From artificial intelligence to at-risk destinations, today’s emerging trends are tomorrow’s travel realities.

Whether facing back-to-back natural disasters or learning how to incorporate the latest and greatest technology, the travel industry must be ready for just about anything and open to the one thing that is constant in every business—change. If nothing else, our changing times have taught us that travel professionals need to be nimble and able to pivot their businesses to meet the ever-evolving demands and attitudes of today’s travelers. 

Whether it’s a tour operator lining up options for next year, a hotel looking ahead to next year’s packages and special events, or a travel agent planning a long-range strategy for marketing and advertising, it’s crucial to stay ahead of the curve and develop an understanding of what clients will be looking for six months from now, a year down the road and even years beyond. 

Current Trends and Challenges
The 2017 Virtuoso Luxe Report reminds us that what might be popular among travelers today might not be quite as accessible or desirable in the near future. According to the report, luxury travelers have an appetite for off-the-beaten-path vacations in destinations that have a sense of urgency (places that are changing rapidly or even disappearing). 

Of these at-risk destinations, Cuba tops the list as both an emerging destination and one in danger of losing its distinctive character in the face of increased tourism. The Arctic and Antarctica are also destinations of interest due to melting glaciers impacting the region's unique wildlife. In terms of domestic tourism, Virtuoso has seen an increase interest in visiting the Hawaiian island of Lanai before it gains more popularity as billionaire Larry Ellison develops the island’s luxury product. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is losing its coral due to pollution, and Venice, with its deteriorating lagoon, also made the list.

Sometimes, however, hot destinations and travel products that seem like the next big thing can end up performing poorly due to uncontrollable factors. In February, for example, Travel Leaders called 2017 the “best time to travel to Mexico, where the American dollar goes far.” 

While the exchange rate remains favorable for U.S. citizens, several unpredictable factors have made it less desirable for Americans to travel south of the border this year, including a Department of State-issued Travel Warning, reports of Zika and Mexico’s strongest earthquake in a century, which struck Chiapas in early September. 

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and advisor, and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, sees natural disasters as less of a long-term risk to a destination than other threats, such as terrorism, which ultimately create a much longer period of recovery.

“People look at hurricanes or earthquakes as an act of nature, and once a city has responded, tourism and business travel usually rebound,” he explains. “In some cases, tourism can even rebound above previous levels. Look at New Orleans, for example, which navigated an awful tragedy of Katrina years ago, and now has a vibrant tourism industry today.” 

Access to 24/7 news and information could make travelers more hesitant to travel to certain destinations, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are ample new and emerging markets to promote to potential travelers, many of which might not be on your client’s radar.

“In locations or destinations where sustained risks exist due to terrorism or other factors, travelers will be more cautious because the risk is higher and, quite frankly, they are better informed,” says Alex Ellinis, head of group sales, Europe and the Americas, for Kuoni Global Travel Services. “The travel industry can lead in these situations, however, by promoting ‘safer,’ less-visited destinations and new selling opportunities.”

According to Condé Nast Traveler, adventurous travelers are already flocking to key emerging destinations, and it’s only a matter of time before they become mainstream. Condé Nast Traveler’s cities to watch include Belgrade, Serbia; Panama City, Panama; Tehran, Iran; Montenegrin Coast, Montenegro; Chennai and Pondicherry, India; and the Faroe Islands, among other destinations.

Looking Ahead
Travel sellers and suppliers can’t just follow the current trends to find success—they must anticipate the future. James Canton—a futurist and the CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures—urges tourism professionals to think differently and expect massive change in the near future.

“Travel companies need to become more future-ready and pay attention to change so they can adapt accordingly,” he advises. “Trends in technology, population, globalization, demographics need to be taken seriously by travel companies—they must understand the changing culture and adapt with the consumer, rather than resist change. This may mean learning languages, adopting new technologies and hiring different advisors.”

Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research is paying attention to an evolution in mobile devices from phones to wearables, and more specifically, “hearables.” Hearables are in-ear-devices designed for multiple purposes such as instant translation and medical monitoring. According to Harteveldt, hearables and other types of wearable devices have vast B2B potential for the tourism industry because they can connect people to each other in ways we haven’t seen before. He also sees augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) playing increasingly important roles in the future, especially to sell premium brands, products and destinations.

“I think that travel agents are going to be a huge beneficiary of AR and VR. We’ve already seen cruise lines, destinations and hotels develop either AR or VR sales tools that they take to trade shows so that travel agents can get a better understanding of their products. And I think that we’ll see travel agencies use this content in a way that will help better serve their customers,” Harteveldt says. “In five or six years, brands that don’t have some type of VR or AR sales content will be looked upon as odd both by consumers and travel agencies. And agencies who don’t have that content in a few years’ time will be equally disadvantaged in the mind of the consumer.” 

No one can deny that technology is shaping the way we communicate and do business. And, over time, technological advancements that once seemed creepy, uncomfortable or unconventional become ubiquitous. Ten years ago, we probably wouldn’t have expected to talk into our iPhones and have it arrange and pay for a Lyft to the airport, nor would we have thought we’d willingly own a device like the Amazon Echo that listens to our every word. The fact is that artificial intelligence (AI) has become part of our daily lives, and it could dramatically change our world in the years to come.

“I think that chatbots [computer programs that conduct conversations] will play a role in what we do as people,” says Harteveldt. “In terms of a travel agency, the chatbot may be able to take out some of the more mundane tasks and issues and free up the agent to focus on more complex issues.”

Ellinis of Kuoni agrees that AI will become more common in solving problems, and that real-life travel professionals remain critical to customer service and client satisfaction.

“The human touch, during the right points in the process, adds tremendous value,” says Ellinis. “The best companies will balance data and technology with high-touch human experience in a blended, customer-friendly way.”

Whatever the future holds, travel agencies should look to forthcoming developments as business opportunities and make a plan to leverage them.

“It would be a mistake to be hostile to all of the technology that is changing the travel experience, so embrace change and learn to leverage the future,” says Canton. “At the same time, refresh and engage the larger marketplace of consumers who are looking for a personalized travel experience—building intimacy with their dreams, goals and culture will be essential.”

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