It’s hard to find an industry that was more deeply impacted by COVID-19 than travel and tourism. Attempts to contain the pandemic grounded planes, emptied out hotels, and canceled the travel plans of millions of tourists. Everything came to a screeching halt, and for the better part of 12 months, industry leaders, veterans, insiders, and disruptors have all been racking their brains on how to forge ahead with so much uncertainty and risk. It was hard to see a way through. 

But now, as a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel emerges, the travel industry is bracing itself for a boom as big or bigger than the preceding 12 months of bust. Shares in big-name travel companies like Carnival, Expedia, and United shot up as positive news of the vaccine was announced, on the expectation that people will be desperate to move about the world again as soon as it’s safe to do so. 

But even as people start planning their dream vacations, the lingering effects of the pandemic — with fears about health and safety so fresh in people’s minds — will necessarily change how the travel industry operates. And a big part of those changes will come from new technology.

 

Plug in to Unplug?

Consumer industries were already seeing shifts toward digital transformation before the pandemic, and travel was no exception, with early adoption of online booking and mega-successful companies like Airbnb pushing new digitally driven opportunities in the market. Post-COVID, however, expect technology to figure in the whole experience, not just in the planning stages. 

Our Robots Among Us survey, where we poll hundreds of Americans every six months, gauges consumer comfort with a variety of new and emerging technologies. We looked at several of the most exciting tech developments on the hospitality and tourism horizon, from the increasingly familiar, like digital passport kiosks, to more leading-edge technology, like a robot concierge. The results of the survey suggest that people like having technology support their experiences — they want to make those long-lamented “travel hassles” a thing of the past — but they’re not interested in having technology replace the experience entirely.

Where we’ll see technology start to make a real impact on the industry is in the AI-powered solutions we’re already somewhat familiar with elsewhere. Self check-in and automated passport kiosks are common at many airports these days, but similar technologies have yet to make it to widespread use outside the terminal. Expect hotels to start implementing easy self check-in options, especially as the hospitality industry seeks to find ways to minimize human-to-human contact and streamline the typically arduous processes of the past. These technologies also rate highly with consumers, with 46 percent of respondents in our survey stating they would be comfortable using this kind of technology.

Other technologies we’re growing more familiar with will also start to crop up in the travel sector, and we expect augmented reality to make big inroads. Augmented reality apps are already taking hold in retail, gaming, and social media, and it seems likely they’ll move into travel too. Apps that can translate signage automatically by holding your phone’s camera to the text will go from novelty to necessity in the next few years, and as people grow more comfortable with AI, we’ll start to see an expansion of augmented tours that enable travelers to guide themselves around a destination with interactive highlights directly mapped to their devices. 

 

The Human Touch

While the travel sector will need to be open to more self-determination in its customers, with fewer direct points of contact and more self-guided experience, it won’t be a completely hands-off experience. After the past year, one thing seems certain: people want to interact with other people. There are significant opportunities for streamlining many of the travel processes through automation and bots, but the restart of travel will come with a great deal of trepidation, and for that, consumers want the human touch. 

People have spent hours upon hours over the last year canceling and rebooking flights, worrying about losing money on canceled hotels and Airbnbs, and figuring out contingency plans as travel bans came into place. Amidst all that chaos, people sought out interaction with a human who could empathize with their concerns and make choices that weren’t exclusively driven by logic. 

Bots, by definition, follow logical patterns. So, as much as we want ease and simplicity, we still want to know that if we need a helping hand, we’ll have a human to guide us. As people come back to travel with a new cautiousness, they’ll want reassurance from a person that their bookings will be guaranteed, secure, and reliable. Bots just can’t build trust in that way like a human can, even with the same information on hand. In our survey, two of the three lowest-ranking technologies were different variations of a robotic concierge: mobile robot concierge and stationary robot concierge. (The third was virtual reality tourism.)

So where does that leave the travel and tourism industry? Frankly, in a great spot. There are real opportunities to capitalize on incremental tech enhancements, meaning small investments could pay big dividends. Leveraging new tech and building on a composable framework means travel businesses can start to experiment and get quick wins while the world gets back on its feet. 

But one thing to remember is this truth: People want technology to make travel easier. Part of that ease, at least in the near term, will come from knowing the experience can be trusted to go the way it’s supposed to. So plan for enhancements, not replacements, and ensure that real people can assist when needed.

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