Technology and Tourism - how can we preserve the human aspect in a fast changing world?

Tourism is an industry where transporting humans and establishing contact between humans are the two main things. It is a high-touch-industry with a lot of interaction between people. If you study the customer journey, both digital and analogue, you’ll find contact points everywhere. People meeting, greeting, smiling, complaining and so on. 

At the same time tourism is a high-tech industry. Technology is crucial at all levels of the industry. Without technology, no tourism.

Do you think this assertion is sounding a bit too strong? Try thinking about your last vacation and how technology contributed to it. You most likely booked through the internet. Hotel and airplanes are usually booked digitally. Maybe you used social media and Google or another search engine while you where planning the trip? There is also a big chance you sent an e-mail or made a phone call. 

Every day millions of gigabytes of data are transferred in order to enable bookings, payments, marketing and communications that make traveling possible. 

That is why we can say that travel, as we know it today, is impossible without technology.

Try booking a steam locomotive analogue

Try booking a steam locomotive analogue

Already in the 50’s the aviation companies started to implement computer reservation systems, which later became the Global Distribution Systems (GDS) we have today. Nowadays all travel intermediaries such as travel agents and tour operators have been significally affected by the internet and online travel agents have disrupted the whole industry. Within accommodation and hospitality most hotels now use property management systems that process guest recordings, bookings, rooms, accounting, housekeeping and ordering.

Other sectors within tourism like entertainment, events, attractions and activities all have their own specialized IT systems for managing guests, marketing and security. Whole destinations have their own digital portals to connect all the different sectors and offerings in their area together in a way that strengthen and support their marketing and management strategies.

For travelers the digitalization means that information is easier in order to provide access to information. Updated knowledge on everything is just a couple of clicks away because of the internet, social media and mobile technology. At least in theory everything is updated and available. The travel companies that want to be in the market, need to be both digital and updated.

Why did these disappear?

Why did these disappear?

How is technology used in travel?

First some obvious facts. Tourism rely heavily on technology to exchange information. When the internet came along, destinations and businesses had to turn around and quickly establish their online presence. Because this made a huge impact on distribution, meaning all the connections that allow tourism suppliers to get their products to the marketplace for consumers to be able to book them. This also moved the power from a few big actors like GDS over to new both small and big actors. In many ways this has democratized the industry, but you can also say it has made the difference between companies even bigger. This is what we call “the technological gap”.

The biggest impact in a company is distribution and how they organize their bookings and resources. 

Even though a lot of the technology is behind the scenes and mostly used in marketing, planning and ordering, it also is an increasingly bigger part of the experiences.

You can divide the use of technology into different major roles within tourism experiences.

  1. The technology can be an enabler for tourist experiences. An example is that through innovations like the electric tourist ship of Brim Explorer, equipped with tech like sonars and underwater drones that might stimulate travelers to go there for a whole new experience.

  2. Tourism can be seen as a creator of tourism experiences, because it provides new settings for activities. We can use the example of Brim Explorer once more, since their use of sonars and underwater drones can give the passengers a new perspective of life underwater.

  3. Technology can be described as the attraction when the technology itself becomes the focal point of the tourism experience. A NASA space station can be a good example here.

  4. Technology can be an enhancer of the experience by providing a more comfortable setting, helping them find the right places or access to information. GPS is an example.

  5. Technology also can be seen as a protector. Both to protect the natural environments and attractions the travelers visit, but also with security systems for travelers.

  6. Technology can be an educator, because it helps provide information about the objects, people and places we visit.

  7. Technology can be a substitute when the resource they visit is threatened, congested or not available or accessible. Think about live camera, simulation or VR glasses or Augmented reality. This can reduce the negative tourism impact.

  8. Technology can have an important role as a facilitator behind the scenes. An example is booking systems or CRM-systems.

  9. These booking systems, back-office, internet and social media are important tools for the travel business. An example is tools for marketing.

  10. For tourists technology can have an important role as a reminder of tourism experiences. Photos and social medias are good examples.

  11. Technology can also be a destroyer of tourism experiences. As an example, sharing pictures in social medias like Instagram can make a destination overwhelmingly popular, and people will go extra lengths to get the right picture. Selfie sticks at an event is a typical minor irritation that might destroy the experience, while computer failure can actually make sure that reservations are lost, and you will have no place to stay.

Selfies have changed tourism.

Selfies have changed tourism.

Technology is challenging.

This headline might be obvious, but as technology in many ways makes things easier, its complexity is time challenging and costly. The technology goes out of fashion and gets outdated quickly, which demands more investment, time and money for maintenance and to keep updated.

