Acting Outside the Box: Promoting Transformational Travel

It is a well-known maxim that one should think outside of the box, but how many of us take the crucial next step of acting beyond those parameters? The Polymath Project, a Blueliner companion podcast program, devotes the first of a series of travel-centric episodes to exploring this question.

In the episode, Arman Rousta extols the virtues of travel, discovery, and personal reinvention. He also reflects on the future of the global travel industry, and offers guidelines for the creation of an ethical, inclusive, and sustainable framework for cultures most impacted my tourism.

The video in its entirety can be viewed below, or accessed through the following, unabridged transcript.


How’s everybody doing? It’s Thursday, May 11th. Nice sunny weather out here in New York, New Jersey. It’s the first time in a while that we can actually get out and really enjoy this early part of spring. And it gets a lot of people going in terms of summer plans, travel plans–myself included. So today we wanted to actually talk about that; talk about what we do when we need to move out of our space; when we need to get a break from our day-to-day grind, our day-to-day lifestyle. Amazingly, and interestingly, a lot of people don’t get to travel as much. There’s a lot of statistics on this. In any country, essentially, a large segment of the population doesn’t really get to travel much outside of that country, or sometimes even outside of their their square . . . . their normal routine . . . their hometown . . . maybe their neighboring town. And I wanted to focus on that today from a few perspectives.

First and foremost, as some of you may know, my career for 25 years has been tourism, travel and tourism, digital marketing for that sector, as well as other areas, other industries. But tourism has always been a special draw for me, and for us as Blueliner, the agency. It’s very interesting and exciting work, even if you’re not traveling to destinations, to kind of percolate your imagination on what it might be like. Looking at pictures, looking at videos, writing copy, and doing marketing for a destination usually presents some intriguing opportunities. It’s a fun industry to work with and for, and, interestingly, in the first three-to-four years of my experience working for those kinds of companies–it was early in my career, I was younger, I was in my twenties, just really hustling and working hard, putting in a lot of hours–I didn’t often take a minute to actually travel to those places.

So I remember we had this one client in Belize–Chaa Creek resorts. It looked like–and looks like—one of the most beautiful places you could imagine. Very naturistic, very green, a lot of ecotourism, award-winning. Not like a big hotel, more like boutique style cabins and whatnot. And I remember actually planning a trip towards the end of the time we worked with them. I actually never got to go out to that particular destination. And why is that? Why did that happen? For me, I was just “in it.” I was in the grind; in this New York City agency life working hard to make the money.

But at the same time, I didn’t have enough awareness, or a moment to take a pause and say, “You know what? I could probably do a better job for this client if I spend a week there!” And we certainly had the invitations. And we’re actually trying to reconnect, you know, with Chaa Creek right now. And there were others because we did so well for them. Others in Belize heard about our services, our tourism marketing, and brought us in. And I’ll contrast that, because that was the first part of my career or agency work with tourism. And then, in 2011, it flipped, because we met some people from the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, the DOT, and they brought in Blueliner for a whole SEO strategy, being the agency of record there.

And the first thing they said to us is, “Now that we’ve hired you, the first requirement is you need to get on a plane and come out to Grand Cayman with anyone who’s gonna work on this account. (Not just me. It was several of us.) “Anyone who’s gonna work on our account needs to know the product, right?” In the tourism industry, the product is the destination, the hotels, the experiences, the tour operators, the restaurants . . . All of that is part of the so-called product. But it’s a real place. It’s a guarantee. It’s a real place. It’s a beautiful island. And you go–not from a business point of view, not from a marketing point of view, just from a life experience point of view. Any new place that’s outside of your box, your normal square, is a beautiful experience.

And for me, it was really eye-opening. I fell in love with Grand Cayman. Of course, the Cayman Islands has a reputation as a tax haven, and the movies portray it as this sneaky, shady place, but that’s not what it is. You can’t believe what you see in the movies or the media. You have to experience things in real time for yourself before you make any judgements. And so I went there with an open mind, and that was the first in 2011 of 20-plus trips that I’ve taken since then, specifically to Grand Cayman.

