We are in the second decade of the 21st century, and finally things are starting to
look promising for those who have been yearning for a “Jetsons” future. In a few years, your clients might be able to get to Los Angeles from San Diego in 12.5 minutes if they hop on a Hyperloop high-speed tube train that travels up to 760 miles per hour. Even sooner than that, they’ll be getting off their plane in “name your destination,” hop into a self-driving Uber to transport them to their hotel, where they’ve previously checked in via the hotel app, of course. There, their robobutler is waiting for them, having already drawn their bath, ordered room service, and turned on the guest’s favorite Netflix show with the help of Alexa, Amazon Echo’s virtual assistant.
As Recommend celebrates 50 years of helping travel agents sell travel, the editorial staff thought it fitting to look to the future to see where innovations—technological and otherwise—might be taking the travel industry, and so we reached out to tourism experts so they could give us their take on the Future of Travel.
Technology in the 21st century is moving at a much quicker pace than anticipated, and what we think as standard today can turn on a dime with the next big breakthrough—which can very well happen tomorrow. But, according to the industry experts we spoke with for this feature, there remains one constant, and that is that the human connection is vital for the travel experience.
We’ll dig into that, and a range of cool thoughts, ideas and beliefs throughout this feature, and although we’d love to report the exact date it will be the norm for you to book your clients on a space vacation, we weren’t able to get engineer and inventor Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) or Richard Branson on the line, and as Juan Perez Sosa, senior v.p. of sales and marketing, USA for Barcelo Hotel Group, says, “None of us has a crystal ball.” What we can tell you, though, is that our industry experts don’t believe artificial intelligence will be able to take over your jobs anytime soon. Read on and find out what else is bubbling in the travel industry, from an even more in-depth focus on creating truly customizable vacations via technology and the human brain, to using virtual reality to sell your clients on that vacation to an exotic locale (did someone say space?).
Cruising into the Future
When it comes to technology within the travel industry, there’s no doubt that cruising is at the forefront. They’ve embraced such cool ideas as cocktail-mixing robots and 3D movie theaters; have created smart technology tools that amplify a guest’s experience; designed virtual balconies; are using mapping technology to wow passengers; and have created viewing pods that soar above the ship and provide passengers with a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding ocean scenery. And there’s no stopping the technological advances, with the next couple of years seeing the debut of cantilevered platforms that move up and down a ship’s multiple decks, as well as multi-sensorial underwater lounges.
“Cruising is so young and such a dynamic sector that innovation will continue, and it’s going to be driven by the wants and the desires of the consumers,” says Cindy D’Aoust, CLIA’s CEO and president, adding that moving into the future, there will be more of an emphasis on customizing and personalizing the experience based on the traveler, and technology will only advance this. “The use of technology allows each individual traveler to provide their preferences and communicate their desires on what these unique experiences would look and feel like. Then the cruise lines would really need to deliver that personalized experience, whether you’re a grandmother traveling; you’ve got children with you; or you’re Millennials on your first cruise…it’s all of those opportunities to customize the experience,” D’Aoust says.
Adds John Delaney, Windstar Cruises’ president, “Our goal should be to create that intersection of highly personalized service with tracking and technology. Using both people skills and computer data to not only know, but also predict preferences. What flavor creamer or morning smoothie you like is a given now, but what active and adventurous shore excursion might you want to try next—we will suggest that for you.” Delaney also believes that cruise lines will embrace the sharing economy and technology trends that have proven to be successful models in lodging and transportation, “such as Airbnb and Uber. Maybe group sourcing of shore excursions or a worldwide museum pass—with all the innovative minds out there the possibilities and opportunities are immense.”
We see Artificial Intelligence stepping into this field [travel agencies] and trying to understand the consumers’ profiles, needs and demands, and trying to self-customize, but we don’t see where we are at the level where this really works. The human brain is a bigger data warehouse than CRM or any technology could provide, especially when it comes to sophisticated travel, and therefore we believe that the more agents can customize what they offer the more successful they will be.
– Serdar Kutucu, Vice President of Brand, Marketing and Communications, Design Hotels
Just like Delaney, the other cruise industry executives we spoke with said that the more knowledge clients have at their fingertips, the more important it will be for cruise lines to anticipate guests’ wants and likes/dislikes. Edie Rodriguez, chairman, CEO and president of Crystal Cruises, points to what she likes to call “E.C.O.—exclusivity, customization and options. That’s where the biggest shift is going to be. This is the future. The luxury traveler is looking for a vacation experience in the form that they want it. What we sell are experiences of a lifetime, creating memories for a lifetime, and that’s what I believe the international global traveler is looking for now and in the future.”
