Skyscanner CEO, Gareth Williams looks to future of travel and reveals deep-sea tourism, flying cars, and why he wouldn’t want to live on Mars.
Are group travel tours here to stay, despite the rise in independent travel?
Before the era of mass tourism, there have always been independent travellers, heading off for a short walk in the Hindu Kush, spending seven years in Tibet, or hitting the road to Oxiana.
There are two different drivers behind group travel; one is getting a better deal using volumes of scale. But it’s also catering for unusual needs, lack of certainty, lack of time or lack of inclination. For example if someone has certain dietary needs, or a large family, or wants to do a certain activity, it’s often easier to join a group and let someone else do the organising.
As long as those things are not catered for by search engines – there will be a need for organised group travel.
However, the overall trend is for search engines to provide ever more flexible functionally, to cater for certain niches that were previously catered for by tour groups.
What about the big emerging markets like the Chinese, who are touted as the travellers of the future?
In markets like China, fewer people have experienced travel abroad, so there’s less first-hand knowledge available. However, as more and more Chinese people do travel abroad, and especially younger generations who tend to have some level of English, then there is less reason to join a tour group and indeed many more young Chinese are travelling independently now, hiring cars and organising their own trips rather than joining the tour bus groups that their parents may have done.
China and other emerging countries are just at an earlier stage of the tourism maturity scale, but compared to the European tourists of the last century, new technology will allow these markets to become independent travellers much more quickly and easily.
What are the travel gadgets of the near future?
At some point in the near future, there’s going to be a conversion of semantic, location-aware and big data applications, which will become of transformative use to travellers. I would guess within five years, gadgets like Google Glass will be using these areas of technology and we’ll see a step change in how we handle foreign languages, or choose what restaurant to eat at, based on the wisdom of crowds that we can instantly access.
How will Skyscanner change to suit these future trends?
It already is changing. We spent last year building hotel and car hire search engines, so fundamentally we have more of the product comparison funnels that are most important to travellers. Our task now is to integrate them and make them easily accessible.
What other gadgets are coming?
There’s a start-up using location tracking of its members to see what bars, what theatres and just what areas of a city are of interest to people like you. There’s almost two markets: the tourist and the local. The local has access to information, both on and offline, that is very hard for the tourist to access. But I think there will be a convergence of the two so eventually certain places will serve customers based on their interests, rather than whether they are a tourist or a local, and this will reduce the number of conventional tourist traps.
Tourists as a homogenous group tend to congregate in the same places, largely due to lack of knowledge of where best to go, but the future is places serving a group of like-minded people, regardless of whether they are locals or tourists.
With so much of our search habits and locations being recorded then plugged back into an algorithm to serve ever more targeted ads and information to us – what does the future of our online privacy look like?
That does raise huge issues. My personal view is that protocols like BitTorrent will start to emerge that will support the idea of the user having control over the big picture of their own data. A user may then allow companies to see a smaller subsection that they wish to reveal. That requires a complete transformation of where the data sits; rather than being on a company’s or government’s server, the data needs to reside and have ownership with the individual.
It will be the most important gatekeeper and the idea that someone else could own your digital identity (as is the case now) will hopefully just seem like a blip along the path.
But for Generation Y who have grown up with the internet, sharing huge amounts of their personal data online on Facebook for example, won’t this just become the norm?
That’s true. There’s a book called You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, which makes the point that this is an unhealthy development. We’re still very new to the idea of everything being shared with everybody. I’m sure when the campfire as a forum extended to the village, there was a similar transformation of how society worked and what was deemed ok to share and what wasn’t. I think there are further developments to come which will see individuals taking back control of their data.
The rise of peer to peer travel services like AirBnB, TripBod, FlightCar is huge. Do you think that these will seriously disrupt traditional service industries?
