Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

"Travel is not a technology," Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro told me, explaining why there was no area dedicated to leisure travel at CES, the world's largest trade show.

I spent much of last week in Las Vegas wandering the show's miles of aisles (formerly called the Consumer Electronics Show, it overflows the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands and the Westgate). Nonetheless, it was hard not to come away feeling that travelers' -- and the industry's -- greatest challenges are directly tied to technology, and they are going unaddressed.

This is not to say there wasn't evidence at CES of exciting things that will impact travelers for the better. A fair amount of space was given over to transportation-related innovation, from scooters to people-carrying autonomous drones. Options for moving more swiftly and comfortably from place to place are clearly expanding and improving.

And, although not aggregated, items that a traveler might want to bring along on a trip were also present. Wearables, including clothing made of "smart" fabric, had a large presence. (Offsite, Lufthansa demonstrated just how practical a flight attendant's uniform can be.)

The items most overtly linked to travelers were a scattering of luggage innovations, from Modobag, a motor-powered suitcase one can ride, to Skycap, a purpose-built carry-on to keep one's baseball-style caps crisp.

I also discovered a few translation devices. Last year, I came across only one exhibitor -- U.K.-based My Manu -- that promised in-ear translating earbuds. Since then, Google released translation as an option between two people who each have a Pixel phone and earbuds.

Other variations were from Chinese companies, and none seemed quite ready for prime time. The device that seemed most practical was Travis the Translator, a handheld voice-recognition device passed back and forth between two people trying to bridge a language gap.

I also moderated the only panel at CES specifically focused on travel. With me on stage were Sanjay Nair, who oversees marketing, loyalty and distribution systems at United Airlines; Dawn Callahan, chief marketing officer of Boingo; and Tessa Lau, chief technology officer of Savioke, which designs robots that have been put to work delivering room service at hotels.

Callahan and Nair both talked about their goals to make travel as seamless as possible and how technology enables that.

"The customer is at the center of the universe," Nair said. "Experiences are blending [technology and service]; online and offline are converging, and the resulting [travel] experiences can become more seamless."

One issue for Boingo, Callahan said, is that it's so seamless that it's in danger of becoming invisible. It now automatically provides phone connectivity as soon as someone enters a Boingo service zone (an airport, for example). That's good for the traveler but bad for brand awareness.

I pointed out that travel still has plenty of large, ugly seams, in part because we are not a unified industry. Tourism boards inspire travel; intermediaries book travel; ground transportation companies bring travelers to airports, which house commercial air carriers, which bring travelers within close proximity to car rental companies, which may provide the means to get to a hotel.

Throw tour operators, theme parks and cruise lines into the ecosystem, and the average traveler could be handed off among a dozen travel service providers during the course of one vacation.

As a result, no matter how well United or Boingo may make their portions seamless, the traveler will likely feel bumps.

What makes the problem intractable parallels a traveler's need for translation gadgets. "What we're lacking is a common language," Nair said, "an application program interface (API) which can allow different service providers to connect and provide each other with the data that will make an experience holistic."

Nair said that in lieu of a common travel industry API, the industry relies on marketing partnerships.

"Online, you can book an airline ticket with us and book with hotel partners at the same time, or get a rental car or use our partnership with Uber," Nair said. "But if you go one level higher, it's harder to get that participation going."

And even within one vertical, Nair pointed out, many languages are spoken.

"The ability to interface with our Star Alliance partners is somewhat limited because [individual airline systems] developed over time, on different continents," he said. "These have yet to be fully aligned or integrated because of the lack of a common API. IATA is coming up with a language for airlines to communicate better, but there's still some ways to go."

Callahan is not optimistic the issue will be resolved anytime soon.

"It's such a decentralized experience," she said. But she sees a direction, if not a path, toward advancement, "with operating systems that sit on top. Google, for example, was reminding me that I had a flight this morning. As did Southwest Airlines. Google can play a part" if travelers are willing to share data to make it happen.

Travel agents -- and, to a large extent, tour operators -- provide connective tissue among travel verticals where machines cannot. But they, too, would benefit from the development of a technology-enabled industry Esperanto.

Until then, travelers will always begin their vacations at the entrance of the Tower of Babel.


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