Will the future, too, provide more access for cruise ships to visit “unexplored” destinations? D’Aoust points to Antarctica—“that’s one of the areas we’ve seen a tremendous increase in. The other one that’s really getting a lot of notice is Africa—travelers can go to Africa to explore the urban beauty, the Cape center, they can take part in amazing safaris on the savannah.” Rudi Schreiner, AmaWaterways’ co-founder and president, meanwhile, comments that the “Ganges River is probably the one ‘unexplored’ river which shows the strongest future potential. The Ganges is rich in history with many interesting ports-of-call along the way.” Delaney also points east, noting that, “the coastline of China is so vast and rich in culture, yet the government openness to the opportunities of cruise travel is limited. If China ever did more to promote cruising and increase Asia sourcing, we would have a whole new region to explore—from famous cities to undiscovered cultural gems in the colorful harbors that dot the rich Pacific rim.”
For Rodriguez, it’s not so much about discovering new destinations, but rather how a destination will be delivered in the future that will change. “Luxury travelers, for example,” she says, “are looking for a destination to be curated in an authentic and luxurious manner.” Think intimate, ultra-high-end yachts that can safely traverse polar regions, with state-of-the-art safety features and cool gadgets. In other words, the future of cruising will move further and further away from the cookie-cutter, and D’Aoust notes, “the future of innovation will be driven by consumers.
As tourism grows by leaps and bounds, and the globe becomes smaller due to easier access and social media, where do authentic experiences fit in tomorrow’s travel landscape? According to the executives we spoke with, authenticity is at the core of tomorrow’s vacation experience. Boutique hotel stays, for example, are a given for many of today’s travelers, so beyond just offering an intimate hotel that’s a reflection of the surrounding destination, hotels are having to provide programs that offer guests the opportunity to get immersed in the local culture. Today’s hotel guest can partake in jogging programs with the hotel’s general manager who leads them through the neighborhood, or chat with a local artist whose work is on display in the hotel lobby—in the coming years, these experiences will be amplified.
In the future, says Serdar Kutucu, Design Hotels’ v.p. of brand, marketing and communications, more hotels are going to be able to provide these authentic experiences, “because they understand the need and the importance of such service. Hoteliers of the future would rather sell an experience than just design a [nice] hotel. It’s about the soft experience that guests have at these hotels.” Terry Dale, USTOA’s president and CEO, goes even further, stating that he thinks that local engagement is going to be facilitated by social media. “Say I’m on Facebook and want to connect with someone in Melbourne, Australia, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a dialogue with someone from Melbourne. Then you visit in two months, you meet that person, and they show you their hometown. I think it’s going to facilitate that local engagement. People want that interaction and that engagement, and I think that Millennials and future generations will be able to facilitate and make that happen as second nature. It will be part of their DNA.”
I think the human connection is critical. I know that some other cruise lines have gone the way of technology, but I don’t think there’s really a place for that in the luxury sector. The luxury sector is all about service…the human touch.
– Edie Rodriguez, Chairman, CEO and President, Crystal Cruises
On the all-inclusive front, Scott Wiseman, Travel Impressions’ president, says that “many of the all-inclusives have really figured out how to bring that authentic experience inside their boundaries. Yes, excursions still exist, but I think there’s a great opportunity to bringing the local experience into the property, and that’s where it’s becoming more fun.” Barcelo’s Perez Sosa adds that, “As the world gets smaller, travelers want more focus on customization and authentic local experiences through gastronomy, cultural immersion and adventure travel, so it’s important for hotel companies to be anchored by truly incredible locations.”
In the next 10 to 20 years, points out USTOA’s Dale, “I think we have to look at how we can infuse that movement of the sharing economy into the product that we provide folks.” He also says that rather than looking at disruptions to the traditional business models
as a negative, “disruptions ultimately create innovations. Disruptions force people out of
their comfort zone and into becoming more innovative, into remaining relevant.
More than a Good Night’s Rest
Beyond the cool tech gadgets that might be a reality in future hotels such as robobutlers, bathrooms with smart toilets, TVs that speak back to guests, and 3D printers that are able to generate items such as toiletries in real-time, hotel guests of the future will want to stay in accommodations with like-minded guests. Says Design Hotels’ Kutucu, “what we see is that hotels are becoming more cultural hubs, community gathering places. It’s like when you choose a restaurant or bar because of its location, its music, its food, but most importantly, because of the people that go to these places.” In fact, says Steven Heydt, Elite Island Resorts’ president, “I foresee more immersive and interactive social experiences at the resort level.”
