The Post-Experience Economy: Travel in an Age of Sameness

Skift Global Forum in New York City began with a Q&A session with Governor Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico who set the tone for the following two days of talks, panels and presentations. Few other economic industries have the potential to impact a community like tourism, he explained. Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, there was a collective desire in public and private sectors to help restore tourism in Puerto Rico because they knew it would be crucial for economic recovery. Rather than rebuilding what Puerto Rico had, the governor hoped to leapfrog current technologies and embrace fresh ideas from startups to help turn Puerto Rico into a forward-thinking tourism destination.

His vision for tourism in Puerto Rico seemed to align with the question on everyone’s mind: what should the future travel experience look like, and what needs to happen to get there? Speakers at the event made it clear that the industry needs to think beyond “experiences”. Travellers want unique experiences, but they also want to create deeper connections with the places they travel to and the people they meet along the way. In an age of sameness, those connections are a point of differentiation in the post-experience economy.

Holistic travel opportunities

Health and wellness was an important theme at the forum, and hotel players in particular spoke of its importance in lodging. Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, claimed interest in health and wellness offerings was growing. “We want to engage consumers in ways that are highly relevant to them,” he said at the event. “[We can’t] strictly look through the lens of being a hotel company. For us, that’s where wellness comes from, a holistic sense of wellbeing…We’re trying to offer an engaging program that extends beyond the four walls of a hotel room.” Hyatt launched its FIND platform in July, which allows members to redeem Hyatt points for a variety of self-care experiences, such as a morning cycling tour of Napa Valley and an accompanying lunch with a celebrity chef for approximately 71,000 Hyatt points.

Health and wellness are part of a broader trend in which travellers are looking for more holistic travel opportunities. Vacation with an Artist (VAWAA) is a platform that matches travellers with artists and craftsmen from around the world, offering curated packages for travellers to stay with and learn from the best. Geetika Agrawal, CEO of VAWAA , explained how consumers, especially on leisure trips, do not want their time to feel commoditised. Consumers are looking for genuine connections that remain long after the trip is over. She explained, “some of us are craving slow, rich, deep experiences that can add meaning to our lives.”

Personalisation and curation

Another key theme was personalisation, a broader trend driven by informed travellers who expect information, choices and services that are highly relevant for them personally. OTAs (online travel agencies) offer unparalleled, technology-driven options for consumers; with an OTA, consumers can find everything they need in one place. But there was also optimism in the resurgence of the traditional travel agent. “Transactional agents”, as Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, put it, have been effectively replaced by OTAs, but the need for human travel advisors is stronger than ever. More consumers are willing to spend the time and extra money to work with a human travel advisor to ensure the best experience possible. In an increasingly digital world, consumers are craving that human connection. They need someone they can trust. Steve Kaufer, CEO of TripAdvisor, agreed with this, which is why he announced a new travel feed, a social media feed for travel recommendations, for the new version of the Trip Advisor website and mobile app. He claimed that travellers do not want to sift through thousands of reviews while planning a trip. They want recommendations from friends, advisors and social media influencers.

Technology is democratising the ability to personalise a trip, meaning greater levels of personalisation are becoming available to consumers at all price points. With machine learning and artificial intelligence, companies can offer hyper-relevant and personalized offers in real-time to their customers. Kajal Narasimha, managing director of merchandising and personalization at United Airlines, explained how travel companies can anticipate their customers’ needs and create ancillary sales opportunities from that. A consumer might receive a real-time push notification on their smartphone saying their upcoming flight is fully booked – might they be interested in purchasing priority boarding to ensure they don’t have to check their bag at the gate?

The travel industry is changing, and technology is enabling new opportunities. With technology, consumers can access a world of options. At the same time, operators can use technology to learn about their customers and, in turn, provide greater levels of the personalised offers and curated experiences they want. To avoid commoditisation, however, travel companies need to go deeper to offer those connections that consumers are eager for when travelling. Successful players will look to strike that balance moving forward.