This little workplace of ours is codependent on any number of businesses and destinations that make global travel and tourism one of the world's largest industries, making an annual economic contribution of more than $8 trillion.
Breaking that down into reliable forecasting is close to impossible, but what we can do is look at some specific segments and try to anticipate what might lie ahead in 2019.
Here are some trends I think will play a role in the evolution of the industry:
(You'll note that many of these trends have already started. The speed of change in our industry sometimes means that instead of predicting a trend, the best you can do is try to identify it as it flies past you.)
The airlines could have called it "The wealthy pay more pricing" or "Serious shoppers pay less pricing." What it means is that people traveling with you on the same flight might have paid a lower fare.
All the time you've been spending on social media has been fee-free. You get to go on Facebook and Google, you get to shop on Amazon and eBay for free. These firms manufacture nothing. What gives them value is the data they have collected about you and all your personal habits and preferences. They sell this data to airlines so they can adjust their fares to fit your specific profile.
Are you a patient shopper who waits for the best deal, or do you purchase when you find what you want without much comparison shopping? They know your spending habits, and in many cases they will get you to come back with a low price that is, shockingly, no longer available.
Although it will be outed among consumers in 2019 as it also takes hold in the hotel sector, dynamic pricing might be the catchphrase of the year as more suppliers employ it and more consumers grasp how their spending habits are being used.
The experience premium
We may be headed in a direction where one's personal travel experience as an agent is less important than it once was. I have described my firm's advantage as "Where your vacation is planned by humans who have been there, instead of computers that haven't."
But we now have cameras and 3-D tours and extensive film libraries. We also have real-time bloggers and on-site videos. Is it possible that our computers are far better traveled than we are? OTAs will take full advantage of these technologies, while agents who offer 1970s-style paper itineraries will seem out of touch.
Will travel advisers begin to morph into travel technicians, assuming the added role of travel-tech enabler to maximize clients' ability to experience a place remotely?
I bought a new car this week. Just before I drove away from the dealership, I had a meeting with one of three on-staff "technologists." Despite a 40-minute briefing devoted solely to managing the onboard computers, I was asked to set up the included "in-home" follow-up appointment.
Today's auto mechanics need to know a little bit about technology. But the high level of tech in today's automobiles requires the employment of experts who advise both the buyer and the mechanic.
What makes us think that, going forward, we can escape the need to know how to help our clients navigate the latest travel tech at their disposal?
Blue- and red-state marketing
Have you seen a sharp increase in the "Will there be a majority of X people on this cruise or tour" questions? I have. It has to do with those who do not want to spend their group tour or cruise in the company of those with opposing views.
I've seen studies highlighting the political separations in our country. And those of us who believe strongly in one thing don't want to spend the best days of their year at dinner with a majority who believe strongly in something else. Clients fear being drawn into political discussions with fellow Americans more than they fear terrorism.
Watch for some companies to start to identify tour or cruise departures with marketing red meat that appeals to a particular political persuasion. This is already occurring, but it is going to be more common. Some suppliers will simply need to take sides to better define their demographics.
I don't look for this to become overt anytime soon. But there are some subtle ways to appeal to specific demographics, often including themes, guest lecturers or planned activities.
Virgin Voyages doesn't come out and say it is going to target a younger, trendy and open-minded demographic, but two of its latest announcements point in that direction. Their first ship will have an upscale, hip, onboard tattoo parlor. There will also be a resident drag queen who will mingle with guests and host some exciting late-night parties. I'm not sure all Americans will see those attractions as a plus.
Which path will the elephants take?
It is likely that 2019 will see both Amazon and Google begin to make their big play to take on one of the world's most profitable industries. Some in our community have felt that travel is too complicated, the distribution models too diverse, for Google or Jeff Bezos to fully understand.
That notion is not based in reality. Google already provides a travel agent in your pocket. Your client can arrive in a destination, tap an app, and a world of hotel availability will open up. The app will find the type of property, location, cost and room preferences to match your profile. Options appear, you tap, and you're booked.
Advance reservations may be a concept for our parents, but Google is making it possible for "travel on the fly." There is an excitement to departing on a flight with no need for planning. All you need is WiFi, and your personal travel agency is up and running. This will be a slow change. But don't underestimate its potential impact as we see the launch of new, "on-the-spot" booking apps in 2019.
There has been a lot of speculation about Amazon's plans in the travel sector. Some have questioned its ability to monetize our industry. I don't share that view; I believe by this time next year we'll have a sense of Amazon's war plans to dominate parts of our industry. There is just too much money on the table for them to ignore us. Amazon has the ability to take any existing brochure program and offer it as an easy, one-click purchase format. Product questions can be easily directed back to the supplier. I just don't see Amazon doing FITs or even wasting its energy selling highly competitive hotel rooms.
I do see Amazon selling private, packaged content not available elsewhere for example, cruises with unique, built-in shore events or pre- and post-trip components or tour products with high perceived value.
Technological innovation will challenge traditional travel agencies and even OTAs. But none of the likely changes we will be witnessing will be able to capture the trust in the "trusted adviser" role that so many of us play for our clients. Companies that see travel planning as a transaction rather than a relationship will be sorely challenged going forward.
Senior contributing editor Richard Bruce Turen owns the luxury vacation-planning firm Churchill & Turen. He and his wife, Angela, have been named Virtuoso's top-producing travel consultants for three of the past four years. He can be reached at [email protected]