In three successive days last week, my understanding of the present and future of travel counseling both clarified and became somewhat more complicated.
The present came into sharp focus at a presentation by TripAdvisor consumer advocate and former Conde Nast Traveler columnist Wendy Perrin. She recently launched WendyPerrin.com to link human travel experts with consumers frustrated by online travel planning.
Perrin has identified a group of "trusted travel experts" with whom she connects consumers. She then monitors the trip-planning process, both to ensure things go well and to deepen her understanding of travelers' desires.
She presented an analysis of travelers' biggest challenges and disappointments. Their worries about misspent money are equaled by concerns about opportunity cost; that is, consumers not only want to avoid wasting money as a result of bad information, but even when things are going right they want to feel certain that they aren't missing out on an even better time.
In other words, a bad meal is disappointing, but even after dining happily at a reliably good restaurant, no one wants to hear about a stellar restaurant around the corner.
There is, of course, a plethora of online travel information, but Perrin is among those who recognize that it can be both an impediment to problem solving and an opportunity for advisers who establish expertise.
And I think expertise vs. info-glut pretty well sums up an adviser's primary advantage today.
If so, good news: Travel choices are going to become even more complicated.
In one of the more unexpected talking points I've ever encountered from a tourism minister, Nevis' Mark Brantley wanted to meet to review the island's plans to open a geothermal energy plant in 2017.
And what exactly does this have to do with tourism?
A mile below the dormant volcano that dominates the island's profile is quite a bit of heat, and enough will be captured by the new plant to provide all of Nevis' energy needs and then some.
"We aspire to be the greenest place on Earth," he said, "and [the plant] will not only help us achieve that aspiration, it will be transformative for us and for the region."
Should all go as planned, he believes Nevis will become the first destination with a zero-carbon footprint and will export energy to St. Kitts, St. Martin, St. Bart's, Saba and Anguilla, bringing down costs (and carbon dioxide) across the region.
Not that hotel prices will necessarily come down. The top-of-the-market positioning Nevis and some of these other islands embrace isn't likely to change, Brantley said. Rather, it will be enhanced for visitors concerned about the carbon footprint of their vacation. And that market is growing. Bruce Cutright, CEO of Thermal Energy Partners, which is building the facility, said a geothermal energy plant outside Reykjavik, Iceland, already attracts 3 million tourists a year.
The next day, I met with Leslie Bocskor, managing partner of the hedge fund Electrum Partners. Electrum is interested in tourism, but not just any tourism. It is particularly interested in cannabis tourism, and Bocskor explained why.
Enterprises associated with legal distribution or use of marijuana are, across the board, becoming profitable in Year 1, which is certainly attractive for an investor. He said that for the time being, there's very little difference in price between black markets and legal markets, and because states set regulations and products cannot legally cross state lines, some of the market forces of supply-and-demand are curtailed. It's a state, rather than global or national marketplace.
Even if marijuana were legal in every state and there was a dispensary on every corner, Bocskor believes cannabis would continue to stimulate travel. Marijuana, it turns out, has terroir aspects: If you want to try some from the Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, you have to go to California.
Because of the byzantine nature of state laws governing medical and recreational distribution and use, businesses spring up to address perceived gaps. It's illegal to smoke pot on the streets of Denver or Seattle, so party buses and limos, some of which remain parked for long periods, charge admission to enter and smoke legally.
In Oregon, a 21-acre "sensory park" with indoor/outdoor activities, from art studios to test kitchens to a spa, is being developed.
Marijuana, Bocskor believes, is even more conducive to pairing with food than wine, and he anticipates lots of development in F&B.
Cafes. Specialty accommodations. Surge pricing around festivals.
"There are already more medical dispensaries in Los Angeles than there are Starbucks," he said. "And 80% of Republican millennials approve of legalization. A deluge is waiting to occur."
One of the reasons tourism outpaces global gross domestic product and is likely to do so in the foreseeable future is that it is a reflection and amplification of what one desires from life itself. Changes in technology, attitudes and ease of accessibility continue to diversify the possibilities of what a vacation means.
A great meal. A focus on conservation. Elements of newly legal fun.
And wherever complexity drives us, there will be opportunities for travel advisors to sort things out, to find that perfect place where a pot-smoking conservationist will find a spectacular meal.