It is all going to be very different going forward. We say that each year, but I really do believe that in 2020 it will be true. Let's look at some of the things we see on the horizon that might be seen as challenges or opportunities. Your view will, in large part, be based on how you perceive that the growth of technology discounts the worth of human interaction.
We are entering uncharted territory with a presidential election year that is unlike any other. It appears that advance bookings are down somewhere between 20% and 30% year over year, depending on the sector, and that could get worse.
Travel, particularly overseas travel, is normally down in an election year. But the divisions in our country seem to be having an economic impact, as we are starting to hear more frequent reports of clients who do not wish to have to dine at a table with folks from "the other side." There is widespread speculation that there can be dire repercussions if one or the other side loses. There is even press speculation that one or the other side might not "accept" an electoral college result that goes against them.
That either means a banner year for warm-weather destinations in early November or significant numbers of potential travelers staying safe in their gated communities.
We'll see. But there are other trends we need to be watching:
Yes, the travel dinosaurs are back. Some would argue that they never left, despite a 40% attrition rate among travel agents. The survivors are strong, and they thrive on their ability to possess "food" in the form of destination and client knowledge. But I would argue that we've become a bit complacent about our food. I am not at all certain that Google won't be stealing our lunch.
It is already true that the behemoth knows what we eat for lunch. That is in our data profiles. And they know what our clients eat for lunch, the current status of their health, exactly where they spend their time and what they watch on TV. Can any travel agent even claim to "know" their clients well in the face of millions of pieces of personal data about those clients available for sale to anyone who wants it?
The real threat to the knowledgeable-agent food chain is the notion of increased use of artificial intelligence (AI). The dinosaurs might not be needed much in the hotel sector, for example, as we see more and more searches done using voice commands on smart devices. Alexa can answer your Marriott-related questions right now.
Some hotel industry analysts are predicting that in 2020 as much as 50% of all hotel inquiries will be done by voice search without the need for any human interaction. Take a few minutes to visit a sampling of major hotels' sites. You will quickly meet chatbots that can actually answer questions and direct you to exactly the right place to get responses to questions they have not yet been programmed to answer.
This is the real future shock: AI saves money. Bots don't take lunch breaks, never ask for a raise and work 24/7. And here's the thing: They get better and better at what they do by the minute. One of the fascinating aspects of AI is the ability of the computer to be programmed to constantly improve its knowledge, speed and customer service savvy.
Meanwhile, what are the dinosaurs doing, besides desperately trying to find talented employees who know the world and are willing to work on commission like any real estate agent? Same old, same old for the most part. I see no response to automation: no attacks on direct online bookings, no discussion of the risks of handing your personal travel data and credit card information over to a call center headset.
In 2020, I predict, we will start to see tremendous improvements in augmented and virtual reality solutions online.
Yes, your travel agent just returned from a nice fam trip to Grand Cayman, but she still can't give you 360-degree views of the rooms, an experience in which you are virtually walking through the resort as if you were there. The theory, of course, is that our clients will search using this wonderful new technology and then pick up their home telephone even though half of our clients no longer have a landline and call us in our office to book the room they just walked through and loved.
Really? I think an increasing portion of them might just stay online and do the whole deal, talking with a bot-in-a-box if they have any questions. And they will do this because we have not, as yet, launched any major campaign to show the travel consumer why this is such a bad idea.
New challenges await us in the form of severe overtourism. Where will the Chinese and Indian middle classes be traveling? Where will charter flights from Asia and Europe be arriving with brigades of budget travelers? The demographics are changing, and there are popular places where I will no longer send my clients because they will be lost in a sea of humanity, none of it speaking the local dialect.
I do think that climate change will begin to have an impact on vacation decisions as the new decade begins. Children born today might not be able to visit portions of Vietnam, Shanghai or even Miami Beach by the time they are 30 because of climate-induced flooding. 2050 is the new prediction date set by a large group of climate-change scientists. We also have to be aware of pollution, ruling out travel to China for many of our clients at risk of respiratory illness.
We really need to perform a reality check on the changes being forecast for our industry. Several experts, for instance, are now openly saying that in 2020, almost all travel business will be conducted on a mobile platform.
There is some data to suggest that a majority of travelers prefer staying in someone's home to staying in a hotel with several hundred strangers.
Millennials want to experience many things their parents never even thought about. They want to book it quickly, although they are fine with changing plans once they arrive. They don't want to be gone more than a week, especially if they are visiting a latte-free society, and they depend more and more on the top-tier, full-time bloggers who have managed to earn an income by reporting on their travels.
This is not some dystopian travel future. This is now. This is happening. This is 2020.
We'll see if the new breed of dinosaur, many of them personal friends, will survive and continue to thrive. Don't ever bet against them. But first, I think, we all need to awaken from our slumber.
Here's wishing the happiest of New Year's to you and yours.
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]