In the future, one trend I see emerging in travel in general is that a company’s environmental footprint is really gaining importance, and people are endorsing their interest in leaving a softer footprint through their travel purchases. One major example is the emergence of LNG-powered ships that offer cleaner energy sources as well as sustainability. Sustainable travel is the wave of the future that resonates with Boomers, Gen X and the next big generation of cruisers, Millennials.
– John Delaney, President, Windstar Cruises
Travel Impressions’ Wiseman notes that within the all-inclusive sphere, many resort companies will create even more diverse hotels in the future, with “one focusing on high-energy, and another having a culinary bend. It’s going to get more specialized,” he says. “The one-size-fits-all is not really a great model for an all-inclusive.” An elevated all-inclusive, adds Barcelo’s Perez Sosa, “will become the standard of travel,” and guests, he continues, will want to be even more connected. “From in-room iPads and high-speed WiFi to the ability to book custom packages and experiences online, connectivity will become a completely ingrained part of the travel experience—even more so than today.
Speaking of which…. We all know that digital detox getaways have gained some traction, but will truly off-the-grid vacations take off? According to Zane Kerby, ASTA’s president and CEO, “I see a future where off-the-grid vacations become a niche of its own. Maybe the travel agent of the future will check or take your phone from you before you depart…and maybe the traveler will be okay with that, because your agent is taking care of everything for you. How’s that for personalization?
In fact, says Keith Waldon, owner/founder, Departure Lounge, a Texas-based travel agency and national host agency, “For some, the digital detox will be a priority, but a bigger need will be activities that engage travelers and make them want to get off their gadgets. This will be particularly true for family travel.” TravelBound’s president, James Phillips, suggests that in the 24/7 world, what travelers will seek out will be “more exotic choices where connectivity is not so simple.”
A few of the executives we spoke with, though, believe that being totally unplugged won’t be something vacationers will ever seek. “A connected vacation is essential or resorts will take a very old school approach, which will lead to an old school experience,” says Elite Island Resorts’ Heydt. Adds Barcelo’s Perez Sosa, “Even on a relaxing vacation, today’s traveler wants to be connected at all times,” with Travel Impressions’ Wiseman saying that, “If you tell people they don’t have a choice, that’s a little risky. I think it’s better to give everyone a choice.”
Choices or not, a detox vacation will be an integral part of the vacation of tomorrow. In fact, says USTOA’s Dale, “We are seeing an emphasis placed on well-being, and health,” and Miraval Group’s CEO Steve Rudnitsky says that the wellness vacation is moving toward “transformative experiences that improve the mind and spirit. In the future,” he continues, “every luxury vacation will include a wellness component. Travelers will continue to seek out destination spas for comprehensive wellness offerings, but we’ll start to see urban properties adding juice bars and meditation studios in response to traveler demand.” Wellness vacations have come a long way from when they first emerged, and today and into the future, it’s going to become even more prevalent, with some forecasters predicting that wellness tourism will grow 50 percent faster than regular tourism.
The future generation of travelers, or the Gen Z crowd, says Rudnitsky, “has been raised with a more holistic approach to health and wellness, they acknowledge that factors like sleep and stress affect their overall health, and they expect to be provided with wellness resources when they travel.” In fact, just last year Virtuoso debuted a wellness community, anticipating that wellness tourism would be growing at an accelerated pace. Says Samantha Hogenson, managing director of CREST (Center for Responsible Travel), “as more and more people become attuned to the importance of work-life balance, wellness travel will grow. It offers an opportunity for true rejuvenation of mind, body and spirit.”
Part of living well is seeking out sustainable travel options, which, says Hogenson, are increasingly prevalent. “Being ‘sustainable’ no longer means roughing it, or the opposite, incredibly expensive vacations.” And about 73 percent of the younger generation—Millennials and Gen Z—are more likely to pay more for sustainability, compared to 51 percent of Boomers, which means it’s only going to expand in the next few decades. And sustainable tourism is much more than just leaving a softer carbon footprint when traveling, and what it means to be sustainable while traveling continuously evolves. Hogenson points to the niche markets that are starting to take form under sustainable tourism, including agritourism, closely tied to culinary tourism, which in itself is growing at a rapid pace.
Suppliers and vendors who are not developing the tools to ensure vacations without obstacles will see their business suffer. The demand for seamless travel is ever-increasing and discerning travelers want to work with providers who will connect with them and create vacations for their personalities and style.
