Is digital shaping the way we travel?

It was less than 20 years ago that fresh-faced young entrepreneurs Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox set-up what was to become the North Star for online travel: They changed the perception of how travel could be booked online, and at the same time, began nudging traditional package tour operators towards administration. From the 1960s to the end of the century, travel agents had a place on almost every market town fore street. Locals would come in off the streets, browse the racks of glossy brochures with smiling couples and frolicking children, then sit down with one of these agents, who would talk them through which hotel, destination or package might be most suitable for them. Less than 20 years later, this idea seems antiquated at best.

“The late ‘90s and early-noughties was characterised by the rise of the online travel agent”
The late ‘90s and early-noughties were characterised by the rise of the online travel agent (OTA); websites like Expedia and that aggregated hotels and flights, driving down prices. As the noughties went on, the OTAs divided into niche websites, all trying to grab a slice of the increasingly lucrative travel pie. At the high-end, sites like Mr & Mrs Smith captured the boutique hotel experience, while sites like Iglu concentrated on ski hotels. In 2010, online travel fragmented in an explosion of the sharing economy, where everything from private homes and apartments to RVs and boats joined flights and standard hotels as new travel choices.

In the last 10 years, not only have we seen a change in how we book travel, but also in how travel is presented to us. Social media now gives us access to millions of subjective travel experiences that we filter through likes and hashtags, where touched-up photographs give other-worldly realities and place envy. So much so that PRs are beginning to eschew traditional media channels and journalists, and instead invite (and even pay) Instagram influencers to take journeys with their clients, hoping that their acolytes will follow in their elegantly-filtered footsteps.

There is an abundance of digital noise out there, so how does the consumer cut through all of this to find the destination that is most suitable for them? As Features Editor of Conde Nast Traveller, Fiona Kerr, reminded us when we hosted a talk on the subject, simply typing ‘luxury beach holidays’ into a search engine isn’t enough. It will produce millions of results controlled by Google et al’s unknowable algorithm that favours the big and not necessarily the brave. This is where the human touch is still relevant today. Traditional tour operators, such as Black Tomato, carefully curate extraordinary travel experiences that transcend the everyday and create memories for a lifetime. Then there are travel consultants, such as Truffle Pig, who don’t have their own trips, but instead sit down in person with clients to fully understand and create exactly the experience they are after.

There are alternatives to the human experience; travel chat bots will have an online conversation with you where you feed in your own preferences, but they are only as good as the people who programme them and are often geared towards the mass-market. Artificial intelligence is in its infancy, and while in time it might be able to challenge human discourse, it is still some way off. Early forms of AI include firms, such as Hipmunk, that offer services where they scan through your emails to get an idea of where and when you want to go, before sending over a list of recommendations. The privacy aspect of this might be a worry for some.

“Many people don’t want human contact at all, at any point on their journey”

However, many people don’t want human contact at any point on their journey. Meet the ‘Invisible Traveller’. They can check-in online at an airport, go through e-Passport gates, check-in and access their hotel room from their phone and use their Uber account to get them across a city, all without any meaningful human interaction.

Increasingly though, there seems to be a return to the analogue way of travelling. As vinyl had its own rebirth in the noughties, so too is the search for the ‘authentic’ and local. Airbnb has opened up to experiences where travellers can try anything from mermaid aqua aerobics in Toronto to dog walking in Berlin, letting the hosts of the apartments help determine their customer’s travel experience. Meanwhile Black Tomato encourage their clients to ditch their phones and explore a city through local eyes, asking random people (working in recommended, stylish locations) for their advice on where to go and what to do.

Turning off your phone – or as it’s known in millennial parlance, a ‘digital detox’ – is a way of reconnecting with yourself, detaching from a device that on average is checked 150 times a day. Then again, you could argue that a smartphone facilitates travel by allowing us to be out of the office for longer, but spending an hour a day checking in with work to keep on top of things. A recent article by travel writer Anna Hart explores this rise of the ‘Digital Nomad’ – a new generation that choose work on the move, their laptops serving as umbilical cords to the real world meaning they can connect with the office from the beach.

For some, travel can be about box-ticking, from seeing the Mona Lisa and going to the top of the Empire State building, to hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The romanticism of the idea often outweighs the actual experience as 10,000 travellers try to do the same thing at the same time. The nascent world of Virtual Reality might change all this; if tourists can strap-on a headset and a pair of sensor gloves, they could experience the sounds, the sights and the touch of somewhere without ever leaving home.

Over the last 20 years, technology has facilitated and democratised travel and the way we travel. But for the moment, the analogue human touch is still needed to guide and advise, whether that’s through the subjective hive mind of social media, friends and influencers, or the objective lens of tour operators and consultants. AI and VR haven’t won just yet.

This article was inspired by a panel talk we hosted at House of Killik Mayfair in October 2017. It is designed to throw an everyday lens on some of the issues being discussed and debated by investors across the world; it is not research, so please do not interpret it as a recommendation for your personal investments. If something has piqued your interest and you would like to find out more or discuss what investments might be suitable for you, please contact one of our Investment Managers on 020 7337 0777.