We still have clients there. I have some of my best friends there. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place, as are many places in the Caribbean and around the world. But that was our fortune, with Blueliner, that we created that connection. And we learned a lot about how to do more effective travel and tourism, marketing; how to connect with a new local culture; because the Caribbean flair in different countries takes on a different vibe, right? Belize, St. Lucia, Cayman, Barbados, Bermuda . . . When you go to a place, there’s what tourism/marketing wants to show you: the best hotels, the best beaches, the best restaurants, which often have a bit of the local flavor, but sometimes they’re kind of . . . imported.

It’s something they brought over because it was a model that worked, a big hotel, call it Sandals or whoever in the Bahamas. We’re gonna bring that same concept over to another island and maybe add a little local flair. Obviously a lot of the staff might be local. In Cayman, interestingly, a lot of staff, local people ended up being expats, people from Europe, Canada, different countries. And then you had that mixed with the more true, native locals. And one of my main points here is that I always preferred to meet someone local early in my trip and ask them to take me to the places that weren’t on the, on the docket, on the Trip Advisor list. And no knock against any online travel agent or social media, but there’s always part of the island or part of the tourism experience that they want you to see that the government might want to promote. And then there’s always, “Let’s go off the beaten path a little bit. Let’s see what life is really like for the locals.” You know?

One of my best friends to this day is out there–Dwayne O’Connor in Grand Cayman. And at the time, he was driving the tour bus for a company called Webster’s Tours, I believe. And while the tour guide from the government would be giving the speech in the back, I’d go sit with Dwayne in the front and say, “Okay, that was a nice place for lunch, but where are we going tonight? Take me to a local restaurant, a local bar.” And we started doing that. And that’s how I would recommend you experience a place.

Of course, you can check all the boxes of all the nice and best beaches and sights to see, and then, meet a local family or friend or someone that can show you a little more of the heartbeat, a little more of the soul of a place. And that applies to an island or a city just the same, right? I’m here in New York. People come to New York City and it’s all about seeing Times Square. the Empire State Building, and all of that touristy stuff. And then there’s, “Let me show you real life in New York. Let me take you to this quote-unquote ‘hole in the wall’, or a tiny little shack, you know, in Brooklyn where they’ve got the best burgers or the best pizza, right?” So I think that, as we look at–obviously with social media–there’s so much out there that’s coming, that’s part of marketing.

And some people want to check the boxes and go to the most popular, safe attractions. And this is what I would encourage for anyone that wants to really get a vibe of a place, to go off that more beaten path and try to find some local flair, some local connection. So yeah, just kind of coming back to a high level, as far as just traveling in general . . . you kind of have to go somewhere. You kind of have to get outside of your box to get somewhere. We have staff, we have people we work with in different parts of the world all over. And you can usually tell the difference between someone that’s never left that city or that country, and those that have. For example, we spoke to Kayas in a recent episode from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and he spent eight years in Europe studying, working, experiencing, quote unquote “Western life” as opposed to his Eastern upbringing, if we want top kind of pitch east, east versus west. And it’s a different mindset, right? It’s a whole different way of thinking. Even though I had traveled quite a bit to different countries when I first ran the office and we opened up in Bangladesh and India, there’s certain cultural things that you just can’t understand by reading about them or because someone tells you. You have to go there. You can’t have the digital experience or the conversational experience. You have to have that analog real life experience by going to Dhaka in Bangladesh and seeing that at 7:00 PM, the lights really do go out, the electricity . . . it’s a daily thing they struggle with. And then you learn about language like “load-shedding.” It’s like, “Okay, this grid really is struggling to carry the electricity!” And we take it for granted over here where power’s on all the time, except if you were part of the New York City blackout in the early nineties. In other parts of the world, there’s a whole different relationship to the ecosystem, the environment, nature, electricity, modern technology, right?
Getting a good internet connection, not something to just take for granted. And if you could find some place where you actually can’t get good reception, maybe that’s a good thing. And maybe that’s a cue to put the devices down and have that no-tech, low-tech, real-life grounded experience. And you know, again, for a guy from New York, like myself, born and raised here, when I get those trips, when I’ve been to the Caribbean, when I go to those trips to Cayman, it always takes two or three days to unwind a little bit. As much as I can do meditation and connect to nature here, when I go there, it’s just a different pace. It’s a different pace of speaking, of living.

