While wearable technology has grabbed the attention of the travel industry at several times in recent years (perhaps most memorably with the 2015 release of the first Apple Watch), various barriers and limitations have kept such devices from having any significant impact. Recently, however, the constraints have begun to fade, and with the adoption of wearables on the rise, they are poised to invade the industry, both from a consumer perspective and behind the scenes at airports, hotels, theme parks and cruise ships.
Some proprietary technologies -- notably Walt Disney World Resort's MagicBand -- have met with success in recent years. That, in turn, has inspired other wearable devices, such as Carnival Corp.'s Ocean Medallion and Universal Orlando's TapuTapu, which enable highly personalized guest experiences. Those technologies are all location- or vacation-specific devices.
Meanwhile, applications that work anywhere on smartwatches and other wearable third-party devices have been limited by slow consumer adoption. But with the rate of consumer acceptance increasing and new types of wearables coming onto the market in the form of everything from device-embedded clothing to earbuds, location-agnostic devices are starting to come into their own.
Wearables are also the subject of some experimentation in both the consumer electronics realm and for use by the industry workforce, such as in airport operations. Experts are keeping their attention focused on that space and waiting for it to develop further in the near future.
"I do think that wearable devices will play a growing role in how we travel, in how we interact with travel brands and in how travel brands market, sell and serve us," said Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
Wearable use increasing
One oft-cited issue with wearables, especially with smartwatches, is slow consumer adoption coupled with technical limitations, such as the early iterations of watches requiring a connected smartphone.
Even so, more travelers are expected to purchase wearables in the coming years. According to Phocuswright's "U.S. Traveler Technology Survey Sixth Edition," published in March 2016, 13% of travelers own smartwatches, up from 9% in 2014. Seventeen percent of travelers own fitness trackers, and 57% of the travelers surveyed said they planned to buy a wearable device within the next few years.
"They're increasingly popular, but they are still niche devices," Harteveldt said.
The Ocean Medallion wearable technology will enable Carnival Corp. to personalize its guests’ vacation experiences.
The true vision of wearables in travel is to take a consumer's experience (or, from an operational standpoint, a worker's experience) and make it frictionless.
While traveling might once have been a difficult task, wearables are supposed to simplify that experience, whether through pushing a gate change notification directly to a user's watch or, as some future technologies seem to promise, telling a traveler about that gate change via smart headphones.
Pedro Sousa, director of marketing for low-cost carrier EasyJet, said, "All tools, all computers, all hardware, everything is just a tool to make life simpler and easier, so [it is] the same with wearables."
Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at Phocuswright, predicted that travel likely will not be the industry that drives wearable adoption.
"Having the ability to look at your watch and receive navigation through the airport logically makes a lot of sense, but you have to have the watch," Rose said. "That's where travel is not going to be the industry, necessarily, that's going to drive wearable adoption. We're only going to take advantage of wearable adoption as consumers do that."
Proprietary devices provide ease, personalization
One area in travel where wearables have thrived is in proprietary technologies such as Disney World's MagicBand, which acts as the guests' room key, theme park ticket and FastPass+ ticket, enabling users to avoid long queues by using separate attraction lines that all but eliminate wait times. They also enable users to make payments at stores and restaurants on property.
Rose called the MagicBand "the most successful wearable launch" in the industry. "That's a specific-use case ... in which the wearable, the band, is just perfect."
According to James MacPhee, senior vice president of Walt Disney World Parks, the company has distributed more than 29 million MagicBands, making it the world's fourth largest wearables distributor.
Offering guests a wearable that replaces many items they previously would have had to carry, ranging from credit cards to room keys to park tickets, was part of a larger guest experience strategy that began in 2009-2010, MacPhee said. The bands work in concert with FastPass+ and the My Disney Experience app to enable guests to plan trips in advance, including dining and attraction visits.
"We've always known that our ability to bring great Disney storytelling to life ... is always going to be a critical investment focus," MacPhee said. "But what we realized, I think actually proactively, was that we really needed to focus in on today's guest experience in the here and now. We kind of challenged ourselves to look ourselves in the mirror and identify in the guest experience where are the lines, hassles, barriers and friction points that exist today and how can we smooth them out and make them better. And then how can we continue to advance the guest experience to be really driven by guest choice."
The MagicBand work in concert with FastPass+ and the My Disney Experience app to enable guests to plan trips in advance.
Introducing the three-pronged approach that included the MagicBand has been a success. MacPhee said 95% of park guests rate the MagicBand as excellent or above average, and the vast majority of resort guests wear the complimentary devices.
A second version of the MagicBand was recently released. While the base version of the technology still comes in a wristband form, the second version enables resort guests to remove the center "gem" from the bands and purchase a separate "MagicKeeper" in which to place it.
The keepers are keychain-like devices, many featuring Disney's iconic mouse ears, that can be clipped to keys, belts or other places.
Carnival Corp., meanwhile, recently unveiled its own wearable, the Ocean Medallion, a project spearheaded by chief experience and innovation officer John Padgett, who had been one of the architects of the MagicBand program.
