We attended the Responsible eTourism ENTER2020 conference at the University of Surrey in the quaint town of Guildford in the beginning of January this year. The annual conference included three full days of academic and industry presentations about the current topics in the field of eTourism. As the media was blasting news about Brexit and Megxit, we were able to enter the electrifying world of digital tourism. Now, we would like to share some of the contents with you in this blog. So, here are the five things you should know about eTourism this year:
Artificial intelligence is coming your way – like it or not
Artificial Intelligence (AI) clearly was the topic that got the most airtime at the ENTER2020 conference. According to Annette Pritchard, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, tourism and hospitality are at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution of AI and automation. There are many security and ethical issues that need to be considered, though. For example, there are still challenges in face recognition technology (FRT), even though it is already widely used at airports and other venues around the world. China, in particular, has profiled itself as the superpower of surveillance by FRT. Major concerns are the lack of regulations, threats to privacy, inaccuracies in identifying (for example twins or people of colour) and perceived easiness of collecting and harvesting of biometric data. This data must be secured and protected against cyberattacks.
In the media, AI is often also portrayed as a threatening thing that will take over our jobs. Researchers stress that it should be seen as a tool helping us, not replacing us. Now the focus is on the hybrid model where machines are working together with humans. Of course, it all depends on the level of training of both humans and machines. A great example was provided by the Edwardian Hotels in London, with their Chatbot AI assistant Edward, who gives personalised service to each client, on its own or in cooperation with human employees. Edward has become a trusted companion for many hotel guests.
Humans should learn how to interact meaningfully with robots
Robots are marching towards the travel industry. Basically, a robot is just a machine, which automatically performs specific tasks with great accuracy. Robots can, however, have a very useful role in delivering excellent customer service, for example in bringing extra towels for hotel guests, taking in orders at restaurants, supplying passengers who have got lost with relevant information and even mixing drinks for the thirsty travellers. Japan and China are the two countries where robots have already entered the tourism industry in earnest.
During the conference, we had the pleasure of interacting with Pepper, the world’s first social humanoid robot. In addition to uttering the basic greetings, he offered information about the conference programme, including social events, and invited us to interact with him through his touch screen. However, it was clear that the problem for Pepper was the context. He could not handle ambiguity, which made the conversations somewhat strange (but oh, so amusing) at times. Our questions and comments were not always understood by Pepper as the robot response was usually just a puzzled look and a nod…or clenched fists! After a number of repetitions and misunderstandings, he ended up with “I hope you are feeling better soon”. Obviously, we both (robots and us) still need some training in how to interact with each other. Robots should go into deep learning and we should dig deeper into the topics of AI and machine learning.
In addition to Pepper, we had the pleasure of finding out about the global celebrity humanoid robot Sophia, who is a machine that can see and hear, understand the world around her and also display emotions. We heard about a study where researchers analysed the engagement of images on her @realsophiarobot Instagram account based on likes and comments. In travel and tourism, it is important to stay in tune with potential customers’ emotions. Usually happy faces generate engagement, but the study done on Sophia found out that people interacted more when Sophia displayed fear and disgust. In the future, there will surely be interesting encounters between humans and robots!
Augmented Reality is making travel experiences more memorable
Many research presentations at the ENTER2020 conference touched the business opportunities of virtual and augmented reality in the travel industry. One of them was “Tales on Rails” which described the research and development of an augmented reality (AR) game that could be played on trains with smartphones. The game was a crime story and it directly reflected the environment outside the train on the route as well as cultural themes of the region. The game’s progress was linked to the position of the train, unlocking its content on the route. The game is a very good example of an augmented reality app that gives the tourist a chance to enhance his/her physical location, take in information on the go and, as a result, make the travel experience more memorable.
Travel recommendations play a crucial part in the tourism business as they help tourists find locations and attractions they might want to visit. One of the latest methods used to provide travel recommendations to users is based on virtual reality (VR) technology. The study by Hopf, Scholl, Neuhofer and Egger suggests that the stimulation of senses may significantly increase the user’s intention to recommend a destination to others. In the traditional sense, familiarising yourself with the destination and planning your trip requires reading loads of destination descriptions and customer reviews, viewing images and watching videos. Wearing a VR headset, this process can be shortened. Users can sample attractions and experiences through the use of images, sounds and other physical sensations by moving around and sometimes even interacting with the environment. Multisensory VR gives a taste of what they can expect. Therefore, it can be seen as an effective tool to positively influence travel recommendations, too.
Influencer marketing is still going strong
One of the main takeaways from the ENTER2020 conference was the fact that travel influencers are already changing destination marketing. According to researchers Femenia-Sierra and Gretzel, influencer marketing is a marketing practice that takes advantage of online personalities, who are able to influence consumers’ attitudes and decision-making processes. Influencer marketing may have many benefits to Destination Management Companies (DMOs) as they do not usually have a big number of engaged followers. Influencer marketing is a logical next step for many destinations as they have a long history of organising fam trips for both journalists and travel agents. Social media influencers (SMIs) are the travel agents of today. Influencers with persuasion power can be used to reach more people and to attract demographic segments that seem more influenceable via social media, such as women and digital natives. Influencer marketing can also be used to enhance the image of a destination, always a critical part of the branding strategy.
After being exposed to all the latest trends of eTourism at the conference, we hope that our students also get excited about these topics and start studying them. There is a lot of potential for the tourism industry to take advantage of many of the recent developments. AI, FRT, VR, AR etc. are already all around us, so we’d better explore and embrace them sooner rather than later!
Annika and Anu are Senior Lecturers on Porvoo Campus. Annika has a strong tourism industry background. She is particularly interested in experimenting with innovative pedagogical approaches and experiential learning. Anu has a long history of working in the higher education industry and has a special interest in the fields of e-learning, digital marketing and tourism business.