I think peer to peer will become ever more important; the concept is perfectly valid. The big difficulty is that you’ve got to figure out whether you’re working on an economic basis or a cooperative basis. There’s a book called What Money Can’t Buy, by Michael Sandel, and one of the things it illustrates is that much of what we do, (including inside a company) does not operate purely on an economic basis.
If you turn something that is a cooperative gesture, into a financial transaction, you can often lose what was attractive about it in the first place. That means peer to peer exchanges will only survive if a centralising body isn’t more efficient at making the economic side work.
Where peer to peer is more efficient as an economic activity, it will survive, thrive, and threaten traditional service industries. It may be some time before the airline industry is threatened by it though.
Will we be seeing flying cars or personal flying vehicles in the near future?
Technically, I imagine it’s doable. I think it will come down to how much energy it will consume relative to alternative means of transportation. Assuming it consumes more, what is the provision of renewable energies into it?
So the car, in retrospect, is rather inefficient. If we create a whole new infrastructure, which would allow individuals to fly around, it would just come down to it being energy efficient enough, (and therefore cheap enough) to make it a viable alternative to current transport systems.
So if we could develop a renewable source for such transportation, you could see that happening in the next 20 years?
Definitely. I think the technology of routing people through the air is relatively simple in comparison. It’s the low energy consumption where the challenges lie.
Will the invention of teleportation kill Skyscanner?
The invention of teleportation would put our current business model at high risk! However, the likelihood of that happening any time soon, even with the progress of 3D printing, is so remote that I have yet to lose any sleep over it whatsoever.
Will we be seeing drone-flown, pilotless commercial aircraft any time soon?
Arguably, we’re already a long way along that path. There are systems like fly-by-wire that can control planes remotely; in theory they can land on their own. So, yes I think that’s inevitable.
So the job of being a pilot could become a thing of the past?
For the regular scheduled flight, I suspect it could be. But not for a while yet.
How long before space tourism becomes affordable?
Without question space tourism will grow and get cheaper. But what is affordable for the general public is a very arbitrary question given we’re a planet of seven billion people. I suspect we’ll see the habitation of Mars and the ambitions of Mars One or Elon Musk’s vision coming to fruition before it becomes common enough and cheap enough to be affordable for most people.
Would you be interested in living on Mars?
Not currently, no. The logistics of visiting the kids would be too much hassle.
Where are the future travel spots (on earth)?
The desire to get off the beaten track is a very basic human instinct. As we get more globalised, instead of geographical novelty, I suspect there’ll be more and more cultural niches that people will want to explore. For example, exploring different ideologies, values and sub-cultural trends.
I also suspect that mass underwater exploration and tourism will develop quicker than mass space tourism. And I suspect you’d get more from it, because there’s more to see down there than in space. The idea of going down the Mariana Trench is amazing.
What is the future of tourism for previously war-torn regions and does it surprise you that the stigma can last so long? For example, mention ‘Bosnia’ or ‘Serbia’ to someone, and so many people think it’s still dangerous, even though hostilities ended in 1995 – almost 20 years ago.
I’m not surprised in a sense. I lived in London during the IRA bombings, but for some time after the last bomb, many people were worried about travelling to London, even though 12 million people were happily going about their business every day.
I think the travel industry could be a force for good there. We should be able to counter some of the outdated information to assist in that rehabilitation process in terms of people’s perception of the area. Unfortunately, when a little-known country becomes well known for a war or terrorist attack, it tends to stick in people’s heads. Changing the whole world’s perception takes a long time.
Has technology reduced the need to travel as you can ‘travel’ virtually to so many places via TV, YouTube etc, or has that just increased the desire?
There’s possibly been a slight reduction in the mystique of travel and sense of adventure – if you’re seeing it on TV or a magazine. But it can also sow a seed and give you the motivation to go somewhere you may never have thought about it. It also depends on what your motivations for travel are.
There is the ongoing development of resorts designed specifically for tourism and such places tend to be almost entirely about relaxation and recreation, but generally offer limited cultural immersion. Depending on the stage of life you’re at, your own interests, and even the time of year, the type of trip you want will vary.
