Paper and pixels:

the dual nature of modern travel

Pamplin hospitality and tourism researchers Vince Magnini and Zheng Xiang.
Pre-trip travel planning— a fundamental part of the trip experience — is being changed by smart phones and tablets, say Vince Magnini (left) and Zheng Xiang.

Securing plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals. Deciding where to eat by looking up restaurant menus and reviews. Figuring out how to get to museums, shows, and shopping. Communicating news and photos to family and friends while on vacation.

The Internet has dramatically changed how we travel and plan for it.

Indeed, among the many developments of the past 50 years in the hospitality and tourism industry, likely none has had more impact than the Internet.

Since its advent in the early 1990s, the Internet has become an indispensable tool: search engines have influenced how consumers access products and services; more recently, social media and mobile computing have allowed consumers to consult other users in planning activities and share their own experiences through posts and blogs.

Pamplin hospitality and tourism management researchers Zheng Xiang and Vince Magnini, in a recent journal article (co-authored with Daniel Fesenmaier, of the University of Florida), reviewed various studies on how U.S. consumers use the Internet for travel planning and summarized their findings.

“Pre-trip travel planning,” the authors said, “is a specific type and stage of consumer information search and can be considered a fundamental component of the trip experience.”

The findings of these studies, the authors said, have practical implications for travel and tourism businesses. They noted several trends from the studies.

Though flights, lodging, and car rentals continue to be the dominant travel purchases online, “growth in these segments has flattened, leaving little room for further development.”

Consumers are changing how, when, and where they conduct information searches, given the “anytime, anywhere” availability of the Internet through smartphones and tablets.

For example, printing maps and driving directions off the Internet is declining, the authors said, likely due to the growing reliance on GPS or location-based services on smartphone apps. With Internet ubiquity, travelers are also postponing many decisions that they used to make before departure — content to consult the Internet for eating or shopping possibilities, for example, upon arrival.

“Electronic word-of-mouth” — through social media, photo and video sharing sites, and travel websites that offer consumer comments — has become a significant part of travel planning, helping to “influence consumer perceptions, intentions, and decisions.”

Despite the Internet’s dominance, the researchers noted that traditional media such as TV, radio, and movies remain relevant and play a complementary role, contributing to the diversity of information sources.

The findings also indicate an emerging “bifurcation” among travelers: those who are content to use their habitual sources of information and channels of transactions, and those who “engage through social media and mobile devices and shop for their travel needs through multiple channels, online and offline.”

The latter are more likely to be the younger generations, who are “not only more digitally savvy but also in general more involved in travel planning.”

The authors said travel and tourism businesses must find “optimal combinations of channels and sources to distribute their products and better communicate with their customers in order to develop sustainable competitive advantage.”

For example, various strategies in website content development and online/offline relationship management programs can be used to target younger consumers.

Businesses must also recognize the revenue potential of products traditionally perceived as secondary, such as museums and festivals and other events, for which tickets can be conveniently sold online.

The authors said important research questions have also been raised.

“In particular, there is currently a race between proprietary accommodation providers (e.g. Hilton hotels) and third-party providers (e.g. to produce efficient and user-friendly mobile applications: which avenue is winning the most traffic? And why?”

Previous research has found that first-mover advantage in the information technology arena is often substantial, the authors noted, but to what degree is it an advantage in mobile applications? Or, does the second mover have a bigger advantage of leap-frogging past the technological glitches of the first mover?

The area of social media strategy presents various topics for scholarly study, the authors said, particularly better ways to distinguish between authentic blog posts by consumers and deceptive ones by unethical competitors.

books with phone

Not all social media strategies produce the same results. Thus, yet another research question is the assessment of the return on investment of such strategies and the identification of more reliable and valid measures of ROI.

Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2015

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