Another big challenge is access to expertise. Particularly small organizations might find it challenging to achieve the right knowledge, which enable them to implement technology in the right way for structuring both the business and its communication. 

Many seem to forget that all technology will not always suit your concept. There are many tourism settings where visitors or even employees see the technology as demential to the overall experience. If you are in the industry you understand how painful the experience of a shitty CRM system is. In Norway we have a great example with the extremely user-unfriendly systems from Tellus and Epi-server that where used by destination companies and Visit Norway. Neither the providers of experiences or the ones working in the destination companies enjoyed working with these systems. In fact most people hated it and it provided no value to the travelers. Other examples is systems and solutions that are overkill for you concept. If you have two rooms and a handful of products, you don’t need a 2000 dollar website.

To avoid these challenges tourism organizations need to be strategic in their use of technology. A smart approach is always to do things step by step and prioritize. Don’t implement things because it can be nice in the future! It will be outdated in the future. Here is one good way of doing it:

  • The first step is to invest some time in scanning your surroundings to identify and authenticate the technologies that might be useful for your organization. Talk to people for inspiration, check the internet, but remember that your concept have its own needs. What is right for others, is not necessarily right for you.

  • The next step is to try matching these technologies with your organizations strategic goals. This can be improving your service, reducing your costs or choosing better and more efficient processes.

  • The third step is implementing new technology in a way that makes use of all the advantages in a best possible way. If you are unsure about this, it is smart to let an expert help with implementing and then make a test run on real life clients.

  • When you have done this you must evaluate the technology from users, to see that it actually works. 

For small operators there has never been more great solutions to help you get started. It doesn’t even have to be expensive.

How can tourism be high tech without loosing human relations?

This is a tricky question that will have many answers to it. To find innovative ways of blending technology with a personal touch is in many ways the key challenge that most tourism organizations need to deal with. The same situation goes for other industries also, but in tourism human interaction is key. It is the driving force for the whole existence of the industry.

One important thing is the belief that technology should be helping humans, not replacing them. It must help you make the processes smoother and add value to meet the needs of your guests, both in customer service and all situations where you are maintaining your clients expectations. 

I started this article pointing out the interaction points between humans, and this is important to understand when you implement technology. If you are able to map the full customer journey, identifying all the contact points between you and the client, you will also be able to improve these points. Try to be in your clients shoes. Why are they visiting this destination, what do they want to experience. How did they enter your site, where are they going next. How can you pre-frame them for the next step in your clients unique customer journey?

This journey is unique for each client and each funnel, but still there are some similarities you can use.

In travel it is common to divide the stages in traditional travel into five main steps. I’ll add a note about how this can affect you.

Dreaming — Here you would ideally want the client to be aware of you

Planning — In this step you would like the traveler to consider you

Booking — Now the client have chosen you

Experiencing —  This is where the client is on location, he/she/they are traveling.

Sharing. — This point is underrated. Don’t you want the traveler to recommend you to her friends?

These are the stages of a traditional traveler, but of course this is just one way to understand it. Beneath each step there is a lot of smaller contact points, and these steps are not nearly representative for each travel.

What is the customer journey of a spontaneous trip? What is the journey of a repeating guest? What is each step of the booking process? How do you meet them? How do you build their experience? How do you say goodbye? 

All of the steps in a customer journey are important pieces in a big puzzle. Let the technology allow you to be more human.

Technology is powerful, and can be very helpful. I have a travel company, Nanook, aiming to make people book directly from local companies instead of expensive middlemen. This will give the traveler better trips, and more value for money, while their visit benefit the host destinations. We have created a global platform based on local companies, verification and trust. We use a lot of technology, but the whole system is people oriented. We use technology mainly to make people meet. You always have local experts planning the trip. In this concept we have actually identified as much as 18 contact points in the digital customer journey, and we continuously work to improve each step. It is hard work because each journey have several people involved.

Our big project nowadays is to implement Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to help people take better and faster decisions. This is gonna be a big challenge for us, both to create and implement technology that will give value to our partners and travelers together with maintaining the very important human touch. 

To succeed we need to build piece by piece, in small steps. And we have identified certain areas that can be right for this technology. Such as search, decision taking, conversions and market segmentation among others.

Creating a system that works for all of our partners is demanding. And at the same time creating the best possible customer experience. For destinations this is even more demanding. Our approach is to let people be people, and let the technology support them. 

The people will always be the most important in travel. I can not imagine a world where robots travel and is hosted by robots. Can you?

Is this the concierge of the future?

Is this the concierge of the future?

Håvard Utheim