If anyone feels they can accurately predict where 2017 will take us, I suggest they have at it. Uncertainty rules, and travel predictions will be about as accurate as our recent political prognostications. But allow me to list some trends I'm watching that are, if nothing else, fodder for cocktail-party chatter.
Concerns about terrorism and personal safety impacting travel demand may be overstated. A recent AARP study found that more respondents said their reasons for not traveling were related to cost and their own health than to the broader issues of safety.
Medical travel is a very real trend, with strong growth prospects in the next 12 months. Patients Beyond Borders is estimating that 1.7 million Americans will travel overseas in 2017 for elective surgery. South Korea, Singapore, India, Thailand and Malaysia are the current hot spots for complex surgeries, and Hungary is developing a reputation for good dental services at significant savings.
Fewer than 20% of Americans traveling overseas want to stay with a local, but 50% would like to dine with one. I look forward to interviewing the first travel consultant dedicated to arranging meals for international travelers. The average international client will spend more on dining in 2017 than on accommodations or transportation. Yet no one is dedicated to this specialty.
The demand for new travel apps might also be exaggerated. While millennials clearly desire to make their travel arrangements on a "three-click-limit" basis, the AARP study found that 49% of baby boomers didn't find booking travel online to be difficult; they just have concerns about trust and accuracy.
Boomers are increasingly booking direct on airline and hotel sites, but agents are starting to point out why going through an adviser or directly with a property offers benefits. During the past year, we've seen a series of reports indicating that OTA market-share growth is slowing. All sorts of reasons are offered, but no one factors in the growing tendency of advisers to ridicule the entire notion of online vacation planning. Supporting this tendency, NBC News reported that 15 million hotel reservations were made on fake hotel sites, 6% of the total made last year. In 2017, agents will use this information to combat perceived threats from mega-online sellers.
Relaxation, get-it-together travel is a greater motivator than a well-being trip or healthy spa experience. Research shows that a growing amount of people wishes to travel so they can reflect and make important life choices in a calm, comfortable setting. The get-your-head-together travel trend has already benefitted India and Thailand.
Everyone is talking about experiences when, perhaps, they should be speaking about people and programs. The hotel, cruise and airline industries are all far behind the curve when it comes to curating intellectually stimulating content. Which airline has the very best in-seat, onboard education program? Which cruise line features evenings that are stimulating in ways a Gershwin tribute is not? Which hotel enables the guest to enjoy a rousing TED Talk in a lounge with canapes and the company of other stimulating guests?
Big Data will demonstrate that the number of potential travelers abroad might be less than imagined. If 32% of us have a passport it might be accurate to make some assumptions. Assume that about half of those get passports for business. You then have to look at the number of leisure travelers who secured a passport primarily to go to the Caribbean or Mexico, and it may well be that the total pool of potential U.S. leisure travelers to Europe, South America, Africa and Asia is 6% to 8% of the population. Given that, it really does make sense to drill down deep and personalize.
In 2017, agents and some suppliers will continue to underestimate the potential of disrupters such as Alphabet (Google) and Airbnb. OTAs such as Kayak are now listing homestay businesses as well as private homes on their sites. The launch of Google Trips will quite literally enable travelers to organize their plane tickets and hotel reservations, offer guides to more than 200 cities and make personalized recommendations based on a user's Google history, something not even the world's best travel consultants can do. The heart of the app is called "Things to do," an instant itinerary builder based on length of stay at a destination, queries and the results of previous searches. It suggests indoor activities when it begins raining at your destination, and it will make dinner reservations. It will schedule visits to museums when the crowds are minimal and never on days when they are closed. It's like that.
Space is not the only new travel frontier. While travel writers are looking up, many travelers are looking down. Look for more and more opportunities to sell exploration of the Earth's darkest, deepest ocean floors. The largest colonies on the planet are found in the ocean, 2,000 to 3,000 feet down. I expect submarine trips to grow as travelers seek to explore the planet's largest biomass. It is no coincidence that Scenic's and Crystal's planned expedition yachts will feature onboard submarines.
Biking will increasingly be associated with luxury travelers. Yes, they want the best boutique accommodations and food that looks Instagram-worthy, but the new luxe traveler sees fitness travel, personal well-being and slow exploration in depth as mutually supportive concepts that come together in a carbon-footprint-free bicycle journey.
Smart advisers will don helmets and see where this trend is leading.
"Dronecations" are coming. In the second half of 2017 we expect to see portable drones accompanying travelers to the far reaches of the planet. Just as dogs need to pee on a neighbor dog's lawn, travelers increasingly need to bring back digital proof of their travels to enhance their bragging rights. But and here is the problem about 97% of travelers seem to feel they are now serious photographers worthy of National Geographic. Drones will soon be available to shoot photos that go beyond anything a hand-held device can capture. Smart entrepreneurs will be arranging group dronecations, device and training included.
Bragging rights have changed dramatically. Analysts have always underestimated the importance of boasting to the neighbors and friends about travel experiences. Bragging is tough to document because respondents won't admit to it, but experienced advisers know it is always one of the prime motivators of international travel. You can't just say you've been to London anymore. It is likely that all of your friends have been there. Today's adviser needs to provide every client with one-of-a-kind experiences. It is not where you went; it is how unique your experiences were. That is perhaps the major trend.
2017 will see the dawn of the escorted tour accompanied by undercover security. But don't bet on this one. I have been recommending it for almost two decades. Picture your clients and imagine posing this question: "Here is tour A with a full-time escort. And here is tour B with a full-time escort and an undercover security guard who will walk behind the group as they move about, looking out for everyone." Do you think one or two of your clients might choose B?
Have a safe, unusually healthy New Year with on-time connections in everything you do. Thanks so much for allowing me to share this space with you.
Senior contributing editor Richard Bruce Turen was named a Superstar Generalist in Conde Nast Traveler's most recent list of Top Travel Specialists. He is the owner of luxury vacation firm Churchill & Turen and also owns and edits TravelTruth.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.