– James Phillips, President, TravelBound
“Sharing economy,” says Hogenson, is an important part of sustainable tourism, “because innovation like this is necessary for the industry to evolve and grow. They also offer opportunities for direct and unstructured interaction between visitors and locals, which can provide rich and authentic experiences.” But at the core of sustainable tourism, says Hogenson—and this will continue to advance well into the coming decades, she points out—will be that destinations understand what unique attributes they provide and work to maintain them. “If you protect the environment, unique aesthetics, cultural heritage, and localized experiences, you will have something to offer that is different than anyone else.”
As part of this movement, the future, says Hogenson, will see more community-based tourism, especially in rural areas, “where the community comes together and decides they would like to offer tourism to share their particular way of life and natural surroundings. “We are also seeing an increase in destinations that aren’t afraid to start positioning themselves as sustainable, which sets them apart. The island of Grenada in the Caribbean is doing this through their ‘Pure Grenada’ branding. Sustainable tourism provides economic opportunities, and it also provides incentive to protect the very assets visitors come to see: environments, cultures, people.”
The pneumatic-tube Hyperloop; airplanes with open, panoramic views that allow passengers to view the night sky while flying…these are real possibilities in the future. And what it means is a more seamless travel experience for your clients. We are already seeing planes, such as the Airbus A350 XWB, that offer bigger windows that allow for more natural light to come into the cabin and bird-inspired wings designed to adapt during flight, morphing while airborne and changing their shape to reduce fuel burn. The aircraft even has mood lighting to reduce jetlag and offers air that’s being renewed every two-to-three minutes. That’s today, imagine what tomorrow’s planes will look like…. The Airbus Concept Cabin for 2050, as detailed in the company’s The Future by Airbus report, won’t conform to the traditional cabin classes of today’s commercial aircraft, for instance. Rather, there’ll be zones that target individual needs such as relaxing, playing games, interacting with other passengers, or holding business meetings with people on the ground.
Rail travel, too, is making major advances, and in the future experts from the rail industry predict that there will be more driverless trains, improved accuracy of passenger information, and more high-speed options. “One of the main shifts that has the potential to affect rail travel over the next five and 10 years is the improvements in the high-speed rail network and continued improvements to trains,” says Zine Belhonchet, Rail Europe’s CEO and president. “This will allow travelers to reach their destinations sooner. This year we will see a new connection between Berlin and Munich, reducing travel time from six to four hours.” Adds Silvia Fischer, deputy general manager for Eurail Group, “There will be more tailored services that come along. It’s going to be much more than just getting someone from point A to point B.”
Thanks to new high-speed rail lines, day trips from large city centers to smaller towns are easier than ever.
– Zine Belhonchet, President and CEO, Rail Europe
Travelers hopping on trains in Europe, say both Belhonchet and Fischer, will have a more seamless experience as rail companies add more mobile communication options, with, says Fischer, travelers seeing “more integration and more accessibility, distribution-wise, ticketing-wise.” Notes Belhonchet, “Apps will help improve service for customers, and WiFi connectivity, and additional door-to-door services, including access to station, luggage services and more, will improve the onboard experience.”
Rail travel in Europe, as you know, is an ideal way to explore beyond the large cities, and the “discovery” of European destinations will continue to grow. “We will see continued growth in Eastern Europe,” says Belhonchet, with Fischer adding that “one of the strongest points of our product is that we are connecting so many places in Europe, even tiny spots.”
Sit Back & Enjoy the Ride
There’s no denying that self-driving vehicles are the wave of the future. “Why not,” says CLIA’s D’Aoust when asked if she sees a self-driving cruise ship in 20 years. “I mean we’re looking at it with cars, and there’s a lot less congestion on the ocean than on the highway.” USTOA’s Dale also says it’s completely possible that we’ll see autonomous buses on escorted tours in the future. “I think we have to believe that it’s completely possible. It’s frightening to me, but I think the way the cycle is moving, we are headed in that direction, absolutely, in 10 to 20 years we will see driverless vehicles.”
When we are talking about the future, I think an area where we will see some pretty dramatic progress is in space travel. I believe that with the kind of commitment from entrepreneurs from around the world, who are investing billions of dollars and testing it now, if we are looking at 20 years from now, I think space tourism is absolutely something that will be available to those travelers who have the means and the interest.
