Our Crystal Ball: Top Ten Travel Predictions for 2009

Travel Industry Perspective, Travel News — By Josh Steinitz on December 22, 2008 at 5:49 pm

In the spirit of risking all credibility and authority by making a series of pronouncements about the future, some of which will no doubt fail to materialize, I hereby offer some predictions for the 2009 Year in Travel.

  1. Latin America will be caliente. As American appetites for overseas travel become ever more circumscribed by the falling (or at least wildly fluctuating) dollar, terrorist incidents, airline fuel surcharges, and lingering anti-Americanism, there’s one place where travelers can have a taste of the new and exotic without being subjected to transoceanic plane trips, worrying about local religious practices, or expecting their credit card limit to be reached. Whether it’s a quick trip to a beach in Mexico, a cultural experience in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, or a full-fledged Macchu Picchu adventure, Latin America is sure to be one region that captures market share in the American travel wallet. Colombia, Nicaragua, and Argentina are hot baby!
  2. Mobile goes major. With the launch of the iPhone, the Google Android, new BlackBerry apps, and a coming new OS for Palm, mobile devices will have finally reached a tipping point of capability. 2009 will see new travel planning tools, GPS-based proximity searching, and traveler ratings, reviews and photos finally reach their potential on mobile devices. This wave will have 2 main thrusts: First, the volume of user-generated travel content created on, and uploaded from, mobile devices will approach that uploaded from tradition computers. And second, the delivery of trip planning tools, itineraries, and destination content to mobile devices will become more widespread and powerful than ever before. Time for the old media world to get on board…the train is leaving the station!
  3. Who’s really pulling the strings? 2009 will be the year when consumers finally get fed up with the puppetmasters (otherwise known as “merchandisers”) who control the display of results on major travel booking websites. As new travel planning options like NileGuide become available (blush), consumers will start to see through the “highest margin first” agenda and demand more relevant recommendations — recommendations that are right for them. This means that travelers will start to shift toward sources of information that offer real transparency and objectivity. When transactions are involved, these sources will do their utmost to provide comparison tools to reassure users that they’re truly finding the best deal or the best recommendation. Which brings us to the next point…
  4. Personalization = Empowerment. For too many years, “personalization” has meant some fancy algorithm that is supposedly telling you that you’re a family or business traveler (don’t you already know that?). Unfortunately, it always turns out that there is no one way to pigeonhole a “traveler” — there are often only different types of “trips.” And even if they were sophisticated enough to recognize that reality, these tools often failed because travelers look for different things even within a single trip, or they either were clunky and difficult to use. 2009 will be the year that one or more travel sites breaks through to empower consumers to find recommendations that are right for then, quickly and easily. Consumers will be turning the knobs and dials themselves, with a better end result.
  5. The Spaces in Between. As the economy continues its stuggles, travelers will increasingly look for “2nd tier” destinations as their first choice when planning a trip. For example, instead of looking at Miami, San Francisco, or Washington DC, more and more travelers will look to places like Savannah, Asheville, Santa Fe, or Medford. Not only do these somewhat less well-known destinations offer affordability, relaxation, free recreation in the form of outdoor activities or cultural tours, but they also speak to a “hearth and home” retrenchment that many Americans are feeling in response to the overextended years of late. In addition, the drop in gas prices will mean that these drive destinations, which may lack a convenient airport, become more cost-competitive with their fly-to brethren.
  6. SWF: Surfing While Flying. 2009 will see the broad-based introduction of in-flight internet access, with its commensurate concerns about safety, indecency, and sheer annoyance. And what about instant messaging or VoIP calling? There are obviously still questions to be resolved, and airlines will struggle to develop policies that keep up with technology. At $10-$20 per flight, access won’t be cheap, but will certainly be taken advantage of by business travelers and the hyper-connected. Now about those plugs for my laptop…
  7. Asia Rising. While everyone knows that India and China are still the fastest-growing of the world’s major economies, 2009 will certainly see them outpace the anemic growth in rest of the world when it comes to travel. Increasingly, this growth will extend into emerging areas like outbound travel to the near abroad, and even in some cases to North America, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. This in turn will put pressure on governments to liberalize laws preventing the travel industry from developing further, like airline ownership restrictions and travel bans (see: Tibet), and will also force them to address critical infrastructure concerns. Perhaps most importantly, as travelers from these countries venture out into the broader world, both they and their hosts can benefit from some real cultural cross-pollination.
  8. Lost in Translation: Security-related travel restrictions will continue to take a bite out of inbound travel to the USA, and the Obama Administration will come under pressure from trade groups to address the unintended consequences of our crackdown. The data shows that, while potential terrorists can still sneak a bomb on board a plane quite easily, or cross our borders, foreign business and leisure travelers are increasingly frustrated with security-related impediments to American travel. The State Department and U.S. Customs will continue to negotiate with foreign governments about the state of visa and passport requirements, and Americans themselves will agitate about the sorry state of the TSA. It will be up to the President-elect and his Cabinet to put some sense back into our travel security apparatus.
  9. Going Hybrid. This will be the year when travel transaction sites finally embrace a hybrid business model whole-hog. By hybrid, I mean that they will finally commit to making money from the 95% of people who come to their websites but don’t book. This means advertising, sponsorships, and performance-based lead generation, with actual transactional capabilities existing just alongside. In navigating their way through these uncharted waters, booking sites will look to innovators in other categories like Amazon, as well as traditional media companies and emerging partners. Kayak and TripAdvisor have been at the forefront of this trend, but the OTA’s will finally jump right in — the recession will put too much pressure on them to resist all of that high-margin revenue opportunity sitting under their noses. A bolder prediction: a supplier website (airline or hotel like United or Hilton) will start carrying non-competitive 3rd party advertising in 2009.
  10. Lean, Green, and Mean. While many commentators have been predicting the coming green revolution in travel for some time, to date those grand ambitions have largely failed to materialize. “Eco-travel” has been more of a marketing hook than a discernable pattern in the industry. However, it is likely that in 2009, with the start of the Obama Adminstration, we will finally start to see a real shift in thinking by everyone involved in the travel ecosystem, whether it’s airlines, hoteliers, road builders, energy companies, or consumers. I won’t be so bold as to predict the launch of a real carbon tax regime, or even a robust cap-and-trade system, but I do believe that a critical inflection point has been reached. You know that when Tom Friedman is highlighting plug-in car startups in his New York Times editorial, and the President-elect is calling for a new national power grid to support delivering renewable energy to a new generation of vehicles. Hell, airplanes are even being flown on french fry oil. This last prediction isn’t a quick hit, but it is a signal that things, finally, are starting to change. I for one would like to take my grandkids to the mountains for a ski trip in 2040, and have there be snow…actual snow!
Tags: 2009, advertising, China, green, India, Latin America, mobile, recommendations, travel industry, trip planning


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