Imagine travelling, even to a major city, without dealing with a single person or carrying any paperwork, from booking to scanning your passport and checking in at the airport and hotel.
The 'invisible traveller' is emerging as the newest profile in the hospitality industry, describing those who want to be self-sufficient during their trip, according to new research by InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), one of the largest hotel groups in the world with brands including InterContinental, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, and consultancy group, The Futures Company.
Travellers, particularly in developed countries, have increasingly used the internet to book flights, accommodation and tours for at least a decade, while airlines introduced online and mobile check-in in recent years.
International airports also are beginning to use e-passport systems allowing travellers to skip immigration queues.
The phenomenon is now spreading to hotels, where guests will be able to use their mobile phone or tablet device to check-in, order food, and even access information about amenities and the surrounding area.
“Think of this scenario,” the IHG-Futures Company report says. “A booking has been made online. Once the guest arrives, they let themselves in... they use room service - not the restaurant – or consult the menu and place their order at a table fitted with an intelligent touch screen.
“The next night, they order a gourmet BBQ basket – and cook their own food. They’ve carried out their own extensive research about the local area and amenities, so don’t need to ask the concierge staff for their advice.
“In the room, thanks to content downloaded on a personal media device... in-room entertainment options will evolve. We are likely to see ‘Bring Your Own Devices’ come to the hospitality industry in 2013 – much as they’ve come to the workplace. This will enable guests to personalise their experience.
“Playing music from your own MP3 collection or watching films recommended by your friends takes away the anonymity of the traditional hotel room. Indeed, recent innovations such as Apple’s social TV make it possible to imagine that in the coming years, guests will watch TV in their hotel room ‘together’ with friends back home.”
A small number of hotels around the world have started trialling the independent check-in system. Depending on its success, it is likely to be gradually rolled out globally by next year.
During the London Olympics, Samsung and Holiday Inn also trialled in-room technology enabling guests to control their TV, air conditioning and lights via an app.
IHG senior vice president sales and marketing Asia, Middle East and Africa, Karin Sheppard said Dubai’s Crowne Plaza hotels, which had a high rate of business traveller, would be particularly suited to the new mobile check-in technology.
Once a guest had checked-in online they could use their mobile phone to enter the information at a kiosk in the hotel lobby, where their room key would be dispensed.
“This is different to what we and others have been trialling in the past, where you check in at the hotel at a kiosk,” Sheppard said.
“This is much earlier check-in via mobile and you have all that information done before you even leave the office or your home. When you get to the hotel you bypass the front desk... get your room key and go straight to your room to continue relaxing or working.”
Sheppard said self-sufficient hotel services would likely be most popular among travellers not on a holiday.
“The invisible travellers are those who love to have their entire experience almost being defined by a lack of human interaction; they just use their own self-sufficiency to make sure they can have a very seamless experience,” she said.
“They seek out social interaction but at different stages of their stay. [They want] shared spaces to sit and work, have a drink and interact with other travellers. There could be two states of mind – get me to my room as fast as possible so I can continue working, similarly help me relax when I’m finished work or sit on my laptop and have a glass of wine.”
The research revealed the old definitions of the “business traveller”, the “holiday-maker”, the “young backpacker” and the “retired traveller”, were becoming multi-dimensional, with the same people playing different roles on different trips, and sometimes juggling two roles on one trip.
The occasion had more influence on defining the profile of a particular traveller.
“We believe [mobile check-in] will be particularly interesting for business travellers,” Sheppard said. “[But] that could be very different to that same person if they go and spend a family holiday in one of our resorts, so it’s particular occasions that [are more suitable] for this experience. Their needs shift very much between those occasions.
“[For example, at] Crowne Plaza Dubai Festival City and Downtown Dubai you could well imagine the majority of guests would be very comfortable using a service like [mobile check-in].
“[But at] a hotel like Crowne Plaza Jordan Dead Sea perhaps travellers are in less of a rush, they might be in a more social frame of mind and want to check in with someone and ask about services and facilities.
“This is about choice... it’s a complimentary service for those more in that [invisible traveller] state of mind.”
While IHG is only trialling the service in selected hotels in Singapore, London, China and the US, Sheppard said the Middle East would become a key market as more business travellers ventured to the region and locals increased their confidence in technology.
She said the invisible traveller was a growing trend based on a shift in travellers between mature markets and emerging markets, such as China, India and some Middle Eastern countries, which tended to have younger populations used to multi-tasking, technology at their finger tips and interacting globally.
As emerging markets became more dominant in the travel industry – China alone is expected to account for one-third of global travel spend by 2020 – demand for self-sufficiency would grow.
“The Middle East has one of the youngest populations in the world,” Sheppard said. “In Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other countries, the proportion of the population that’s below 25 is staggering.
“So I’m pretty certain if you map [the invisible traveller] type of consumer trends... you’ll see a high proportion of them increasingly in the Middle East markets as those younger people come into the workforce.
“The younger generation are coming through and being far more adventurous in where they go, [wanting to] maximise their time and using technology to make that more productive.”