MILLER: Travelers still want experiences despite proliferating technology

November 14, 2009

Back in the day, planning a vacation was simple.

Find an 800 number for the state or city you wanted to visit, dial it, and request a travel guide. A few days later, a slick visitors guide landed in your mailbox. A few phone calls later, and you were ready to roll.

Today, the Internet has derailed that simple scenario.

Laptops and smart phones have replaced glossy, magazine-style travel guides as tools for vacation planning. And once on the trip, if a vacationer wants to find a restaurant within two blocks, she can fire up an “app” on her phone and make a reservation.

New technology is not the only factor in the travel marketplace evolution. The hobbled economy has changed the way people travel, perhaps for good. They are less willing to travel, especially long distances—and they are certainly less willing to spend a lot on their travel, our research has shown.

Having talked to thousands of consumers nationwide over the past few months about their current travel desires, there are some consumer insights travel businesses must keep in mind:

Technology provides lots of new ways to reach people, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or mobile phone apps. People are more “wired” than ever and they are looking to technology to make their life easier and to find the services and deals they want.

Of course, they want the information that matters to them—not to the business. Consumers are interested in targeted offers that provide value, not misplaced sales pitches for the wrong product. The key is reaching people with the right information, in the right format, at the right time.

Consumers are driving this process. They are looking for good offers from people they can trust, and they appreciate being able to review offers and ideas on their own terms. The profile for users of many of the new technologies is not young people. For example, older and upscale adults are more likely to have the smart phones that enable lots of apps, and therefore different technology options will be better at reaching different target groups. Choose wisely.

On the other hand, technology provides lots of ways to waste time and resources. Just because lots of people are using an application doesn’t mean it’s the place you have to be.

YouTube is huge—but people use it for entertainment, not information. Someone may come up with a reasonable business way to use YouTube, but at this point people are mostly looking for “stupid people, doing stupid things.” So having travel information on this site may hurt an area’s image and chances of generating visitation.

Likewise, many of the social media applications are popular, but are not necessarily where people are getting their travel information. In a recent focus group of likely travelers, everyone in the group was on Facebook but no one used it to help plan their travel. So it would seem to be a bad place for destinations to spend precious resources, at least at this time.

Even though the travel environment is going through these major shifts, some things have not changed. Such as:

Vacations and trips are meant to create memories. No matter how travelers are planning their trips, the goal is the same: a memorable experience. So they are looking for things that they can do together to build memories with their friends and families. From a wealth of choices, they are looking for special events or unusual experiences rather than just the same vacation experience.

People are looking for value. But value doesn’t always mean a low price. People see an opportunity to get more for their travel dollar, so giving them extras can be better than simply a low price. Is it free breakfast, a tour of the area, or tickets to an attraction? A good offer will provide value to the customer, and make a profit for the business.

As we look at the emergence of a new travel marketplace, technology is not a panacea. There are lots of options and more ways to fail than to succeed as new communications options jockey for dominance in the market.

The good news is people are still traveling. And ultimately the goal of the travel experience remains the same—to get away, unplug, relax, disconnect, have new experiences and create new memories. This will never change—only how we get there.•


Miller is vice president of Strategic Marketing & Research, Inc. in Carmel. Views expressed here are the writer’s.


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