So they asked their social media followers what was up.  

“They said, ‘We love the romantic idea of getting off the grid, getting out in nature, doing it a sustainable way, the idea of having solar panels that create our power and being in a place that we wouldn’t necessarily go into otherwise,’” Weathers said. “And so they wanted to have an experience, not to own it. And I remember walking in business partners office and saying, ‘We’re in the wrong business.’”

Two years later, they’ve pivoted and hope to reap the rewards.

“Everyone in the travel industry has been waiting for this moment for well over a year now,” Weathers said. “On a domestic level, we’re seeing 60 or 70% of our bookings right now are people coming from all over the country flying in for a couple days. By comparison, in January and February, it was probably 90% people driving and very few people flying.”

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