It was late. I was tired. I needed to feed my nephew fast so we could get some much-needed rest without yet another “outing.”
Having just returned to the hotel room after a full day of travel, we could barely speak.
And when you’re that exhausted, the idea of being able to order food without talking to anyone – well, that’s luxury.
I used the in-room iPad, ordered some seriously pedestrian food that makes teenagers and 40-year-olds feel sated and complete, and marveled at the joys technology can bring.
Then, the phone rang.
“Hello? Miss Fletcher? I’m just calling to confirm your order …”
There were expletives that followed, but I won’t share them here.
Why would you offer the technology to free your guest from the “burden” of calling room service, only to call back to confirm and create an enormous amount of rage in an already volatile (read so very, very tired) guest?
Riddle me this: What has lots of technological touches and doesn’t actually help anyone solve a problem?
A good deal of consumer-facing travel technology is my answer.
Grab, Lyft, Uber: Thank you (most of the time).
Contactless payments when cash is not on hand: Thank you (most of the time).
Playing my Spotify playlist in the car hire? Thanks, but really, no. I spent a fortune on these headphones and blocking out the world is sometimes only possible in the back of the car for 30 minutes.
iPad in hotel room: No, thank you. (See above.)
Online check-in: Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Text messages from the hotel to check in on me: No, no, no.
Too much technology? Too little?
I understand everyone has a different approach, opinion and expectation around the intersection of travel transactions and technology.
But I’ll say this and stand by it: A smile and a suggestion from a helpful, trustworthy human is greater than an offer to accept the terms of conditions to get a “deal” I probably don’t need.
But occasionally only tech will do.
For example, when I need a last-minute reservation, and a trusted media source (CNN Travel) says, “this spot is one of the best, order this, here are a few top alternatives.”
Or, I go onto a booking site, and voila, dinner for four at 7 p.m. and yes I’ll invite my guests thank you very much. No, I will not confirm my reservation more than once.
But how much tech is too much? How little is too little?
I do not have the answer, but I think there’s something we all forget. We are living through a technological, digital revolution. I wonder and marvel at all the changes in how we travel since I was a child.
There were smoking sections on planes, everyone was generally picked up and dropped off by family and friends at the airport, or you rented a car – or a car and driver.
Back then there was a movie on the plane. One movie. And chances are, you’d seen it. In a movie theater.
You read books, magazines, newspapers and were weighed down by their girth. (Again, I know plenty of people who still do printed matter for their travels. Except maps. No maps.)
There was also smoking in restaurants and bars (and there are still some in the world), coins in the jukebox, writing a check to your travel agent (Jeannie, if you’re out there, thank you for everything before the internet)!
We actually had to endure slide shows (imagine a conference room PowerPoint presentation and sub in your mom, a neighbor named Andy, and a handful of disgruntled friends and relatives, and you’re there).
“This is us at the Trevi fountain.”
“Look, Uncle Jerry rode a camel.”
“This lion almost ate us.”
Missing that human touch
In one – I like to think relatively short – lifetime, we’re talking about a sea change that even the skilled “trend spotters” among us could never have predicted. And there’s so much more to come that we can’t even imagine.
I adore technology. When I want to find out what the best airport lounge is in Mexico City, I text a friend who travels there every few weeks.
I use it to see if I can get a table at Maison Yaki in Brooklyn or Odette in Singapore (computer says no), or if I know anyone who knows anyone who can get me in to Maison Yaki or Odette (kind of, but I hate to impose).
I set reminders, I cross-reference several sites, apps and social media. I search reliable media sources and reach out to friends who love to eat and travel and never do anything shabbily.
I keep and flag emails, bookmark relevant content, track flight prices and play with all the options. Basically, like everyone else on Earth right now: I do all the things.
I stare at my airline app to see which seat is best (cross-referenced with another app). I game my miles, my upgrades, my points, my status, my credit cards, my loyalty. It’s probably taking up the time I should’ve spent writing my novel no one would read anyway.
My credit cards are saved as auto-fill, as are my billing and shipping addresses (yes, machine, they are different.)
We are global citizens grateful for WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, free Wi-Fi, global data plans (it behooves me to mention that CNN is owned by WarnerMedia and AT&T), maps, emails and aggregated lists saved on the “cloud,” recommendations from locals and expats, electronically accessible within seconds.
What is missing, though, in most of these things, is a human person to talk to about it. Planning a trip is one thing, but acting on it, making irreversible, expensive decisions, putting your money down, worrying that you’ll make a mistake or have a bad time or sweat the weather forecast is another.
The perfect alchemy of tech and truth
As a travel editor, and a curious and experienced traveler, my default is as follows: I want to help people the way that Google and Facebook can’t.
I want to be your friend and help you make the best decisions for you based on the most thorough and accurate information available – a dream that’s within reach because of technology.
I believe there’s a real opportunity to serve travelers those personal touches we all appreciate and enjoy with the technology that can solve common problems.
AI can aggregate, assume preferences based on previous purchases and transactions.
Search engines can put the highest bidder or the person with the most followers up top, expecting you not to go full Indiana Jones and dig up the thing to find the other better thing.
But travelers need trust, honesty and no interest other than helping you go somewhere you want to – and to eat and sleep well while you’re there.
Just ask any hotel staff member who has to sift through all the vitriolic comments left by customers or competitors on review sites who are not acting in anyone’s best interest save their own.
Regardless, there’s something about walking into a restaurant or a hotel or an airplane gate and being greeted with a smile. An offer of a small thing.
I’m here to say that the answer to the tech and travel conundrum isn’t another app.
It’s not another list or list of lists or someone sending you a list of lists.
It’s ideas. Supplied by someone who knows you and cares about your happiness (and that may also mean you give up a wee bit of data).
Together, we can figure out the perfect alchemy of tech and truth, personhood and prompt. But human conversations and contact are what will lead the charge.
Or, at least, I hope so.
Brekke Fletcher is Executive Editor of CNN Travel