How Technology Has Changed How We Travel

In 1980 I was nine years old and it was the 75th birthday of Alberta, the province where I was born and raised. All that year I rode the bus from Sherwood Park to Fort Saskatchewan to attend school — something that really needs to be saved for another story altogether.


Throughout that year, as we drove down the highway in the bus to Fort Saskatchewan, the highway was laden with trucks whose containers were painted with signs promoting the 75th anniversary of a province that was, at the time, experiencing the initial affects of an economic downturn.

To commemorate the bust, every motel north of Calgary posted a sign in the lobby that read, “Please God, give us another oil boom and we promise we won’t piss it away like the last one.”

It took a while for those prayers to be answered, which is also another story.

There was, I’ll admit, a feeling of helplessness across the province, although most nine-year-old kids were most likely not aware of it. But it didn’t take a genius to see what was happening.

And so, that same year, the government of Alberta started a campaign called Travel Alberta in an effort to drum up some business for the province. Soon more trucks rolled down the highways, their 75th anniversary signs on the containers they carried morphed into Travel Alberta signs and, hearing the call, my family responded.

In the summer of 1981 my mother, father and I hooked up the tent trailer to our 1974 Plymouth Fury II four-door sedan (white with blue shag seat covers) and headed south from Edmonton to do as we were told. We traveled Alberta.

I remember a lot of that trip. I remember hearing the news that Terry Fox had died while we were in a church in Rocky Mountain House. I remember the very reasonable explanation that the fossils we found in Drumheller had been planted by Satan to test our faith. I remember stopping at every single museum, regardless of what kind of museum it was. I remember feeding a squirrel in Waterton.

What I don’t remember is seeing a map. We had no plan other than to ‘travel Alberta.’

We followed the signs. We stopped to eat when there were restaurants. We drove until we found a campground, and then we stopped, made hot dogs, slept, and then got up and did it all again the next morning. The entire trip left to chance.

And looking back on it, the whole thing seems impossible. No map. No GPS. No TripAdvisor, Yelp, or HotelTonight. Just a classic car that was not yet a classic, a family, and a tent trailer with a plug-in heater that put us in danger of burning down that tent trailer on a nightly basis.

Travel Paradigm Shift

Fast forward through all the gory details in between, and it’s 2000 and I’m planning a trip to New York City. Up until then what I knew about New York was information that I’d gotten from Barnie Miller, The French Connection, and Goodfellas.

Hoping to avoid all of the places where one might get beaten, stuffed into a trunk and stabbed with a kitchen knife borrowed from someone’s mom, I hopped on my IBM-compatible PII 350, fired up the dial-up connection, and made my way to lonelyplanet.com (on the recommendation of a friend) and read what others had to say about NYC.

This caused a complete shift in the way I have traveled ever since then. The ability to reach out and find out what other people had to say about where I was going came up so suddenly and without warning that it was as remarkable then as it is taken for granted now.

These days, the very thought of going somewhere — even walking out of the house into my own neighborhood, let alone to another city or country — without consulting a website or using an app to get information about a specific place is anathema to myself and almost anyone with a data plan.

Imagine going to BC for a ski vacation with your buddies without researching the best villas in Whistler. It just wouldn’t happen. Once there, you’d whip out your iPhone, or your Galaxy S4 or whatever it is that you carry in your pocket with you, and you’d find out where to go eat.

A full 85% of those who travel for leisure read reviews of their destinations before deciding to go there. And if you’re not present in the results of the search, chances are that people will go to the establishment that A: was present and B: was given more positive reviews than the competition.

The Information SuperJetstream

Back in the beginnings of what the media termed “The Information Superhighway” one could access, what was then, a remarkable amount of information. The issue, however, was that one must be in a dedicated space in order to do so. With the advent of mobile technology and the ability to access information from almost everywhere in the world, the way we travel has changed so much from that 1981 trip across Alberta that I took with my family as to be almost unrecognizable.

We now have the ability to discover the best beach bars in the world, we can get offered deals on products simply by being in the vicinity of the locations where those products are sold, and we can share our travel experiences with others. And while it seems like there may be enough opinions already, we know that 6 in 10 purchase decisions are made based on what our friends are saying on social media.

There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way we travel. It’s not even an issue. What is at issue, at this point, is whether or not the travel industry as a whole is willing to accept that. Far too few of those involved in travel are embracing technology.

I spoke not long ago with a man who pitched his web development company to a hotel in 1996. “I’m not investing money in something that will never last,” was the reply he got most often. Kind of like the record company that turned down The Beatles.

Better or Worse?

The point really is not whether it is better to point your car south and just find out what’s around the corner when you get there than it is to use your smartphone to find out where you’re going.

If you can avoid dirty restaurants by reading reviews before going there, or find out how amazing a hotel and its surrounding area is, the technology can’t be bad. If you lose a little bit of a sense of adventure in the process, it probably won’t kill you.

The point is that it is the direction that the world is moving in, and businesses who fight against the flow of the tide will find themselves gasping for air.

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