The Future of Travel – How Virtual Will Travel Become?

Key Takeaways

  • The technological elements for a more seamless travel experience already exist. They just need to be integrated in a more user-friendly way.
  • Hospitality – especially hotels – will end up automating many of the simple things through an easy-to-use app for your phone.
  • Virtual Reality (VR) and Extended Reality (XR) will augment precise points along your travel journey but will never replace physical travel.
  • Solving typical travel problems like rebooking a flight after an airline cancels your flight should become easier with more data sharing.

While virtual travel – using multiple player videogame technology – will offer specific experiences that some travelers are looking for, technology will for the most part augment and support the physical experience of travel. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that augmenting and supporting travel is secondary. The travel industry is often fragmented, frustrating, and out of date.

The time for automation in travel is long overdue.

Standing in a check-in line and picking up the room phone to order room service feel like dated parts of the hospitality experience. You would expect it to be far more modern by now.

Francis Davidson, co-founder of Sonder

The sooner travel businesses implement back-office automation and other innovations, the higher their odds of success.

Serhii Kholin, CEO Onix-systems

Overview of the Travel Industry

From the moment you start thinking about taking a trip to the moment when you arrive home again, get out of the taxi and open up your front door, haul your luggage inside, and message friends, family, and colleagues that you’re back home, you are travelling or at least planning to. Think of all the stages in that process:

  • Get inspired to take a trip perhaps through social media or a landing page
  • Research possible destinations online – including hotels, restaurants, cultural and natural attractions and find information on cool deals and avoiding rip-off traps – and choose a destination that you feel will give you a memorable experience
  • Find out what, if any, visa requirements you face, and apply for the necessary visas if so required
  • Find and then booking a convenient and relatively cheap flight
  • Book your hotel rooms and any other local travel you might need – like train, bus, or even Uber rides to locales you want to see.
  • Grab an Uber, taxi, bus, or drive your own car to the airport
  • Get your boarding pass at a touch-screen kiosk and check-in your luggage
  • Wait for a long time in endless security lines
  • Get to the gate, board your flight after a wait (usually a long one because airlines demand you get to the airport early) OR
  • Get to the gate just in time because the security lineups were really slow
  • Sit in a small seat in a crowded plane where hopefully no one is rude – or violent – during the flight
  • At your destination airport, go through customs and immigration if required, and then claim your luggage which hopefully isn’t missing
  • Find an Uber, taxi, or bus to get to your hotel, or to go to the city/town where your hotel is located – assuming your flight didn’t arrive late and make you miss all your connections
  • Collapse in your hotel room and take a shower and sleep
  • Or head right out to start seeing the places and doing the things you came to do
  • Enjoy your stay, including going to concerts or shows or cultural and edutainment events
  • Do the whole process again on your return journey back home

If this list makes you reluctant to travel, it’s only because much of the travel and hospitality industry doesn’t do a good job because of deliberate fragmentation of data – what the industry calls closed-loop network infrastructures, as well as government bureaucracy, and underinvestment in XR technology. The industry is all too often stuck in the 90s but hopefully that will start to change. We’ll see how in the next section.

Let’s look at the top 10 Travel Companies in the world:

Rank & CompanyCountries servedSales in billionsEmployees etc.
1 Booking Holdings220$76.624,500
2 Expedia Group70 +$72.4n/a   200 + websites
3 GBT Amex Global Biz Travel140$33.718,000
4 BCD109$2714,000
5 CWT145$2518,000
6 Flight Centre Travel Group90$1620,000
7 Internova Travel Group80 +$ 7.1270,000 “advisors”
8 American Express Travel140 +$ 6.72,200 + locations
9 Direct Traveln/a$ 5.42,000 +
10 Fareportaln/a$ 22,000 +

Source

Remember that most of these companies have multiple brands they use to target specific demographics and travel preferences.

Approximate Travel + Tourism Industry Employment Numbers

CountryTotal employeesPercentage of total employment
Global290 million9.1%
U.S.5.983.7%
China29 million3.9%
Canada660,0003.3%
Australia676,0005.0%
EU13 million6.1%
India80 million17.8%

Global Source   US Source  China Source  Canada Source  Australia Source  EU Source  India Source

The Future of Travel – How is the Industry Changing and What to Look Out For?

No, travel won’t become mostly virtual, although that is one way to solve the problems listed above. However, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) – which are both summed up by the term extended reality (XR) – will play key roles within the world of physical travel far beyond that which they currently do.

Inspiration

Imagine experiencing an XR recreation of a landmark attraction you’d love to see, complete with a guide offering lots of useful detail as well as tips and advice. Something that goes far beyond the pleasant webpages that clutter the online space with overdone language that you know sets you up for disappointment. These virtual reality/extended reality spaces will become an increasing part of our travel process as the metaverse seeps into the world of tourism. However, it will be more as a support rather than as an alternative reality.

Planning

You already use sites like Expedia, Trivago (an Expedia brand), Kayak, Flightfinder, Skyscanner, & Momondo to plan a trip at a price that your budget can handle. The next step that’s being worked on right now is to make the transition from virtual inspiration for a trip (shown above) to finding and booking flights and hotels as seamless as possible. That will mean that hotels start giving you XR tours of their facilities and then have a user-friendly way to quickly reserve a room. You want to visit Vietnam? Go here for a virtual tour. You need a room in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)? Click here for a virtual tour. Click here to see what rooms are available. Click here to reserve a room. Choose what currency to pay in – including bitcoin and ether and other digital currencies. Done. 