And as Dwayne and others tell me, “Yeah, it’s Island Time, man . . . Island Time. Slow down, slow down . . .” And yeah, it takes a couple days and then you get it. You start syncing up with a different pace. And so that’s one very important reason to get out of whatever your current mode is. Whatever your current known way of operating is, you relate to other people better. We relate to the team in Bangladesh more now, because I’ve been there several times and I see what happens when the lights go out, and they have to still figure out, “How am I gonna get home, right? And I’ve got no battery in my phone.” Or it’s prayer time, or you’re there during Ramadan, as we talked about in recent episodes. This is a time of year where things change drastically depending on the part of the world you’re in.And you have to understand that. You have to be able to connect to that.
How does this all apply to marketing and tourism and how we’re rethinking tourism collectively as a group of professionals and an industry? And we still have a number of tourism clients. We have work with Health City and the medical tourism sector and it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful combination of not just tourism for entertainment’s sake, but actual purposeful travel. You know, “I need this procedure and it would be nice to recover with a beachfront view as opposed to city smog and noise.” Right? Isn’t that better and healthier in a lot of ways? That’s part of the draw of Health City and other medical tourism and destination travel. We’ve come up with a lot along the way, but it has to be authentic and the people that go through that have to actually experience that. COVID hit and a lot of that shut down. A lot of our clients and a lot of people suffered who were part of that industry worldwide.

We all suffered and struggled and had some major part of our lives shut down. The internet in general didn’t go away, but those thousand guests per night at that hotel that you worked at shut down instantly. Cayman was one of the ones that shut down for the longest time. So I’m very happy that we’re in a mode now where almost every place is open again with as few restrictions as possible. Right now, this week, the C H T A conference is going on in Barbados. I so wish I could be there. I send my regards to the folks that are out there, and it’s a great time for all of us to really rethink the whole industry of tourism. I think it needs to be more authentic. We need to get, again, more of the support and respect and the integration with the locals. The people that are in that community have to have as much of a say as the politicians in terms of building those new hotels. Is it going to create jobs? Is it going to really uplift and support the culture and the economy? Not just the economy, but the actual community? Or is it going to cannibalize local restaurants and businesses because now these big branded multi-billion dollar conglomerate hotel companies are coming in. They’re always going to come in, right? And it’s always going to be that dance between the big money business conglomerates and the politicians that usually are trying to balance between serving those interests, their own personal interests and their actual constituents. And that same issue happens everywhere, not just on islands. That’s happening in cities, that’s happening all over. But as it applies to what we do, and as tools like AI come in to create all kinds of storytelling, it just increases the amount of storytelling that can be made.

These stories need to become more authentic, more true to the experience. Digital will never be able to replicate the experience you get by going to a place. So the first thing I’ll say is that as individuals and as professionals, we need to really make sure we have that authentic knowledge and experience of whatever it is we’re representing. So, back to what I said before, Blueliner and myself representing Chaa Creek and Belize, where I’ve never been, versus Grand Cayman and Caribbean Club and Health City, where we have been, and that we’ve had a vital part of creating from literally the first brick that was built at Health City. We were there for the foundation and the laying of that. It’s a very different experience. You become a partner in that process, whereas you’re just kind of a second or third-degree storyteller in that other process.

