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What’s broken with online travel?

Take a moment to think. When you think of the word "travel," what do you imagine?

I’ve asked a lot of people this, they typically say something like this:

When you ask them to elaborate, they say:

Aaaahhh. Beach. Relaxation. Escape. Fantasy. "Me time." Or, if you have a significant other, "Our time."

In fact, if you browse the Flickr pool for travel, you see a lot of beautiful pictures of exotic cities, breathtaking environments, etc. (If you have a moment, I encourage you to click and watch… it’s really great!)

So taking a page out of my previous analysis on online dating using the MDA framework, you could ask the following questions:

  • What emotions do you want people to feel, when it comes to online travel?
  • What are desirable dynamics and behaviors, when it comes to those emotions?
  • And finally, what do you need to build to accomplish these things?

I’d encourage you to read the previous posts on dating and the MDA framework, otherwise this post will make little sense :) Let’s analyze the current stage of the art.

What emotions do Expedia/Travelocity/etc. convey?
Let’s face it – Modern travel websites are all about logistics. What flight do you want? Where do you need to go? What dates? They’re optimized for business travelers that need to get from Point A to Point B, without a big fuss. So when you think of Expedia, you can think about airports, planes, taxi rides, and all the things that get you from Point A to Point B.

And in a way, that’s advantageous for them – it means that Expedia is about a transaction. The emotions that it conveys are about efficiency, cost effectiveness, and Getting Things Done. Which is great, when you’re someone that needs to get from one place to the other.

But how many people, when you ask them about "travel," say they think of: Itineraries, cost effectiveness, efficiency, etc.? Let me argue, though, that for most consumers, travel is not about that. For most people, it’s about getting away.

What emotions do you want to amplify, in a travel site?
As I mentioned before, my thesis is that most consumer travelers care most about the fantasy of travel, not the logistics. So ideally, you’re looking to trigger emotions like:

  • Wow, wouldn’t it be great if… (Fantasizing)
  • Ooooh, that’s so pretty! I could just curl up and watch… (Relaxation)
  • Honey, it’d be so fun if we… ("Our time")
  • God I hate my job, I could really get away… (Escape)

If you had people looking at a series of pictures or imagining what they could be doing, then you have succeeded.

Like all experiences, "travel" starts earlier than when you board the plane. A very smart friend of mine, Kevin Lee of Y!, pointed out that the act of buying magazines and books to do research was part of the experience. Doing those things created the fantasy.

What dynamics do you want to create?
Ultimately, if you are succeeding in getting people to experience these emotions, you might argue that they’d do it all the time.

For example, with fantasy, they might create little vacations they probably wouldn’t do, just for fun. For example, making an Antarctica trip. Or an African safari that was too expensive, just for the help of it. Or perhaps a girlfriend would plan a romantic getaway for a boyfriend, sending it out of the blue as a substitute for daydreaming.

For relaxation, maybe people would come to the site and make little trips just to soothe them and look at pretty pictures. If they were stressed out from work, maybe they’d come and check out other peoples’ vacations, just to keep their mind off things.

if people are making little vacation slideshows and sending it around, or visiting regularly and planning random trips to all over the place, then you know you’ve really engaged them.

What mechanics drive the dynamics?
Now comes the part when you start analyzing the actual features and functionality that drive the dynamics and ultimately the aesthetics of the product. As an aside, it’s clear that a lot of nerds start here when they start building products – it’s easy to fall in love with technology that way. But when you do that, all you are doing is leaving the aesthetics to chance! They will automatically grow out of whatever features you put in place, and you may or may not understand why your site attracts an audience. (Or doesn’t attract an audience)

Based on what I’ve written so far, I think it’s clear that part of what is needed is some sort of immersive travel fantasy process. So you know that some sort of slideshow, or movie, possibly with music, would be great. You might also even place some avatars into the slideshow, to increase the fun. Video would work for this, as well. So you know that this is the end product.

You also need to help people constrain the fantasy, so that they can use it as a practical planning tool. That means when you show a picture of Angkor Wat, you’ll want to link to Wikipedia information on it (or whatever). And you’ll want to show a visual representation of the itinerary, maybe Indiana Jones style. Similarly, you’ll want to take into account information like: how many days are you traveling? What region of the world? What’s the budget? What’s the schedule?

A skeleton of a travel product idea?
Rather than point out a problem and not try to fix it, I wanted to take a crack at the START of a conversation at fixing it. I’m not a travel industry insider, so I don’t understand the logistics, but I think the "emotional mismatch" problem is a great one to try to solve. Particularly for a nerd, since it requires thinking about people rather than logistics and technology.

Just brainstorming randomly, perhaps you could have a site where you start out by selecting one picture out of several pairs, similar to what you do on LikeBetter.com. You could use this process to elicit travel preferences, such as:

  • Do you like to travel to party? Or to relax?
  • Do you prefer tourist traps or authentic holes-in-the-wall?
  • Are you an independent traveler, or do you like to go in groups?
  • … etc.

You could then collect some more mundane information like, dates, budget, region of the world, etc. You’d try and make this as visual and engaging as possible, in alignment with the overall feel of the site. So region would be selected through a fancy map with pictures, or whatever.

Based on that information, with preferences and constraints in mind, the system would then generate a series of dreamy slideshows that describe potential itineraries. The user would flip through them, with the option to yay or nay, and the system would adapt. You could regenerate ideas over and over again, to see lots of variations. You could fade the edges of the slideshow, and have them come in and out slowly.

At the same time, you’d need to connect this "toy" with the real world. So under every picture, you’d need to let the user drill in deeper for information. Or combine one travel idea with another. Or understand the pricing differences, or constraints like schedule and so on. And of course, you’d want to have a "Buy" button.

And once you’re done traveling, you can upload your pics onto the site and create the ACTUAL slideshow of what you really saw. Perhaps these pictures might get recycled into the entire system, for other people to use.

[Optional pet feature: You might have a little dotted line cutout for an avatar, where you can place you, your friends, boyfriend, or whoever might be suited for being part of the slideshow. Maybe the system could even generate little sayings with justifications like, "Wow this is sooo relaxing!" Ever play with an avatar system? It’s fun… make one of you or a friend here.]

How do you measure success?
If a concept like this were successful, you could imagine that before Spring Break, college kids would be sending out travel slideshows like crazy to each other, trying to come up with the best ideas. Or a couple best friends now living far away might send slideshows to fantasize about relaxing together. Or a boyfriend might surprise his girlfriend by pitching her a vacation idea.

In essence, if people start to use the site for fantasizing rather than pure logistics, you know you were able to capture the aesthetics of travel better than what exists out there today.

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