How Tech Has Changed The Way We Travel – Interview with Andy Washington, Senior Vice President of Travel at Culture Trip

Travel is fundamental to most people’s lives. The most recent figures revealed that UK residents made 72.8 million visits overseas in 2017, while the travel and tourism sector contributed a record $8.8 trillion to the world economy in 2018.

While more people are travelling than ever before, the way they travel is also rapidly changing, driven in large part by technology. Mobile phones, social media, AI and machine learning are transforming how we travel, from how we get inspired and access information, to how we plan our trips and engage with other cultures.

At Culture Trip we recently ran a quantitative study of over 10,500 UK and US consumers, alongside with 150 in-depth qualitative interviews. The findings of this study suggest that the current socio and geo-political environment is pushing people to engage with culture, and the meaning of culture, in new and deeper ways.

More people than ever before are living or working in countries other than the ones they were born in – over half of study respondents (53%) have friends living overseas.  Seventy-eight of people have friends or family of different nationalities and ethnicities, resulting in increased exposure to global cultures.

Travel planning and booking has evolved in leaps and bounds in the past twenty years; from people needing to visit their local travel agent just to book a flight, to tour operators moving their package holiday offers online, to the industry-changing impact of user-generated reviews and online price comparison sites. We’ve moved from an ‘off the shelf’ package option to a ‘book your own flight, accommodation and activities’ online travel agent option. Mobile technology has advanced at an incredible pace, giving people the ability to research, orient themselves, and even make a booking wherever they are.

Now, the travel agents of old are experiencing a resurgence, and it’s important to understand why this is happening. Younger generations are always connected and constantly consuming content. Inspiration comes from everywhere – Instagram, friends, influencers, media and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Gen Zers and millennials especially are looking for authentic and immersive experiences, however they aren’t interested in a long and drawn out research process.

With almost infinite destination and experience choices and abundant but unorganised streams of inspiration from multiple sources, the role of the ‘agent’ has become more important than ever before. In this new landscape, travel brands and operators will need to act as curators and advisers – effectively, they need to manufacture ‘happy accidents. The opportunities for technology and AI in this space are extraordinary.

Smartphones

Smartphones are revolutionising how we book holidays and experience travel. In the early days of mobile phones, the pages were just a clunky replication of the desktop experience for searching and booking. Improvements in user experience allowed people to search, surf, plan and book on the move. Now the smartphone has become an extension of your hand, giving you the ability to search for inspiration on a daily, habitual basis and offering easy access to reference, planning and booking tools that are as usable in a travel destination as they are at home.

Mobile phones have given rise to contextual commerce allowing people to move from discovery to conversion in a matter of moments; someone who sees a fashion shoot post on Instagram is invited to ‘shop the look’, effectively meaning that a consumer can go from reading about a product to purchasing it in just a few clicks.

Platforms like Culture Trip inspire people to travel, help them orient themselves around a destination, start planning a trip and eventually make a booking, all within the same app.

AI and machine learning

As with many other industries, advances in AI and machine learning have enabled travel companies to understand consumers well enough to make better predictions and offer a more complete personalised experience.

In the past, travel products were sold via tour operators who might show you 10 to 15 choices, packaged up and ready to go. Then online travel agents like Booking.com or Expedia came on the scene and the approach became “tell us what you are looking for and we can get it for you”.

In the next few years we could get to a place where a company, because it has access to large amounts of data about a particular customer’s habits and wants, could effectively say “we know exactly what you’re looking for and we can pretty confidently predict what you will like. Here it is”.

For example, imagine a smart home assistant such as an Amazon Echo or Google Home essentially ‘records’ you talking about how you would like to visit New York. Because it has access to your calendar, it can tell you haven’t taken annual leave in six months, and your schedule looks relatively clear in a certain week, while your online banking can ascertain that you usually spend around £2,000 on a trip. Your search history and previous bookings reveal who you normally travel with, as well as your airline and accommodation preferences. We can envisage a day in the future where all of that information and data is pulled together, so that you can be served up a recommendation, flight prices, hotel and activity ideas in New York for the seemingly perfect week – you’re being offered the exact holiday you want before you were even aware you were looking for one.

While this might strike fear into the minds of some, the next generation of travellers are not as concerned about how their data is being used so long as it means they are being offered the things they want in the way they want to get it.

Technology will continue to have an enormous impact on the travel industry. Personally, I am looking forward to seeing where it takes us.