Have we forgotten the secret ingredient to travel?
“Do you want to see the tunnel under my house?” He said. My partner and I immediately dropped our forks, looking at each other.
Usually when a stranger asks you to explore a dark, secluded place, you want to run. But, in this situation, we had spent about 8 hours with our AirBnB Experience host Paul in the Castile La Mancha region of Spain. We’d hiked, toured, and eaten in the village he lived in. His house, where we were finishing lunch, was situated on the land of a 10th century Moorish castle.
We said yes, and we didn’t regret it. After all, spontaneous situations like this one are arguably the best part of travel. We travel to break free from our norm, our habits, and our routines. It’s the surprises and delights that you can’t always book, anticipate, or pay for. And - there’s typically no technology involved.
Post-pandemic, technology centered travel has taken center stage. One notable trend is the rise of AI.
Machine learning and data science company Xaltius goes so far as to say that AI has “revolutionized the industry, by providing services such as personalization and customization, predictive analytics, and automation.” Flight tracking, virtual tour guides, AI travel agents, customer service chatbots, etc. are being used to help travelers automate and optimize their travel experiences.
There are both pros and cons to these tech-forward approaches. Of course, we can snag a cheaper flight or get our hotel booked quicker. But asking AI to “Show me a 3-day trip to New York City” whether on ChatGPT or a specific AI travel website will get you crowdsourced data of generic suggestions like “visit a local restaurant or cafe” full of ratings from people who don’t like what you do.
CEO and Co-founder Brian Chesky of travel giant AirBnb has recently spoken about benefits and barriers to using AI and tech in travel. In a recent interview, he expounded on the tension between AirBnb’s focus on their core values (design, creativity, and people) in exchange for progress via technology. “I wanted to build great products that people love. And I want the brand to be about people again. The pandemic occurred and all of a sudden we had to rebuild the ground up” he said.
In theory, AI in travel could solve an issue many of us face. The days of bookmarking “Lonely Planet” are over as we’re faced with an overwhelming amount of reviews, travel blogs, films, and influencers promising us a great experience. It's made all the more complicated by wallets tightening and an increased urge to travel 'low risk,' as our research has shown.
Currently, these innovations benefit the corporation rather than the traveler. Travel is not about a perfect vacation, going to the “right” places, or lavish consumerism. At its core, it’s about having a uniquely human experience you can afford. Even the most meticulously planned trips are about embracing a change in routine, whether experimenting with new foods, shopping at the 'European' version of your favorite store, or just wandering to encounter serendipity.
American writer Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) says that:
“Travel releases spontaneity. You become a godlike creature full or choice, free to visit the stately pleasure domes, make love in the morning, sketch a bell tower, read a history of Byzantium, stare for one hour at the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonna dei fusi.’ You open, as in childhood, and – for a time – receive this world..[you are] free to return home bringing memories to lay on the hearth.”
The picture-perfect facade is crumbling even further with the help of social media like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. People are subscribing to a more raw, authentic, and sometimes messy perspective on travel as can be seen in the rise of AirBnB “experiences”. Travelers are laughing at the self-deprecating reality of packing for a euro summer, are unveiling the rudimentary secrets behind getting the “perfect” vacation shot, and exposing “social media vs. reality” of the idyllic, lush places that exist on the internet.
So, what do we do? AI and the corporations behind it need to understand and engineer these products towards the underlying motivations of travelers themselves. At the end of the day, it’s not about optimization, it’s about enrichment. Not about aesthetics, but the stories and human experiences behind them. As we build more tech solutions to travel, it's not about engineering perfection. It's about creating space for exploration and pleasure: whether it’s riding the subway for the first time, taking in the wonder of a new landscape you discover yourself, or an enriching chat with a stranger. In a life with much efficiency, attempts at perfection, and one-answer solutions, travel can provide many answers that crack open the core of the human experience. Even tools that optimize our experience should account for the crucially human side of travel.
Consider these thought starters when designing human centered travel experiences:
What does travel bring to your life or business that cannot be replicated via technology?
How can we build in moments of delightful spontaneity into travel, authentically?
How can we best use AI to in travel, while maintaining a human element?
From Human to Human,