So that’s just kind of been part of my evolution and our evolution in working with this industry. I think it’s a wonderful industry. I think about the country where my family’s from, Iran, which is on the blacklist for so many Western countries, and in the US, people think it’s so dangerous and you can’t go there. And of course it does have its problems. I haven’t been to Iran myself for over 20 years, but when I did go with my dad in 1999, I was 25 and it was the first time I’ve been there since I was five years old. I can’t even tell you how much demystifying that trip did for me, because it was like, is it going to be safe? Are they going to let you out of the country? Are they going to take you into the army? And all this fear mongering that happens in media and in negative, reputation-damaging marketing that happens for many reasons. It was very important for me because that’s my culture, my history to go there and see for myself how amazing it is, how amazing the people are, how amazing the culture is, how historic and monumental this country is, and what it contains for all of world history, human history, and how much of that had been suppressed and pushed to the side by the Western Lens. Very, very important. And Anthony Bourdain had done a great show on Iran, where he was featuring different food and food culture. So, I highly recommend taking a look at that. And I’d love to see that part of the world open up more.

Turkey’s done an effective job on the marketing side. Whenever there’s political issues or social strife in a country, that’s always a flag. “Is it safe to go to Mexico?” Right? And there’s always going to be different angles. Cuba was one on the X list for so long and it opened up recently. I haven’t been yet, but I’ve heard amazing, amazing things. So you can’t really talk about something till you’ve been there, been in it. And then obviously, of a group of a hundred people that go somewhere, two people have a bad experience, and that’s their experience. Not everyone’s gonna have the same experience.

And this is why we started a brand called Bemoved. It’s something you’ll hear more about from us. It’s within the whole ethos of Golden Square and b.labs, and is what a new type of tourism company can look like–one that has more of that authenticity. Within Bemoved, we want to focus on transformational travel. So traveling as a real transformational opportunity. It’s great to go sit on a beach and just relax for a few days, but consider bringing some more purpose and intention into that journey. Get outside your box, get outside your square, and learn a new language, a new culture, a new meditation practice, whatever it may be. Those are the kind of experiences that within Bemoved we’re looking to curate, and really create that itinerary for people to make sure when you get somewhere, there is someone who’s local that you can connect with, where it isn’t just a job for them, but where they take real pride, because they grew up there. They were born there. They can tell you what these streets and places used to be before they built X, Y, and Z.

And that really covers the pinpoint of the rethink that I know is happening in different circles within tourism. But we want to be part of that conversation, which is why we’re also starting a new podcast specifically for tourism, travel, marketing, and business entrepreneurship. That’ll be great for anyone from hotel owners, to locals in a particular destination, to a tour operator that’s got a boat that takes people out on tours and diving tours within their particular destination. And we’ll also do a more hands-on workshop that’ll get into the details of the tools we foresee, and how they can be effective in not just marketing and promoting, because again, the full word is really “marketing communications.” I like that word–“communications”. And how authentic and honest and accurate are your communications?

We can always market things with all the fluff and the bells and whistles, and if it’s not an accurate depiction of the product, that’s deceitful, right? And so I think there’s some level of honesty that needs to come to our marketing and communications and advertising, especially for tourism. A sector where you’re selling and promoting an experience needs to really parallel what you’re putting out. There needs to be authentic and connect to what people will really experience when they have the experience.

So the last thing I’ll leave everyone with is just whatever your box is– your four corners–you should travel. Even if you do travel somewhere–you might have a summer home, but if it’s always the same, if you’re in New York and you’re going to the Hamptons for the summer, that’s great, that’s a journey–but whatever your current box is, try to think about what can be outside that box.

It reminds me of the first actual tagline we had for Blueliner back in 2000. Everyone talked about thinking outside the box, while we like to be more thinking, planning, and acting outside the box. So what does your current box look like–whether it’s your living situation, or your travel, and the way you move in life? Try to put a couple of darts or pins in the map outside that box and challenge yourself to go there for a day or two . . . a week . . . a month. . . whatever you can manage. And go with a particular intention as well. Like, I’m gonna go here and I’m gonna learn X. And try to connect that to something you can learn from people who are local to that particular place. Challenge yourself. Get outside your comfort zone, get outside of your box, and let me know how it goes. Cheers.


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