MADRID — Virtually everyone now uses the Internet before, during and after they travel, whether its downloading an app to become familiar with a particular destination or sharing your holiday photos on Facebook or Instagram. The information revolution has indeed revolutionized both the way we prepare trips, and how we experience them.

As such, over the last 10 years, we have seen the rise of a much more independent digital tourist who is demanding, multi-sourced and in search of a personalized service that includes the option of being permanently connected.

All of this requires travel-related business to evolve to respond to this new, digital-driven consumer. This means promotions, marketing, providing service and renewal of destinations to avoid repeating patterns. What we are witnessing is the creation of an entirely new tourism model — let's call it Smart Tourism Destinations — that has the potential to be more sustainable both economically and environmentally.

Existing practices are thus being disrupted, as operations are increasingly based on social trends and movements that ease sales and peer-to-peer sharing. Every day new firms are copying or becoming hybrids or reinventions of each other.

The supply side must adapt

Innovation and technology have definitely changed the rules of the game. The tourist is now in charge (through searching and choosing trips, products and services, hyper-segmentation, automatic trip planning, communication and opinions etc..), and it is the supply side that must adapt to customers demanding accurate and comparative information, optimal price-quality ratios, and authentic and varied travel experiences. Such changes are affecting both the ordinary and premium sectors, as the IE business school Premium Travel Barometer indicated in a recent study.

Smart Tourism Destinations rely on innovation, technology, accessibility and sustainability. Spain's SEGITTUR, a department or the Tourism Ministry, began to develop the concept in 2012 and is helping turn Spain into a pioneer of sustainable tourism and the first to publish certification norms for identifying smart destinations. The new model is opening doors to thousands of business opportunities worldwide. Mexico (in Tequila and Cozumel), Argentina (Buenos Aires) and other states in the Americas are already envisaging strategic tourism plans that will include "smart" components.

The rise of a much more independent digital tourist — Photo: Xie Haining/Xinhua/ZUMA

New technology relating to the Internet of Things (IoT), Big and Open Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and Virtual Reality are paving the way for new practices and new, hitherto inconceivable ways of catching and keeping clients. The world of marketing, sales and loyalty programs are entering the age of constant analytics and information gathering.

Tourism intelligence is a reality from the moment one starts analyzing data. A combination of better informed travelers and mobile technologies will allow the sector to implement new, disruptive marketing and promotional strategies that engage directly with the emotions and personal needs of users. AI technologies, available today through Chatbots, Big Data or Deep Learning allow us to quickly analyze the profiles of our users, understand what they expect of our products, when and how they want them, and how to offer them services with maximum efficacy.

The human touch

Virtual Reality, meanwhile, will soon also allow us to provide total immersion experiences so that customers will be able to "pre-live" their travel experience on their smartphones or at travel agencies with this technology. All of this means that those of us in the travel industry must start training teams able to manage and work with this digital transformation.

We work in a sector where increasingly individuals not only travel but play the role of hosts. Let's leave the routine, repetitive tasks and processes to computers, and allow our human teams to bring value to wherever human contact is needed. As much as technology can bring, there are still those special moments when a kind expression and a smile make all the difference.

*The author is a professor of Innovation Management at the IE Business School and former president of SEGITTUR, a Spanish state-owned company dedicated to the management of innovation and tourism technologies.

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