– Terry Dale, President and CEO, USTOA
There’s a good chance, too, that in the next couple of years your clients will go to their rental car company in the destination they are vacationing, and get into an autonomous vehicle. As Don Moore, v.p. of corporate business for Enterprise Holdings, puts it, “Many drivers experience new automotive technologies for the first time in rental vehicles—we call them ‘extended test drives.’ As manufacturers move further down the line with self-driving vehicles, the car rental industry will be an early adopter and will help introduce autonomous driving technology to millions of consumers.”
A Couch Vacation?
Not so fast. With VR technology it’s easy to imagine that tomorrow’s (or even today’s) vacationer can very well take a stroll through Paris without ever getting off their couch, but does VR technology really replace the vacation as we know it?
No, and that’s a flat-out no. What it will do is serve as a taste to your client’s vacation before they even arrive. In just a couple of years, it will become standard for vacationers to visit their local travel agency and don a VR headset to see which destination, hotel or cruise ship they prefer. “Instant social media like Facebook Live will draw people in to experience destinations, along with virtual reality systems. Some will fear these will result in virtual vacations, but the powerful tools will actually drive demand for real experiences,” says Departure Lounge’s Waldon. Adds ASTA’s Kerby, “VR can take the place of what once was the commonly used brochure, used to entice potential travelers to consider a specific destination, hotel, cruise or other trip experience.”
Millennials are comfortable with trusting the value, input and experience of an agent, but they still want to be involved at some level.
– Scott Wiseman, President, Travel Impressions
Destinations like Las Vegas are embracing VR technology, launching a Virtual Reality Companion app that takes would-be visitors on helicopter rides over the Strip, to experience a gondola ride at The Venetian Las Vegas or catapulting 12 stories above Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas on the SlotZilla zipline. Qantas Airways, too, has a virtual reality app that shows off Australia’s scenery, including a virtual fly over of Uluru. “It’s truly an ‘appetizer’ before the main course,” says TravelBound’s Phillips. “Who is to say how many times a traveler did not choose a destination due to lack of knowledge as to what they might experience. The virtual experience can no doubt erase those anxieties and benefit the traveler and the provider.”
We are speeding ahead into the future and there will come a time when many of the jobs that are held by humans today will be taken over by artificial intelligence—the reality might be that in 20 years some citizens will be receiving universal basic income, where the government cuts them a check whether they work or not. But will this happen to the travel industry? In certain areas of course it will, but the human connection will be vital, say all of the industry executives we spoke with.
“Technology and the experience economy will continue to grow and shape the future of how people travel. Research tells us that experiencing life shapes the Millennial identity. For them, happiness is about creating, sharing and capturing memories through the experiences that span the spectrum of life’s opportunities.”
– Zane Kerby, President and CEO, ASTA
“I personally believe that in the world of hospitality, the host always has to be the human interaction,” says Design Hotels’ Kutucu. “As a matter of trust,” says ASTA’s Kerby, “travelers will always crave the human personal connection no matter how advanced technology becomes.” Yes, technology will help make travel more seamless, including less time standing in line at amusement parks, being able to switch to another plane within a minute via the tap of an app, or being able to get a concierge service with the click of a button, but as AmaWaterways’ Schreiner says, “human connection is essential.” It’s finding the fine balance, says Windstar’s Delaney, that’s key: “The trick in creating a perfect vacation is always knowing when and where a guest wants interaction, information, or services, and even to what degree and frequency.”
Travel Agents Take a Bow
Without you, a great travel experience, say our industry experts, just can’t happen. Just a few years ago, the demise of the travel agent was being spoken about as a given, and everyone was saying how Millennials would never use an agent to book their vacation. But the travel agency community is pretty resilient, and today, Millennials are using travel agents more than the previous generation, even though they have access to all the information they’ll need to book a vacation at their fingertips, or perhaps because of all of that overwhelming information. “There is so much information available online,” says Windstar’s Delaney, “and so many more travel and cruise options out there than 10-15-20 years ago. Consumers want their travel agent to aggregate that information for them. The agent’s ability to help navigate and successfully match a client to the ever broadening array of choices will be super important to their vitality and success.”
That matchmaking process is what is paramount, adds D’Aoust. “The level of satisfaction from cruises is when they’re matched with the right ship, and the right itinerary, and that’s the role that the travel professional plays, and I don’t see that getting less substantial.” In fact, says ASTA’s Kerby, “as our world becomes more connected, we’ll see a dramatic shift in demand for a trusted travel advisor—someone to guide travelers through the complexity of creating an authentic vacation experience.” But, says Travel Impressions’ Wiseman, travel agents “will have to keep on top of the trends and the experiences, understanding their client, and how to piece the experience together. It’s going to continue to be an education process.”