12/05/2010 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Note to Travel Companies: It is Personal


According to some statistics, travel contributes to much as 10% of the global GDP. Given the current global GDP is in excess of 50 trillion dollars annually, that is a staggering number.

However, travel companies - airlines, hotels, tourism operators and everyone involved in the travel space fail to do a good job of making travel fun. Sure, they show you the glossy photos, hand out postcards and try to sell you on the experience. But, it stops with the sale. The delivery never happens.

Travel is personal and travel is an experience. There is no one in the world who wants to see the Eiffel Tower or the Statute of Liberty alone. They want to experience it with someone. It doesn't matter if it snows, rains or the price is exorbitant. Travel is all about the experience. And, it's about who you experience it with. On every level, travel is personal.

But, travel companies don't deliver the experience. And haven't managed to deliver on it over the past decade. Sure, security has gotten in the way, but that has very little to do with airlines. People would rather be safe than feel insecure. And, travel security takes a few minutes on the worst day.

Starting with airlines to tourism companies, travel has become overly commercial. People sell the same thing over and over and over again. If you consider your best trip, you'll remember the memories and the people that accompanied you on your trip. Sure, the monuments and the buildings will be there. But, they're all secondary.

Today, before you even step on to a plane, airlines have made it a point to frustrate you, starting by charging ridiculous baggage fees. Then, when you step on to a plane, many flight attendants are grumpy and often times treat the most exciting profession in the world like a paper pushing job. On board, there is very little comfort - no food, no pillows and no blankets. Each of these things make a trip better. Not worse. Yes, they cost money. But, in the long run, these things also build loyalty. And, pulling such tactics also forces customers to travel less. Why? It's not the cost. It's the feeling of being cheated at every turn.

Same thing applies to hotels. As I've traveled to 5 new countries this year, I've discovered that higher the room rate, the lower the services. On a recent family trip, we stayed in one of the higher end resorts in Mexico. Billed as a 5-star resort, there was a fee for everything. And, these fees (to put it politely) were insane. It should be illegal to pay $30 for less than a day of Internet access. Similarly with bottled water - charging $10 for half a gallon of water is simply insulting. On the contrary, I recently booked a non name-brand hotel in London. It was centrally located, extremely cost effective and provided all their guests with complimentary bottled water and unlimited Internet access. The experience was significantly better for less than 25% of the cost. Now I'll go out of my way to look for non-brand hotels.

Once travelers arrive in a new destination, they often times bring a guide book. I did the same thing this year and threw out nearly all the books on day 1. Why? Because they were impersonal. Travel is about experiences, adventures and people. It is not a 400 page history lesson. I do not need a book that's bigger than my college textbook to tell me 9 different categories of hotels and restaurants. As a content creator, this frustrates me the most as I have to spend hours digging through the most useless data in the world. Do I really care that there is a restaurant on the Sydney Harbour that is booked a month in advance and costs more than my air ticket? No! Why such recommendations even make it into a guide book are beyond me.

The only thing I care about when landing in a new city is how to get around and get the most out of it. And, I'd like to it to be personalized. Offbeat Guides started doing something similar a few years ago, but even their travel guides are too generic. For the right guide, I'd be willing to pay as much as $50.

But, in an age where everything is going digital, I want to experience travel the way I do things in my everyday life. I don't want to be stuck with an utterly useless travel book and lug it around all day. Many people have iPhones, iPod touches and other smart phones. For travel, these platforms have yet to be leveraged.

Big travel companies, such as Lonely Planet have created digital versions of their guide books. However, they contain minimal interactive features. On a recent trip to Sydney, Australia, I purchased their $5.99 guide book for my iPod touch. I couldn't use it for a single day. The search functionality was poor, the maps crashed and it was mostly a history lesson than a tourism book.

At the end of the day, the travel industry keeps digging itself into a bigger hole. When I pay for something, I expect to receive something. With air travel, hotel stays and tour guides, this hasn't been the case. They haven't managed to keep up with what people want. And, just like any other business, when you treat people poorly, don't be surprised if they abandon your product. The travel industry has a lot further to go -- in terms of customer experience and digital adoption. For one of the most exciting industries in the world, it sure is backwards.


Aanarav Sareen is a content creator and digital media consultant. He blogs at Digital Media Business and publishes the monthly Digital Media Newsletter. He's also the host of the weekly Digital Media Podcast.