Does the Way You Search for Travel Affect the Experience Itself?

It’s a commonplace now to remark that social media is shaping the way we experience the world. In travel, this phenomenon is pronounced. Visit any tourist site, and you can’t shake a selfie stick for fear of hitting a smartphone-wielding ‘influencer’ intent on getting that perfect snap to burnish the image of his or her flawless life. Indeed, many famous sites now feature a queue of people standing in line to get that Instagram-worthy shot, shorn of people, ready to show off to friends, family members and people you once met in Barcelona back in 2004 BIP (Before iPhone).

Queuing up for that perfect Instagram moment…

I’m not going to comment on this phenomenon which has been well documented, not least by my colleague Matt Brazier, during his talk at ‘Further East’ in Bali last November. He explained brilliantly why from now on he’d be consciously sharing stories, memories and pictures rather than using them to boost his social media profile and in so doing, lessen, somehow, his own travel experience.

What I want to do is take a step back and look at whether the ubiquity of our devices and the way we interact with the online world in planning our travel is affecting the travel experience itself. Does the way we search, map, investigate and even book travel, shape the experience itself? I think it does, perhaps in fundamental ways, we are yet to understand.

Online Travel Search

That we are using our devices more and more in search can be seen in a cursory look at the data that Google makes publicly available to us about online travel search. When my travel career began it was still about classified adverts in the back of the papers or popping to your local travel agent. Apart from good old word of mouth, that was how you found your travel company and planned your travel. Sure, there were independent travellers, but by and large, they followed a set route and ideas provided by a guide book or went with the flow locally (generally meaning their ‘influencer’ was the most enthusiastic tout or taxi driver at the airport on arrival or at the beach outside their resort).

By the time we started what is now Experience Travel Group back in 2004, Google Pay Per Click had arrived, and the game had changed. Suddenly specialist travel companies could get directly in front of the exact type of traveller they specialised in. Just two people operating from their bedroom, specialising in a small tsunami and war affected country, could find enough clients to make it a business (yes, that was us — we found almost all of our clients by bidding on the phrase ‘Sri Lanka holidays’). At the time of starting the business, I paid 10p per click. Google Keyword Planner gives me a bid of £4.29 today. Things I Wish I’d Known Back Then, Volume 782). We didn’t need a big audience — we just needed the type of curious travellers who wanted to discover Sri Lanka in a more exciting way than that offered by package operators or guide books. Google gave us a line directly to them.

At about the same time, Trip Advisor sprung to prominence and changed the game again. When clients first started mentioning it, they were almost surreptitious about it. They’d say something like; “I heard the rooms at that hotel were quite small”, and we’d know they’d read that on Trip Advisor because we’d read the same review. People aren’t so coy now: Trip Advisor is a given. It was a game changer because the mass market package operators could no longer sell a crap product, knowing that the next year would bring along another group of people and fill the hotel all over again. Suddenly hotels could no longer rely on cheapness as a sure-fire way to fill their properties — a level of service and expectation management was a pre-requisite. Sure, it tended to help large ‘good enough’ hotels best of all, rather than interesting and quirky outliers, but in the way it helped the good guys improve their service and forced the shoddiest end to shape up or fold, Trip Advisor did a huge service to the travel industry. It changed us as consumers too: we were no longer willing to take the authority of a trusted source at face value: we wanted confirmation from a critical mass of ‘peer’ reviewers.

The Rise of The Smartphone

The arrival of the smartphone would transform travel search again. Technological change rockets along exponentially and we slow, linear, and lumbering humans take a long time to catch up (if we ever do). It’s not surprising that we are only now beginning to see the effects on our lived experience. Apple announced the iPhone in 2007 and it quite quickly started to impact on the way people researched and booked travel. Twelve years later and almost all travel websites now have more visits from mobile devices than from the desktop. Even companies like us who focus on the main part on the over-50’s now see far more mobile traffic than desktop.

Interactions with social media via our smart devices also had an enormous impact. The early onset of social media didn’t change the booking landscape much at all. We were all told that Facebook would be where the gold at the end of the rainbow lay, but it wasn’t the case, at least not at first and not in the main. There was a lot of noise, but the reality was that social media didn’t change the landscape until it aligned with the ubiquitous rise of the smartphone. Until the smartphone itself, became a portal both into out of our lived experience.

Oodles of rack space in server farms around the world have been taken up by marketers talking about the effect of the smartphone on the way people book travel, but I can sum it up fairly simply: it made their job superficially easier and at the same time, much harder. Superficially easier, because people were inviting them (the advertisers) into the most intimate corners of their lives and much harder because the more people searched on mobiles, the shorter they remained on our travel sites researching and browsing. Clients become harder and more flighty: tougher to pin down they needed more ‘touchpoints’ before even committing to enquire about a holiday. At the same time, seamless and frictionless mobile booking experience on apps such as Booking.com and Airbnb were increasingly dominating the market. Convenience trumps everything. From the consumer perspective, the great democratising of information seemed to be reversing: what had at first been an extraordinary way to cut out the middle man and get directly to the information they sought, become a confusing morass of claim and counterclaim.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the process of planning, arranging and selling travel has been transformed entirely over the past 20 years. However, how did this impact the travel experience itself?

