Consider a vision of the travel experience in the not-too-distant future. Olivia, who is 28 and lives in Seattle, decides to add a few days of pleasure travel to a business trip to Sydney. She asks Travel Dreams on the Fly, one of several new travel-concierge apps that all her friends are using, for suggestions. Travel Dreams knows Olivia’s likes and preferences thoroughly—as well as those of millions of consumers like her. It serves up six suggestions for destinations that combine outdoor activities with good shopping as well as a selection of boutique hotels and seafood restaurants. Olivia explores them all on a virtual-reality headset. It’s a difficult decision, but New Zealand (North Island) edges out Brisbane and the Great Barrier Reef. Travel Dreams provides hotel and transportation options, makes restaurant suggestions, and books tour operators specializing in countryside hiking trips, bike excursions, and Wellington city tours. Olivia can check everything out on her headset as well.
Plans made, Olivia tells Travel Dreams to book her hotel room, two restaurants for dinners, and a full-day hiking trip. She doesn’t worry about flights; she knows that Travel Dreams will reroute her business trip automatically to take in the new destination, explore potential upgrades, and book the seats when prices are expected to be lowest. It will also purchase option tickets at a small fee so she has the flexibility to change her plans, which she often does. She doesn’t think about which airline she will fly or which chain her Wellington hotel belongs to. She is confident that the hotel will live up to its virtual-reality tour and the favorable reviews by previous guests, and she knows she’ll get the loyalty program points—Travel Dreams manages those for her. During the all-important dream, plan, and book phases of the travel journey, Olivia no longer has direct contact with most travel brands, and she doesn’t miss them. Travel Dreams makes the right decisions and takes care of her needs.
In New Zealand, Olivia goes directly to her hotel room, which is preset to her preferred temperature. In the morning, coffee (black with sugar) and fresh grapefruit juice (her favorite) are sent up automatically. The tour company picks her up, and the daylong hike more than lives up to the virtual-reality preview and Travel Dreams’ five-star user rating.
Back at the hotel, Olivia posts photos and reviews so that others can benefit from her experience just as she benefited from theirs in making her decisions and plans. But before bed, she worries that she might be giving New Zealand short shrift—the hike that morning had been more beautiful than she could imagine. She tells Travel Dreams to exercise the option for a flight home two days later, to line up a shopping itinerary for the morning, and to book a bicycle tour the following afternoon. She falls asleep without doubting that when she wakes up, she’ll find everything, along with her coffee and grapefruit juice, done just as she asked.
The question for travel companies is not whether this vision is impractical or too far in the future to think about. It’s neither. As digital technologies, big data, and innovation provide more and more seamless experiences for consumers like Olivia, the real questions that arise—and that we examine here—are these: How can travel suppliers protect their place in the value chain? And how can they leverage their strengths to take part in this innovation so that they can maintain and strengthen their position in the consumer’s travel experience?