Just as importantly, you will also use an App that gives you real time updates on any cancellations or significant delays of flights. Airlines (this may take longer) will share their data on a much larger scale so that you don’t only get a message saying American Airlines flight 4652 to Istanbul has been cancelled or delayed. You get suggestions for other flights and links to let you seamlessly book a new flight to Istanbul. Of course, there will likely be a small fee charged for this service that is shared between airlines.

These updates will also include text warnings about floods, major storms (hurricanes in the Caribbean for example), and any security issues that would make you want to cancel or reschedule your trip.

All these elements are already up and running online, of course. The big difference is that they will be personalized based on your data and will be in real time and will offer you links to solutions you can book online as soon as you get the update/warning. And you will have access to real-time information on what the visa requirements are for any trip you have booked or are planning.

Arrival

Yes, virtual reality will help you here as well. On your flight (or before) you’ll be able to do a virtual tour of the airport (security organizations will fight this but it’s coming regardless) or at least of the relevant parts that you will use. Especially what happens after you go through customs and immigration (if required) and are looking for local transportation. Here’s the local taxi stand (better to avoid), here’s the airport taxi service (expensive but reliable), here’s your bus to take you to your hotel (free or much cheaper and secure), here’s the local city bus (for the brave and young only), here’s a link to your local Uber. All in virtual reality or XR to familiarize yourself and to help avoid the scammers that are waiting for you like predators as you disembark, tired and impatient to get to your hotel.

There will of course be links to sites where you can reserve a paid taxi or bus in advance as well. In fact, your Uber will already know what hotel you’re going to – as will your airport taxi. But make sure you confirm with the driver.  

Stay – Hotels & Hostels

There won’t be as many unpleasant surprises when you get to your hotel or hostel, because you will have (hopefully) done the VR tour. Your lobby will be smaller because a large lobby is an old-fashioned way to waste a lot of space. Smaller lobbies mean more space for amenities and more rooms, which means lower prices.

Crucially, the amenities a hotel offers you will transform over the coming years. Some like Sonder, are already changing in this direction. There will be large lockers where you can keep baggage etc. Room service will be customized – you decide when or even if you want your room cleaned, or just want a set of fresh sheets and towels.

Here’s what the App will let your phone do at your destination hotel:

  • Check in and out of your hotel
  • Reschedule your check-in and check-out times
  • Unlock and lock your room’s door
  • Order your meals from outsourced local high-quality restaurants – the hotel restaurant will become a thing of the past – and have them delivered to your room
  • Unlock the rotating Lazy-Susan cabinet which can be accessed from the hall outside as well as from inside your room. That’s where your food/towels/bedsheets/chocolate/ibuprofen will be left. No more having to open your door and let room service enter in order to have a meal in your room. You tip digitally – if you wish to.
  • Book tickets to local or virtual events. A live concert in augmented reality from Tokyo of your favorite artist after a relaxing day on the beach in Phuket, Thailand? No problem.
  • And finally – although not directly part of any travel app on your phone – travelers will be snapping tons of pics of their hotel and various destinations and posting them. Guess which hotels will get lots of referrals? The ones people love to take pics of and post to social media, because they love staying there.

Departure

What will differentiate departure from arrival – although the two will share much of the same digital tools – will be the experience gained by travelers having visited a location and learnt first-hand and from fellow visitors what to do and what to avoid. This will include how to and when to get to and from the airport (or train/bus station). As well as recommendations and ratings. And this brings up an exciting possibility.

As Francis Davidson, the co-founder of Sonder explains, storytelling in travel has enormous potential. Millennials and Gen Z often tell their stories with pictures and maybe some short accompanying text. But it’s the image that talks to their fellow travelers. Social media is clearly the place where this has already been developing, but travel companies need to find a way to capture that storytelling to help them project their brand. Crowd-sourced XR digital spaces where you can tour through people’s experiences told in images could perform two key functions:

  • Act as inspiration for people looking for cool destinations.
  • Act as a platform for post-travel follow up by the travel industry.

The challenge will be to seamlessly integrate those XR platforms into the services offered by companies – from hotels to food & beverage to edutainment to leisure and entertainment to transportation.

The Positive

  • XR and VR experiences will enhance specific points in your travel experience
  • You will have less unpleasant surprises when traveling
  • You’ll do almost everything at a hotel using an app on your phone
  • Be able to book a new flight quickly and easily when you get a flight cancelled
  • Find out about and see more of where you plan to go through XR
  • Physical travel will not be replaced by virtual travel – rather it will be enhanced by it
  • Governments will realize that the tourism business means visas and other entry/exit requirements should be streamlined and automated as much as possible.

The Negative

  • Hotel staff will have to be tech savvy and do more with lower staff numbers
  • Hotel restaurants will be history and their chefs will have to go elsewhere
  • Taxi drivers ripping off tourists at the airport will have to think up new scams to make money
  • Travel agents will have to find new ways to be relevant or find new jobs

Authors

  • Allard Keeley

    Allard Keeley is an accomplished researcher with expertise in the fields of law, politics, and technology. With a degree from McGill University, Allard has over 10 years of experience in conducting research in immigration law. Currently, their research focus is on AI, robotics, and technology, with a goal of becoming an expert in this area.

  • George Laczko

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