The Medallion is a small disk, about the size of a quarter, that guests carry on their person, in a pocket, on a necklace, in a bracelet or in some other manner. It enables Carnival employees to identify passengers and their locations, opening up a world of possibilities when it comes to services.
"I think at the high level, it's not about the wearable itself, and it's more about the concept of persistent connectivity of an individual on a vacation experience," Padgett said. "When you have that connectivity, you have awareness, and with that awareness you can provide a better guest experience."
MSC Cruises to debut wearables in June
One new entrant in the wearables category will be MSC Cruises, which plans a bracelet to be used on two ships debuting this year, the MSC Meraviglia and MSC Seaside. Known as MSC for Me, it will be part of a digital concierge, mapping and purchasing service. Read More
Using the Medallion will enable Carnival Corp. to offer personalized vacation experiences often only found on high-end products across any of its brands, thanks to the scalable technology.
"We have a strategy that has two components," Padgett said. "One is to elevate guest experiences, and the second is to leverage our scale. And what our experience platform does is it accomplishes both of those strategic focuses across the company."
Medallion technology is also enabling Carnival Corp. to reduce friction in guest experiences, he said.
The device itself is proprietary, meaning its capabilities are not offered in the form of an app on a smartphone. Padgett said there are several reasons for that. First, every guest should be able to participate in the program, and offering its own technology enables Carnival to do that at no cost to the guest. Operationally, each guest needs to participate to make the program work efficiently, he said.
Carnival also wanted a system that guests would not necessarily think of as technology.
"It has no on-and-off button," Padgett said. "You can't charge it. You can't configure it. You can't take it apart. There are no settings. There is nothing that you could possibly do to it. The reason is if you could do things with it, it becomes technology, not this token of appreciation for you being our guest."
Padgett said that using some kind of smartphone or smartwatch technology would limit participation insofar as, among other limitations, each passenger would have to own one of those devices and it would have to be charged and remain charged.
TapuTapu wearables at Universal Orlando Resort’s Volcano Bay waterpark will unlock experiences throughout the park, such as illuminating images in the caves of the park’s volcano.
Several other travel suppliers are also investing in proprietary wearable devices, among them Universal Orlando, with its TapuTapu, a bracelet that will be deployed in the company's new Volcano Bay waterpark. Guests can tap the device on a totem at the entrance to an attraction, after which they will be notified of a time to return there without having to wait in line. The TapuTapu will also enable special effects around the park.
Harteveldt said he saw both potential and limitations in proprietary devices.
"Clearly, these [proprietary wearables] have value, but they are very use-specific in some cases," he said. "They are linked to a specific brand or suite of brands. In some cases it may work only in a particular place."
But, he added, wearables like the MagicBand, Ocean Medallion and TapuTapu have value because they reduce friction in transactions and improve the overall visitor experience.
"There are going to be brands and venues where a brand-specific, venue-specific wrist or other type of wearable device is useful and makes sense both for the customer and for the brand," he said.
TapuTapu wearables will tell guests when to return to an attraction to minimize time in line.
A number of travel companies are investing in their own technologies that can be used on third-party wearables such as the Apple Watch or Android Wear devices. For example, most major airlines have apps that can send gate changes and boarding passes directly to smartwatches.
This space has been somewhat limited by the available technology, but it still has drawn travel companies' interest.
Hotels.com, for example, is one of many brands that has created versions of its mobile apps that are accessible on Apple Watch and Android Wear.
"Mobile is a huge priority for us in general," said Josh Belkin, vice president and general manager of Hotels.com North America. "We want to be where the users are and where the users want to be."
This is not surprising, given that one in three Hotels.com bookings is transacted on a mobile device. Belkin said that one goal of making its apps available on wearable devices is to create a frictionless user experience.
Taylor Cole, head of public relations at Hotels.com, said that receiving alerts via a watch when carrying bags or being otherwise occupied is an added bonus of wearables. Cole, herself an Apple Watch user, said the company's strategy is to be where travelers are, whether that's in the smartphone app space or the wearable device space.
Egencia also offers Apple Watch and Android Wear versions of its app. Ian Knox, senior director of global product, said the company started off by identifying several scenarios in which users would want to get information from a watch. Those include itinerary information and updates, accessing transportation from an airport to an office with a single click and more.
"There's lots of workflow things where we find wearables are most useful," Knox said. "There are two things: One is notifications just giving you information that you need to know; and the second is quick actions ... that are easily repeatable and then will take you to a broader experience on another device if you need to get that."
Disney did not rule out smartphone or smartwatch applications when creating its MagicBand program. MacPhee said that the company developed a proprietary technology, at least in part, to enable guests to disconnect. The time it would take to develop alternate-device technology was also a consideration. However, smartphones and similar devices were, and still are, in the running as technology that guests could use in the parks and resorts at some point.
"There's no question that as we continue to evolve this, we will strongly consider smartphone capability," MacPhee said. "It's about guest choice."
Marissa Chacko, product manager at Foursquare, said that interest in existing wearables, mostly smartwatches, is still focused largely on early adopters.
