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10 Jun 2016

BY Sophie Griffiths

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How the travel industry of tomorrow might look

A whitepaper examining the future of the travel industry was released this week at the ITT Conference. Sophie Griffiths takes a look at some of the trends, and examines what it could mean for the travel agents of tomorrow

Aurora captured from the International Space Station aurora_from_space credit NASA
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How long until agents can book holidaymakers a trip into space?

Ms X has had a busy few weeks at work and is in need of a break. She doesn’t actually know this yet but her VPA (virtual personal assistant), which has noted from her calendar the deadline she has been working towards has almost arrived, is about to send her an alert telling her so. Her phone pings and a message appears questioning whether she would like her VPA to look into a two day-spa break for her… on the International Space Station.

 

The woman smiles and reflects that maybe she could do with a getaway. But what, she wonders, is a spa break in space like? She turns to her virtual reality headset to check it out, taking a tour of the hotel and its facilities before deciding she would prefer some more Earthly fun instead, plumping for a stay in an underwater hotel in Dubai. She again checks it out on the VR headset first, notes happily that there are robots on hand to check her in and cater to her every whim, and then completes the booking with a few swipes of her finger.

 

Holiday confirmed, Ms X moves on to think about booking her next business trip instead, naturally. Because this woman is one of the career-driven females who have contributed to a 400% increase in the number of international business trips being taken by women in 2030.

 

The scenario might sound like something straight out of a sci-fi film but according to a Global Futures and Foresight whitepaper released at the ITT Conference this week, it is a likely picture of how we will be booking and researching our holidays in the near future.

 

Looking forward

Looking forward

The report, entitled Looking Forward to our Future – the future of travel and tourism, was compiled by economist Graeme Leach and presented at this week’s event, which took place in Tel Aviv, Israel.

 

“There are ostensibly few industries where so many drivers of the future coalesce so visibly – and sometimes uncomfortably, as the global travel and tourism industry,” Leach claims in the report’s opening statement. And with such technology as virtual reality, smartphones, wearables and artificial intelligence (AI) continuing to develop incredibly quickly, it’s hard not to agree.

 

A few years ago, it seemed the future was all about mobile. Indeed, by next year Leach says 30% of online travel value is expected to be made on such devices. But he also points out “it is possible that just three years later, artificial interfaces could take over, effectively replacing smartphones as a user interface”.

 

Swedish technology firm Ericsson goes even further, citing research suggesting AI is likely to “take over many common activities”.

 

This includes searching the web, getting travel advice and being used as personal assistants.

 

“Under this scenario, we would effectively see a paradigm shift in terms of where consumers get their information from and in what form,” the report states. “By 2020, advanced conversational smart agents and VPAs could handle 40% of mobile interactions autonomously.”

Virtual reality bites

Virtual reality bites

It’s not just AI that looks set to take over our lives – there is another form of technology that is already being included in high street agencies: virtual reality. VR has already been adopted by the big two – Tui now operates 27 digital concept stores, with plans to expand this to 120, while Thomas Cook has seen its “Try Before You Fly” scheme, which uses Samsung Gear VR headsets, generate flights and hotel bookings of more than £12,000 in three months. The group said it was also directly responsible for a 180% increase in the number of New York excursions booked.

 

And it’s not simply the big boys getting excited by VR – Devon-based independent agent Ottery Travel has also adopted the technology, using Samsung Gear headsets to offer clients an immersive experience of destinations.

 

“They’re a great sales tool,” owner Harv Sethi tells TTG. “People come in and say they want ideas and inspiration; and we can offer them more than just 2D images in a brochure. I could see a future where one day people come into an agency and there aren't any brochures; VR will have replaced them – for ecological reasons and for cost as well.”

 

If the way we book travel is likely to be transformed, then so too are the destinations that we holiday in. By 2020, emerging economies are predicted to collectively welcome more international arrivals than developed countries, with 55% of the market share. Leach suggests this could grow to 57% by 2030.

 

What we will be staying in is also likely to raise eyebrows. For those that prefer sailing the high seas, their cruising experience could look a little different in the next 20 years.

 

Futurologist Ian Yeoman has suggested passenger ships could continue growing larger, and one day may have their own flight decks and weigh some 500,000 tonnes – larger than today’s aircraft carriers.

 

Out of this world Meanwhile, Dubai has already revealed plans to construct the world’s largest underwater resort with the Water Discus Hotel, and Europe’s first floating hotel, Krystall, is being developed in Norway, set to open in 2017. And that’s just on planet Earth. During the next two years, a “space habitat” is set to be tested at the International Space Station to assess its potential for eventually becoming a space hotel that would orbit the Earth.

 

“The plan – spanning 20 years or so – is to build a totally private enterprise space station that could function as a hotel for wealthy space tourists,” explains Leach.

 

“Although with the price of access set to decrease, it may become a significant niche,” he adds.

 

Destinations that are literally out of this world might not be a bad idea, given the numbers of us that are set to be holidaying within the next 20 years. Iata expects annual passenger volumes to reach 7.3 billion by 2034, more than doubling the current levels of 3.3 billion.

 

And this can only spell bad news for the environment. The World Travel and Tourism Council has already acknowledged that the industry will need to assume “…responsibility for its impact in a world of shrinking resources”. Leach predicts that destinations such as Venice could see quota limits introduced, as is currently the case with Machu Picchu, while forms of transport will also need to evolve to limit the industry’s carbon footprint.

 

Air travel already accounts for 700 million tonnes of carbon per year – 3% of the global total. The report states that by 2050, this could rise to 3,000 million tonnes. There is hope though – Airbus has suggested that by 2025 a quarter of all jet fuel could be from non-processed oil sources.

 

But what does all this mean for the humble travel agent? If the way we decide where we want to travel, the transport we use and the destinations we holiday in, is all set to change – is too the method we use to book it all?

Evolving role

Evolving role

Yes and no. There is no doubt that the travel agent role is likely to evolve. The report predicts that within a few years social media could take over booking systems, search engine and booking agent. “The groundwork is already established in so far as 85% of users say social networks help them decide what to purchase,” says Leach.

 

Former Thomas Cook chief digital officer Marco Ryan agrees, suggesting that “offering a social media travel agency is a real possibility”.

 

Independent agent Harv Sethi, however, is less convinced. “Agents are storytellers in many ways – VR is just a tool,” he insists. “We’ve got the product knowledge and experience. Customers want advice, and that’s the real value of a travel agent.

 

“With security increasingly becoming more of a concern, people want to have reassurance from a human,” he adds. “People are all different; not everyone wants a beach holiday. There’s a whole world out there.”

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