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The New Normal: Innovations Give Travelers More Choice, Convenience

30 Jul 2015 by Susie Steckner

Technology is constantly evolving — not unlike a living organism. It isn’t static. It isn’t constant. Which makes it disruptive. Businesses, even niche businesses, often forget to, or choose not to, evolve with technology and are turned upside down — because their products, their policies, their customer interface becomes, simply put, outdated. We live in a consumer-driven world, and we are often drawn to technology everything — from convenience to novelty. This is Insight’s Disruptive Technology series. We will be addressing how technology enters an industry and does exactly that — disrupts.

Cooking classes with a local. A cross-country road trip with a co-traveler. Hotel reservations scored through instant messaging. Walking tours reviewed by fellow wanderers. Airport rides with the touch of a screen.

Every aspect of traveling, whether for pleasure or business, has changed with innovations upending where we stay and who we stay with, how we get there, what we decide to do and how we do it.

The changes are being driven as much by technology — apps, devices, on-demand services — as they are a philosophy centered on a more convenient, more researched, more individual travel experience.

As innovators like home rental phenom Airbnb continue to grow and travel-related startups join the wave — and push even more boundaries — travelers are seeing greater choice than ever before.

It’s a welcome change, according to a Tnooz survey last year. Nearly 40% of respondents consider disruption the “new normal” in the travel industry, and about 30% think it “should happen more.”

The sharing economy delivers.

One of the greatest drivers of all this change is the so-called shared economy ethos, which has exploded in recent years and has people sharing all manner of goods, services and experiences.

Want to see the sights in San Francisco without renting a car or navigating public transportation? Rideshare with Sidecar. Short on time to book a place to stay? Tripping.com sorts through a network of other popular rental sites for you. Looking to try out a city’s best food trucks? Meet up with locals through eatwithme.net.

And that dash from the hotel to a client meeting? Enter ridesharing champ Uber.

“Uber has been a revelation,” said George Fiscus, managing partner with F & M Merchant Group in Arizona, who travels more than 150,000 miles a year. “I can use Uber BLACK and get to and from meetings with no wait time at airports or at my hotel. It’s a cleaner, more comfortable ride with polite drivers. It’s quiet, so I can work in the car while getting to the meeting instead of just ‘holding on.’”

Sharing economy leaders Uber and Airbnb continue to grow in popularity among travelers.

Uber is drawing more business travelers like Fiscus, according to a report by Certify, an expense management company.

The company found that more business travelers chose Uber over taxis while on the road. In the first quarter of 2015, roughly 46% of all total paid car rides were through Uber, compared with 15% in the same quarter last year. Rides with taxis (including limousines and shuttles) dropped to about 53% of paid car receipts in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 85% in the same quarter last year.

Another top sharing leader, Airbnb, is also seeing notable growth. Last year alone, the company helped users book 10 million stays in spare rooms and empty homes across the globe.

Meanwhile, more and more travelers are tapping up-and-comers like Vayable, Bookalokal and EatWith to get connected with locals for a range of unique activities or dining experiences.

“In terms of appeal of the sharing economy in hospitality, a ‘more unique experience’ is second only to better pricing,” according to The Sharing Economy. “More and more consumers are looking for local authenticity in their travels, and sites like Airbnb and EatWith are delivering it.”

Tech enhances travel.

Devices, of course, are enabling and enhancing so much of this travel innovation.

“The advent of mobile, smartphones, tablets, they're having a huge impact on how people search, book and review travel,” Tony D'Astolfo, managing director of travel industry research company PhoCusWright, told 4Hoteliers.com.

“All of this technology, whether it's Web properties, review properties or mobile apps, has enhanced travel opportunities or the proliferation of companies that have emerged based solely on the technological development,” he said.

Mobile apps in particular have revolutionized the travel experience.

The saying, “There’s an app for that,” is no truer than in the travel industry, with mobile apps touching almost every part of the travel experience — whether it’s one like Hotels Tonight that links travelers with last-minute available hotel rooms or AutoStitch that enhances panoramic vacation photos.

How we communicate on the road has also changed dramatically with devices. Voice and video calls, via Skype, FaceTime, Viber, Google Plus Hangouts and other apps, have become the go-to money savers for travelers. Sending messages over Wi-Fi using apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger lets travelers send texts, images and video clips to other people using that app without carrier charges.

“You want to use your data connection as little as possible…you want to make use of Wi-Fi as much as possible,” said tech expert and blogger Jason Perlow in Veeam's Community Podcast. “I usually make use of cafes, McDonalds, Dunkin’ Donuts, those kinds of things to make Skype calls. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can do your conference call for an hour.”

Devices themselves are being designed and marketed for traveler portability and ease, with light, thin and powerful laptops at the top of the list. Wearables also offer convenience for travelers, whether it’s the multi-function Apple Watch, easy-to-pack fitness bands or the sleek Polo Tech shirt that can track and stream real-time biometric data to your smartphone.

Travelers also have their pick of a mind-boggling number of gadgets supporting their devices on the road, from water-resistant poolside audio to portable chargers for your GoPro, to wireless, noise-canceling headphones.

To speed up airport check-in, Alaska Airlines is doing a three-month pilot project to move people through the entire ground check-in process with their identity secured by digital fingerprint readers.

Experts say the travel industry worldwide will continue to experience disruptive innovation.

“Traveler autonomy has increased and preferences have evolved, while technologies have advanced, and new companies and models have dramatically changed the way we think about and conduct the business of travel,” according to the Tnooz survey. “Disruption will continue to shape the future of travel — geographically, economically, socially and technologically.”