Archive for November, 2010

My experience at Marriott – the seeds of my Virtual Travel conviction

The seeds of my conviction that virtual travel will become a reality within many of our lifetimes came from my time as Chief Technology Officer at Marriott International, Inc.

I feel it will start with business travel, simply because it will be easier to completely satisfy business travel requirements virtually. The reasons for business travel relate to lots of different roles, such as sales, marketing, training, collaboration, joint decision-making, knowledge transfer, and many others. Travel associated with these roles, unlike leisure travel, can be effectively performed if just 2 of the 5 senses are effectively stimulated by the virtual business meeting offering: sound and vision. If the virtual experience gets these 2 things right, with such fidelity that the participants in these meetings feel they have not compromised anything by avoiding physical travel, then it would make little sense for them to actually take the trip.

Technology that is frequently referenced as TelePresence (a term coined by Cisco Systems) is pretty much delivering this kind of experience today. Let’s call it virtual business collaboration technology. Multiple companies, including but not limited to Cisco and Hewlett Packard provide it. It is not some futuristic vision that has not yet been achieved. It is here now, and it is a stellar experience.

As CTO of Marriott, I felt that our company needed to embrace this technology, because it would eventually replace the need for in-person collaborative business meetings. Within the hotel industry, Marriott was on the cutting edge by creating a few public access virtual business meeting studios in selected hotels over five years ago, and have increased the number since.

In recent years, the technology has also penetrated more densely into public access building, such as hotels and airports. Concurrently, businesses have been installing virtual business collaboration technology and using to dramatically curtail physical travel. These companies and their employees are getting used to it, and they like it.

Because of their investment in this technology, they will continue to use it even as the economy recovers. So, it is unlikely that small, interactive business meetings in hotels and conference centers will come back to levels the travel industry enjoyed before the downturn. These companies will have to adjust. And when virtual leisure travel hits within the next 20-30 years, small adjustments to the travel industry business model will no longer be a survival option.

Top 10 places to travel virtually

In working with my publicist, they suggested I write a blog on this topic.  Sadly, there are precious few websites and companies offering virtual travel experiences yet.  In my recently published book, I predict this will change dramatically within the next 20 years or so.

But, for now, when you search the web for “virtual travel”, you get websites that really do not offer virtual travel experiences.  Rather, most often, they offer travel agent services for a traditional trip.  On another site an individual who loves planning trips, offers to plan your trip for a fee between $2.00 and $20.00 depending on how many days the trip will be.  Still another shows little thumbnail video clips of scenery from a train trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  The train videos are as close as any of these comes to delivering a “virtual trip” that I have been able to find.  But, it is light years away from the virtual travel experience I envision.

Because applying virtual reality technology to travel is going to be a complex, long-term proposition, it is not surprising that true virtual travel trips are not yet “packaged up” and “productized” for sale, in the same way purely physical trips are these days.  But, it will happen.  When it does, there will be a truly viable alternative to the hassles of “getting there”, and the virtual traveler will be able to experience great destinations without ever leaving their hometown.

With this as background, here is my Top 10 “wish list” for a virtual travel experience, once the technology and content have matured:

  • Florence
  • Katmandu
  • London
  • Montreal
  • New York
  • Paris
  • Seoul
  • Sydney
  • Tokyo
  • Vienna

So, come on hotel and transportation companies!  Start teaming with companies in the high tech, electronic games, and movie industries to put together these virtual trips.

If you haven’t yet, please check out my book – Virtual Travel: Embrace or Expire – for more information on what this exciting new capability has in store for us.  And please, post a comment below or a review of the book. I would love to hear from you.

Be there. Without actually being there.

Virtual travel is actually having the experience of traveling to a destination (whether near or far) without physically traveling.  In other words, you would experience the destination as if you were there, but without being there.

At the outset, I ask: If you could have a travel experience and couldn’t distinguish whether you were physically there or not, would you insist on physically being there?

I believe that we will have such a choice to make in less than 10 years for business travel and somewhere between 20 and 30 years for a full-fledged leisure travel experience.

When I chat with people about this, they say, “Of course, I would still want to go.” When I ask why, they say, “Well, I want to really experience the place, the people, the sights, the sounds.” They say they really want to “be there.” They also say it wouldn’t be the same if they were not physically at the destination.

But if I persist, and repeat: What if you could really experience it, complete with sights, smells, touch, interaction with people and places? I don’t mean experience it like watching a movie or a television program.  I mean experience it as if you were really there—in the movie—where your five senses actually tell you that you are there?

Let’s just assume that such a realistic experience will be possible and affordable at some point.  Given that, I wonder about the potential impact this capability will have on how we all live and work.

This impact on the physical world, including businesses and individuals, are the primary focus of my book Virtual Travel: Embrace or Expire.  The physical world, both natural and as constructed and maintained by humans, will be fundamentally changed when people no longer have to physically travel to have a real travel experience, either to accomplish work or to “get away from it all” for leisure.

When this happens, I believe large chunks of today’s physical world and its products and services will be bypassed.  When they are, if the businesses that deliver these products and services do not adapt, they will wither and die.  At the same time, incredible opportunities await existing businesses, industries, and individuals that adapt and grow as these radical changes occur.

What do you think will happen?  I would love to hear from you!

Virtual Travel

I am proud of my just published book, Virtual Travel: Embrace or Expire.  I hope that you will check it out and let me know what you think.

Here are some testimonials that some of the icons of the hospitality and travel industry and a key business management expert have to say about it.

“A provocative look at how technology can change how we look at travel over the long term.  Virtual Travel is must reading for our industry and for travelers in general.”

– Bill Marriott, Chairman and CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

“The ability to travel virtually will have a profound and lasting impact on the travel industry, and indeed on many seemingly unrelated areas of business and our daily lives.  Virtual Travel gives us all a glimpse into a radically different future and the implications for us all.”

Don Tapscott, Chairman nGenera Insight, and author of 14 widely read books, most recently with Anthony D. Williams, MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World

“Whether you agree with Shuler’s projections for virtual travel or not, even if only partially right, the implications for the hospitality and travel industry are profound.  He opens our minds to a possible future that is equally exciting and daunting.”

– Doug Rice, Executive Vice President and CEO, Hotel Technology Next Generation

On this blog I will be writing about the future of virtual travel and how I believe it will change the hospitality and travel industry.