Foursquare offers two smartwatch apps, one focused on providing users with travel guides. It has been limited by prices and consumer accessibility, but with smartwatch prices coming down, Chacko predicted that consumer adoption and use of smartwatch apps will increase in the future.
She is a believer in companies developing apps that are device agnostic, though she said that single-use wearables -- notably Snapchat's Spectacles, which enable users to take videos to post to their accounts -- are enjoying a moment in the sun.
"That being said, I think getting a lot of app developers to develop their own hardware is ultimately going to be limiting to the market," she said. "Having the same approach as a smartphone, having multiple apps, will ultimately let us better develop technology than I think any single hardware developer could do on their own."
A place in the workforce
Wearables are slowly starting to make their way into the workplace.
"The wearable market itself, you're beginning to see it mature a little bit on the fitness and wellness side, on the smartwatches side, a little bit of maturation, which means we can start figuring out how to really use these devices in more than just traveler and consumer scenarios," said Mark McSpadden, head of Sabre Labs.
Specifically, he said, hotels and airlines will begin to find uses for wearables as some of their earliest limitations -- price and having to pair a watch with a phone to work, for example -- are disappearing with further development.
"I think that could be a catalyst for more adoption here," he said.
A screenshot for Foursquare’s app for Android Wear that provides users with travel guides.
Airline IT company SITA has conducted several tests of wearable technology with airport and airline employees, including a Google Glass/Sony SmartWatch 2 experiment that saw Virgin Atlantic workers in 2014 using the technologies to recognize individual first- and business-class passengers. The employees were pushed information about each passenger via the wearable devices.
SITA also pioneered the use of Apple Watches with Quebec Airport, pushing airport employees live notifications from its Airport Management System product. The program is still in place, said Stephane Cheikh, ventures and innovation manager at SITA Lab.
"I think for now there's more potential in using wearables for the workforce [vs. consumer adoption]," Cheikh said.
"There's a lot of evidence of wearables getting traction in the enterprise -- in other words, people using wearables kind of behind the scenes," he said. "In a travel aspect, you may have an engineer looking at a plane, a maintenance engineer, and using a wearable to help identify flaws in the plane or things like that."
Wearables keep evolving
New forms of the technology are on the horizon. For example, menswear label Rochambeau, partnering with the Evrythng smart-products platform, recently introduced a smart hat called the Thinking Cap. The company previously designed a smart jacket that uses a chip to unlock experiences in certain locations, while the hat provides audio walking tours of cities and soundtracks.
A screenshot for the app EasyJet is developing that will work with shoe inserts.
EasyJet is also entering the wearable space with shoe inserts to be sold onboard its planes when development is complete. According to Sousa, the inserts connect with a smartphone app and use haptics to direct a user to a destination. A user's left shoe will vibrate if he or she should turn left, and the right shoe vibrates to indicate a right turn. Going in the wrong direction earns a vibration in both shoes, and reaching the final destination results in a triple vibration.
Sousa said the inserts are being designed to enable travelers to experience the routes to their destinations without having to constantly check their phones for directions.
"We decided that it was a good idea not only to apply technology to the trip and to the process of buying and the process of flying," Sousa said. "We thought that it was time to also use technology to improve the experience in the destination."
Microsoft HoloLens, a glasses-like device that projects holograms for users who are wearing them, is also a product that has people like SITA's Cheikh paying attention. SITA is working on creating an application for the HoloLens that would mimic its Command Center product, projecting video screens for users to see via the device instead of taking up entire rooms with hardware displaying video feeds from various parts of the airport.
Rose predicted smart glasses will also make a comeback, despite the failure of Google Glass.
"I think it's the next [thing], maybe two to three years," he said. "It's really a function of mass-market acceptance, and then it'll bleed over to travel."
Improvements to speech recognition will also likely play a large part in the future of wearables, according to Foursquare's Chacko.
"Voice control is probably going to be one of the bigger changes as we get more comfortable controlling things with our voices," she said. "I think there's a lot of room for improvement there."
Augmented reality could also play a role. Chacko offered the example of smart glasses enabling a user to see Foursquare ratings hovering above each restaurant on a street.
"I think there is a world where that will become more and more likely" she said. "We just haven't quite seen the hardware yet that supports that in the best-use case."
Rose said that innovative companies like Apple and Facebook will likely be the ones to drive further consumer adoption with wearables, whatever form they might take. He gave an example of wearing something that could project into the air a smartphone with which consumers could interact, perhaps through contact lenses. He estimated that such technology is four to five years out.
"I think it is those companies that are going to drive the change and then consumer acceptance," he said. "And then the travel pieces will be added, just like every airline has an app now or every OTA has an app. It just becomes a place you have to be."
One other type of wearable that is also being experimented with would undoubtedly encounter multiple barriers to entry into the consumer sphere: implants that place technology under a user's skin.
Cheikh cited an early 2016 report of a Dutch man boarding a plane using only a near-field communication chip implanted on his arm that included his boarding pass information.
"That, I think, is the future," he said.