Will ‘black hole’ tourism (areas with no internet or mobile connectivity) increase?
I don’t think it will be any more niche than spas or other health-related holidays. I suspect people will come to require as much a mental health holiday, as a physical one. However, I’m not sure if black holes are required for this – you just need the willpower to switch off your phone!
Is the traditional ‘two weeks in the sun’ holiday, favoured by the British, here to stay?
Yes. I suspect that as long as we as a nation suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, and have the same set up of school holidays and time off from work – it will continue.
If the UK developed a more continental climate with warmer summers (as is suggested by some climatologists), would the British travel abroad much less?
Yes I think so. We have some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, but they tend to be a bit chilly most of the time. Weather is a huge driver of travel for the British, and when the UK does have an unusually hot summer with prolonged periods of good weather, we see fewer people travelling abroad.
The 1990s’ low-cost airline revolution in Europe brought the cost of flying down considerably and introduced air travel to a mass market. What will the next step change in travel be?
The changes that have been brought about by low cost airlines have persisted and changed the pattern of travel to many parts of the world, and the pattern of large scale flows of people within continents is probably here to stay. Technology to reduce fuel consumption will be a massive ongoing effort and achieving a step change there would have a dramatic and desirable effect.
Some futurologists believe that after the age of peak oil, the era of flying will decline because it will become too expensive. Do you subscribe to that theory?
Travel is an essential component of modern civilisation. It’s one of the things that keeps a global community working together. The more you travel to another country, the less you see it in black and white. The prospect of little or no travel between countries is terrifying. I don’t think we could sustain our current level of inter-operability without travel, and divisions and tensions would hugely exacerbate.
How that travel is achieved in future – whether through hyperloops, high-speed rail, air etc – is a matter largely of time vs energy consumption, and no doubt the exact modes will change over time.
Could you see a future of where inter-country travel becomes the preserve of the wealthy elite?
That would be a profoundly undemocratic and divisive future. My bet would be the technological advances will be able to continue to facilitate and even grow mass travel, at a price that remains affordable to the general population.
Will the passport still be around in 20 years’ time?
The passport as a paper document is already becoming redundant, in that it’s the chip embedded within the passport that contains the data. Where that chip resides, whether it’s on a phone, on a bank card, under your skin, is largely irrelevant. I think technologies will emerge that can identify you without the need for a document. We’re already seeing this with iris scanners; in future they’ll just point a laser or camera at you and you’ll be uniquely identified.
How will the rise in China as a travelling nation, change the way the rest of the world operates as a tourist destination serving it?
It will force us to be more aware of Chinese cultures and what’s important to them and their sensibilities. We will learn from those exchanges. Economically, going on current trends, Europe will become a service continent for the travellers of Asia and the Americas, and we better get used to providing a pretty good service. We’ll see more Europeans speaking Mandarin and having greater understanding of Chinese cultures over the next decade.
Future gadgets may be able to offer real-time verbal translation of one language to another. Will this eliminate the need to learn foreign languages?
Such gadgets may make communication easier, but I think learning other languages properly is both a pragmatic choice, and also has value in learning for learning’s sake. Learning a language gives you cultural insight which a gadget would not. Until translation gadgets are able to pass the Turing test they will be assistants, not replacements for adeptness in another language.
The future is digital, but in the UK at least, the demand for programmers continues to outstrip supply. Is that going to be a problem in terms of sustaining our tech industry and creating new tech companies?
Yes. It’s a massive problem for Europe. There’s already massive deficit. We simply don’t have enough people in the UK with the coding skills to meet the demand. Look at the rate of production of technology companies in China or the US compared to Europe, and there’s a dramatic difference. Europe needs to encourage more coding or it’s going to lose out on one of the biggest industries of the future.
If you want a job for life, learn to code!
Interview by Sam Baldwin
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