Booking Travel

A client recently said to me that though they felt they ‘ought’ to have booked ‘independently’ they were glad they chose us. The reason for that was that we arranged a more interesting and rounded trip than they could have managed themselves. Their holiday was better balanced, the logistics were taken care of, and the guides we arranged (and had selected and trained), had made the trip. Her problem was that she felt that by asking us to do it for her, she had somehow ‘cheated’ and taken an easy way out. She had somehow not been pro-active or independent enough.

I reflected on that and thought how strange it was. Had she booked independently she would have most likely consulted Booking.com and been served hotels based on a commission paid to the hotel and whatever other factors their algorithm takes into account. Trip Advisor would have made recommendations based on 5000 random travellers from around the world, with whom she shared nothing in common. Facebook might have suggested places based on what her friends had happened to ‘like’ (in the very loose Facebook sense) and so on. Where is the independence?

Airbnb and others (most of us in the travel industry has been guilty of this at one time or another) promote the idea that staying in a house in a ‘local’ area and having ‘local experiences’ is somehow akin to living ‘like a local’ and helps you get closer to the heart of what a place is all about. Perhaps by having the trip arranged by a travel company, she felt that she was being indulgent and not ‘travelling like a local’ whatever that is supposed to mean?

Users Not People

What has happened, is that the tech industry has sold the world a pup: we are all free and independent global citizens able to pick and choose our experiences and fulfilment according to our need. A user is free to pick and choose. The clue is in the term ‘user’. Instead of being a free agent in all of this, the ‘user’ is directed by all the factors that have gone into the algorithms. What if that seamless and convenient process has meant that people engage less with their travel plans? Think less about what they want to achieve and more on pure wish fulfilment. What if by spending so much time thinking about the end product– the wish fulfilment — the reality becomes boringly bland in comparison — a reality which can never live up to the promise?

Instead of being independent traveller’s in charge of their destiny, consumers were instead behaving in more and more predictable ways: visiting the same sites at the same time, following the same routes, leaving less to chance and generally acting in predictable and (for the tech giants) profitable ways.

The consumer, as illustrated by this diagram is at the centre. Everything revolves around the consumer in a superficially flattering way. However, this is an illusion of choice and agency and not a reality. The algorithms trap the consumer in a matrix of which they can be barely aware and this, in turn, affects the travel experience itself.

Engaged Brains Work Differently

Some scientists were doing research recently on the brain and how it works when you are driving and navigating. They found that navigating is one of the most brain-intensive activities there is. Even drivers following routes they knew well had incredibly active brains, with millions of neurons firing off in different directions, making complex probability calculations at a fundamental, subconscious level. The kicker came when they measured the neural activity of those same drivers now following Sat Navs. The brain activity went down to the point of almost disappearing entirely.

We’ve all had that experience of thinking, I’ll follow a Sat Nav, and then I’ll remember the route. And then we don’t. But when we’ve got lost and re-found the way again, we never forget it. Travel is the same. When we’ve engaged with the process and thought about it and got lost and waylaid and generally moved indirectly to our final point, we have a richer and deeper experience. Experiences are not built equally.

Is the Desire for Experience New?

Interestingly the rise in demand for ‘experiences’ on holidays has corresponded with the growth in digital travel planning. Perhaps the two are linked. It is patently absurd that millennials and modern travellers are looking more for experiences than those of the past. Travellers always were looking for ‘experiences’, for why else would you do anything once you’ve met your basic needs? However, what if our disconnection from the planning process itself has meant the experience feels less rewarding and somehow meaningful? Perhaps experience has itself become something of a scarce commodity, leading to the rise in its value.

Relying on an algorithm to make a unique suggestion is flawed if what you are setting out to do is explore and discover something new for yourself. However much personal data you have given the company, it sorts it via an algorithm of some kind. An algorithm is a set of rules to be followed in organising an existing data set to solve a problem or question. In other words, it can only give you an answer it has already. It doesn’t know, what it doesn’t know and will tend to cleave towards the safe centre ground — the solution that is best for the highest number of people.

We end up in a place where people only engage in a most superficial way with the object of their travel. It becomes about ‘ticking off a list’ or the ‘dreaded ‘bucket’ list, rather than as an opportunity for fun, growth and development. The experience becomes strangely bland and that feeling that someone else has already been here, means people end up looking for ever more extreme ways of spending their money, of experiencing the world, instead of simply considering that engagement in the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of your journey is as important as the destination itself.

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

Social media, coupled with the constant and easy access to it via our smartphones has caused the deadly sin of jealousy, the old green-eyed monster of myth, to run amok. Constant reminders of what others are doing, friends or ‘influencers’ (paid or otherwise) paint the picture of the perfect life and another little trigger goes off in our brain, and we move to do something. The lure is so strong, the non-existent Fyre festival famously sold out a festival that didn’t and probably could never have existed. It’s even got a handy acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and our closeness to our devices, our constant interaction with them hands big tech yet another method of manipulating us.

Meaningful Travel Requires Friction

What if what you need for something unique is some roughness; a mistake, a chance meeting and an accident? What if you need to slowly build the picture over time of what type of journey you need to take for this moment in time? What if slowly making the picture and working with friends and contacts to shape the travel you are about to undertake is critical to how you’ll experience the journey? Perhaps friction is needed to make an experience truly unique and remarkable? What if the data set that needs to be thoroughly examined and understood is your own? Short of uploading ourselves to a computer, we are the only ones with access to what we’re searching for and what we need from our journey and why.