Yesterday I found myself in the old town of Dubrovnik following a lady with an umbrella. The Pearl of the Adriatic has a complex and often bloody history; its most recent period of turmoil being during the Wars of Independence from 1991-5, when it was badly damaged. So, as we wandered within its mighty sandstone walls, the stream of information from my tour guide was – mostly – extremely helpful. The weather was perfect, so her umbrella remained closed, but it served as a useful point of coalescence for our group of around 30 travel professionals.
Some of us wandered away occasionally, others were left gawping at the gothic and renaissance architecture. Tens of other tour groups, mostly from the Royal Caribbean ship that had just docked in the harbour, mingled around us. But my tour guide never had to raise her voice. In fact she barely spoke above a whisper. How did she manage this? Each of us had been issued with a personal radio tuned to a specific channel. She had a tiny microphone attached to her lapel, so her words were delivered with crystal clarity into my right ear to a distance of about 100m.
It’s a far cry from the tour guides I remember from my childhood, shouting themselves hoarse over a crowd of people, or more recently the appalling innovation whereby the tour guide would broadcast his or her views via a loudspeaker attached to their chest. It’s yet another example of holidays being made better, or more simple, by dint of the application of technology.
Why are we all here in Dubrovnik? Abta – The Travel Association is hosting its annual convention, the 60 in its history. Travel agents and tour operators have converged to discuss the latest trends in travel and how they can be applied to sell the British public more – and better – holidays. Technology is part of that, of course. The herding-them-round approach of my brief tour of Dubrovnik might not be particularly appealing, but it’s part of modern-day travel, and it, like travel in general, is evolving.
This year the changing world of technology – apps, social media, smart phones, “big data” - is the dominant theme at the convention. It’s a more optimistic topic than some in recent years, as the industry navigated its way through the financial downturn, brand consolidation and ongoing angst about Air Passenger Duty.
Abta has released chunk of data in its Consumer Holiday Trends Report to accompany the convention. It shows that 96 per cent of us used a PC to book a holiday last year; whereas 11 per cent used a mobile. On the face of it, the statistic on mobile use looks surprising low – and it’s dropped off from last year - until you remember how tedious it is to input data on a phone. According to Victoria Bacon, head of communications at Abta, “The gap appears to have widened between the number of people owning a mobile and tablet devices and those using them to actually purchase a holiday. This suggests that there is an opportunity here for travel business to exploit.” However, until that happens, it seems that the adage about the bigger the cash commitment, the bigger the device used, still applies.
Good to be young?
Guess who’s most likely to book on a mobile phone, though. Yup, the 16-24 demographic. In that case, some of the other statistics produced by Abta might make troubling reading for the travel industry. It’s still the case, apparently, that we’d rather do without sport, clothes, gadgets, home improvement... even eating, than our holidays. Nevertheless, the average number of holidays – both at home and abroad – taken in the 12 months to August 2013 by British people fell slightly compared to the same period in 2012, from 3.5 holidays per year to 3.1. More alarmingly, it’s 16- to 24-year-olds, traditionally the most active holidaymakers, who have made the biggest change to their habits, with one fewer holiday being booked per person in 2013 than in 2012.
The economic downturn has hit young workers hard – and it’s impossible to book a holiday on your mobile phone or any other device if you don’t have the necessary cash. The need to attract new, younger tourists is a concern that’s long been raised by sectors of the travel industry. Since the beginning of the downturn in 2008, skiing has struggled to bring in fresh new skiers to the slopes; the cruise industry is equally anxious about how to involve the younger market. Abta sounds a note of hope: 16- to 24-year-olds are apparently “cautiously optimistic” about their holiday plans for 2014. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the “Bank of Mum and Dad”: half of 16- to 24-year-olds went on holiday with their immediate family this year.
Can EU do it?
Croatia joined the EU on 1 July this year, a chance to display pearls such as Dubrovnik to a wider tourism market, young or old. The director of the Croatian National Tourist board was certainly keen, saying: “We truly hope that even more UK holidaymakers will be tempted to ... book affordable holidays in our historic cities.” However, given the uncertainties of the eurozone, it’s hardly surprising that on the streets of Dubrovnik they’d still rather we paid with local currency the Kuna, than euros. Chocolate-box tourism might be the life-blood of the city, but with Croatia’s turbulent history, it’s hardly surprising that residents would rather be safe than sorry.