-- Do you prefer to book travel on the Internet? Do you like to view hotel room photos and read reviews written by other travelers before making your selection? Do you use your cellphone to display maps when traveling? If you answered yes to these questions you may be among the growing ranks of Next Generation or "NEXTgen" travelers.
Less than a decade since the first trip was booked on the Internet, online travel bookings now surpass trips booked "the old fashioned way" by phone, travel agent, or other traditional channels according to PhoCusWright, Inc., a research firm concentrating on travel technology. The rapid growth in online adoption is driven by a new breed of high tech or "NEXTgen" travelers.
In a recent study co-authored with YPartnership, PhoCusWright examined the characteristics of NEXTgen travelers and how they differ from their more technologically challenged contemporaries. Some findings might surprise you.
NEXTgen travelers currently represent 16% of the total U.S. population and 26% of the traveling public according to Lorraine Sileo of PhoCusWright. NEXTgen travelers may be found in every age group. NEXTgen travelers are defined more by attitude than demographics and more by comfort level and interest in technology than age, sex or economic strata.
The study included more than 2,500 individuals from an online panel of nationally representative households. PhoCusWright defines a NEXTgen traveler as an active or frequent user of the latest entertainment, computer or consumer technologies who has taken as least one leisure trip in the past year. Although not all NEXTgen travelers may be business travelers, this forward-thinking throng is driving the technology business travelers will adopt and will ultimately define the way travel suppliers package and market their products.
Here are some highlights from the study:
The Internet is very important to NEXTgen travelers. More than two thirds have broadband or high-speed Internet access at home and 58% have wireless. When traveling 61% want free Internet access in their hotel room.
71% of NEXTgen travelers search the Internet for travel, second only to e-mail and downloading video or music as the NEXTgen traveler's most popular online activities. While a little more than half use an online travel agency, like Expedia or Travelocity, only one in four want to communicate with a live counselor or agent and only 10% of NEXTgen travelers use a traditional brick and mortar travel agency.
In keeping with their propensity towards self service, 45% of NEXTgen travelers consider self check-in and check-out as an important hotel feature.
Beyond travel, two thirds of NEXTgen travelers have purchased online auction items from websites like eBay and 44% have sold something online. In this high tech group 45% prefer to get their news online. Only 30% read the Sunday newspaper travel section and 17% say they don't read newspapers in print.
Using graphics and videos
Video and graphics are also important to NEXTgen travelers. Three of four are interested in viewing photos or videos of hotel rooms, while 60% want to view local area photos and maps.
81% of NEXTgen travelers download or stream music to their computers. Almost seven in ten have downloaded photos and 59% have downloaded or streamed video. 56% of NEXTgen travelers have taken a virtual tour of a hotel or resort online and 41% have virtually toured a destination. Additionally, 60% of this group have uploaded photos to share with others online and one in three share videos on You Tube.
Mastering social media
Although most NEXTgen travelers would rather search the Internet than consult a travel counselor or an agent, 71% find friends and family recommendations extremely influential when making travel choices. Half report being influenced by information found on a destination website or through an online travel intermediary and 43% are influenced by information received directly from travel suppliers.
56% of NEXTgen travelers regularly visit MySpace and 30% use Facebook. 15% have created an avatar in a virtual world, such as Second Life. Only 14% of NEXTgen travelers have never participated in a social networking or online community website.
Of those NEXTgen travelers using social networking, blogging, or tagging websites for travel planning 56% use these sites for business travel.
26% of NEXTgen travelers like to share trip itineraries with colleagues and friends. Online reviews also play a part in NEXTgen travel planning with one third reading and 16% writing reviews of hotels and destinations.
As you might expect, more than 90% of NEXTgen travelers own a cellphone, but this group uses their cellphones for more than calls. Almost two thirds of NEXTgen travelers take pictures and send text messages on their cellphones. One third are Bluetooth enabled and an equal number use their cellphones to access the Internet. 20% use their cellphones to view maps and 15% have a handheld GPS. Approximately one in six NEXTgen travelers own a "smartphone", such as a BlackBerry or a Treo, and a similar percentage have a personal digital assistant that is not a phone.
Balancing amenities vs. brands
NEXTgen travelers have distinctive preferences when selecting hotels. Soundproofed guest rooms and premium bedding are of prime importance to seven in ten NEXTgen travelers. Approximately one third of NEXTgen travelers want their hotel to feature environmentally friendly products, while one in four wants a flat panel or high definition television.
Surprisingly, only 43% of NEXTgen travelers belong to an airline loyalty program and only 36% are members of a frequent hotel guest program. For those of us accruing miles and points simultaneously through numerous loyalty programs, this is puzzling. If these numbers hold true over time it may signal a major decline in the importance of travel loyalty programs and ultimately a change in the ways travel suppliers connect with customers.
Adopting new technologies, like social networking, video, or mobile, does not come easy to all. I can't remember the last time I booked travel by phone or deployed the services of an old fashioned, human travel agent, but I don't feel compelled to join an online social network. I never leave home without my cellphone, but it doesn't have a GPS and I rarely use the built in camera. I transact most business via e-mail and do most shopping online, but I find text messaging slow, tedious and a whole new language I'm resistant to learn.
Yet while I procrastinate adopting new technologies, travel suppliers are increasingly targeting online customers, adding new graphics and video, and migrating existing transactions to the mobile world. American Airlines has made mobile travel technology a priority according to Mark DuPont of the carrier's Airport Services Planning group. In addition to creating a mobile website that performs almost every function available on AA.com, American Airlines has developed a Facebook application called " Travel Bag" and a video channel on You Tube. "Our ultimate goal is to make our technology channel-independent," says DuPont. "We want to make sure American Airlines is available when and where and in the way our customers want it."
It is applications like these that give constantly connected NEXTgen travelers a growing competitive advantage while leaving behind those who fail to adapt as "NEXTgen" travelers become "CURRENTgen" travelers. Maybe it's time for that BlackBerry after all.
Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.