A state of liminality: How understanding traveler psychology can facilitate smarter investments

Emerce interviewed me after hosting a roundtable session with leaders from all areas of the travel value chain. Re-published with permission.

(Lees dit interview in het Nederlands )

Why do some people line up at the gate before boarding has even started? How come normally placid people get so agitated at security? In other words, what are the causes of travel stress and how can the travel sector address them? Having carried out anthropological research itself, Mirabeau invites the industry to join forces in the follow-up.

While a great deal of research is being conducted into the travel experience, it usually ends with conclusions such as ‘travelers experience stress’. The reasons behind this stress are rarely placed under the microscope. What is going on in the minds of people at an airport like Schiphol – why does traveling feel so stressful? At Mirabeau we believe that understanding the answers to these questions will enable us to work on solutions which add value and truly tackle the issue.

“The customer travel experience is multi-dimensional due to the complexity of people, their emotions & expectations and the various links in the travel value chain,” says Maarten Kappert, senior creative consultant at Mirabeau. “It is something we have studied extensively, providing our clients with an overview of where the friction lies. We recently added a new dimension with anthropological research, carrying out our first study at Schiphol.”

The Amsterdam airport was chosen as a research area because it provides a complex situation where many people come together and lots of stress is generated. Kappert: “We gave an anthropologist from our research team a relatively open task: observe and tell us what you see. She translated this into a three-stage study.”

The first step was to interview a number of frequent travelers. They were then asked to take pictures during their trip of things that stood out or stirred them, either in a positive or negative sense. The third stage was to look together at those photos after they returned from their travels and let them re-experience their trip based on the images. “The photos we received seemed random, but they all had a story,” Kappert continues. “A photo of a vase with flowers at the airport was included because a traveler wondered why all airports look the same worldwide.”

Gradually, the anthropologist discovered that the motions and experiences of the travelers are in line with a phenomenon that was first described in 1909, namely liminality. Liminality is the doubt or disorientation that occurs when you go through certain rites and experience change, but have yet to reach the stage of someone who has completed the rite. Imagine a boy who must complete a ritual to be seen as a grown man. He performs a variety of actions which are not normal to him that cause insecurity and tension – a state of liminality. And this is not limited to African tribes. A child taking first communion or a student enduring the hazing process are subject to the same phenomenon. 

At the Emerce Travel conference participants of the roundtable examined how travelers prefer to make contact.

No choice for travelers

Something similar occurs at the airport as travelers are forced to go through a number of strongly directed stages and processes. “There is no choice – if they want to board the plane, they must finish the ritual. And timing is of the essence. In fact, everything has been organized in such a way that travelers go through the process as efficiently as possible. It means that they have to deal with timetables, typical ‘labyrinth-style’ queues and lots and lots of arrows. Everything gives a sense of being led, giving up one’s autonomy.” 

German research shows that there are eight needs which determine the experience of a customer (or traveler): autonomy, competence, meaning, physicality, popularity, kinship, stimulation and safety/security. The state of liminality specifically has an impact on three of these needs: autonomy (you have to behave in a certain way that is often not first nature), competence (in contrast to your own world, you feel awkward or inept) and safety/security (the consequences of making a mistake can be massive). The compulsory nature of the state of liminality affects the experience and therefore the behavior of the traveler. 

So, how can this science be successfully translated into practice? “Suppose that the safety/security aspect makes passengers worry that their suitcases will get lost,” Kappert illustrates. “This leads them to pack their valuables in their carry-on bag. This is undesirable for the airport business as travelers will not go shopping so freely if they have to mind their valuables at the same time. Moreover, the airlines are facing increasingly full overhead lockers. To counteract the effect of liminality and make it less stressful for passengers to leave valuables in their suitcase, you could introduce a track & trace app or a VIP service that promises extra care for your luggage.” 

Understanding the psychology of travel helps explain deviating or undesirable traveler behavior and predict which solution would be effective. This applies to all aspects of the trip, not just airports. Mirabeau suspects that every environment, digital or physical, has its own psychology. Mirabeau is initiating a series of studies to map the mindset and needs of travelers during the end-to-end journey, and invites the sector to help establish and realize these to help ensure the findings have direct value. 

Book, Stay, Go

The kick-off for the new research took place at Emerce Travel in early June, during a roundtable with ten players from all parts of the travel sector aimed at finding out their research needs. The participants were divided into three groups (‘Book’, ‘Go’ and ‘Stay’). Team Book (tour operators, travel agents) examined how travelers prefer to make contact – what do they expect and when are they prepared to pay for extra service? Team Go (transport) was particularly interested in how a better understanding of the travelers’ mindsets could lead to a frictionless customer journey that also facilitates the business goals. The main issue in the psychology for team Stay (accommodation) was where to find leads for increasing customer loyalty and the number of direct bookings, as well as steering behavior in general.

Mirabeau will be meeting with various interested participants to compile concrete research plans that should lead to joint studies.