The future of travel is AI; the present is alt-lodgings, tours and beach reviews


At the Phocuswright Conference, a travel industry meeting recently held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, blockchain and artificial intelligence were touted as the flying cars and robot maids of the future. But the present looked alluring, too, with attention heaped on alternative lodging, beaches, tours and hurricane recovery. The annual event, now in its 24th year, explored the innovations and interests helping to expand the travel universe. Among the forward-thinkers: some of the biggest names in travel (Priceline, Kayak, Google and TripAdvisor, among others), as well as many start-ups (Beachy, TWIP, Luxtripper) wishing upon a star to become the next Airbnb or Uber. Here are some of the top trends to keep an eye - or booking finger - on. 

1. Online booking sites are expanding into tours and excursions. "Until just a few years ago, this content was very difficult to find and book online," said Douglas Quinby, senior vice president of research at Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm. "Now all of the big players - Airbnb, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Booking.com and others - are investing heavily in the space."  

2. Puerto Rico is looking forward to Christmas. Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., said the island is encouraging "meaningful travel and travel with a purpose" - as in, give the hurricane survivors a hand - but will welcome leisure tourists on Dec. 20. He said Old San Juan is stirring back to life, with cruise ships resuming their ports of call. "Old San Juan is a resilient city," he said. "The cobblestones are intact; the walls are up." Hotels are using this opportunity to rebuild and renovate. Of the 149 properties endorsed by the tourism office, he said, nearly 110 are operational. He added that 67 tourist attractions across the island are open, as is the west coast town of La Parguera, home of a bioluminescent bay. "We're planning a big comeback party," he said.  

3. Call it Keeping Up With Airbnb: Major hotel booking sites are adding alternative lodgings, such as private accommodations, hostels and B&Bs, to their traditional properties. "More and more travelers are less concerned with hotels vs. homes vs. hostels and more concerned with location, price and quality," Quinby said. Searches on Expedia, Booking.com and Tripping.com result in a grab bag of possibilities, and Trivago recently started featuring HomeAway vacation rentals.  

4. Everyone wants a piece of China. However, the travel companies don't want to just penetrate this emerging market; they want to adopt the country's progressive mobile practices. "China is far ahead of the rest of the world in mobile travel trends," Quinby said. Chinese travelers research and book trips on their phones, he said, and "the apps, payment services and other features are more advanced and widely accepted."  

5. For beachgoers who care as much about the scene as the sand, a start-up called Beach-Inspector.com has come to the rescue. The Berlin-based company, which won Brand USA's Marketing Innovation Award, provides comprehensive reviews of more than 1,500 beaches in 50 destinations throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The site covers the condition of the beaches plus such essentials as parking, watersports, food, atmosphere and demographics. The founders plan to add U.S. beaches next year. Inspectors wanted.  

6. Booking by voice command - "Alexa, teleport me to Fiji!" - is still a work in progress, but "machine learning," a cousin of artificial intelligence, has arrived. "Increasingly your favorite travel brands will know what you want before you ask for it," Quinby said. Creepy or cool? You decide.  

7. If you are long on travel aspirations but short on cash, two new players, Affirm and Uplift, have introduced payment installment plans. Take heart: You'll probably pay off your Machu Picchu trip way before your student loans.  

8. Hotels are trying to woo travelers away from online travel agencies and toward loyalty programs. To entice guests, they are dangling discounted rates and such perks as free WiFi. The courting must be working: The number of U.S. hotel guests who belong to a frequent-stay program jumped from 37 percent two years ago to 63 percent, according to Phocuswright.


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