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Travel and the Technological Revolution
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Ten years ago, Marketplace attended a trade show in Chicago and reported on a new piece of technology called a travel kiosk. It allowed you to inspect a hotel or resort before you committed to visiting. The prediction was that soon they'd be commonplace in travel agencies everywhere. Our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa, brings us up to date in 1999.

We got our travel kiosks, all right. Except they're on our own desks, and they're called personal computers. And travel agencies? Many of them have gotten trampled in the technological revolution.

Hausman: "With a few keystrokes, clients can get a preview of their destination from a laser disk tied to a screen on a travel agent's desk."

That was reporter Sandy Hausman's description of the new travel kiosk back in the summer of '89. Most of us couldn't have guessed that in ten year's time, we'd be able to tap into something called the World Wide Web and cyber-walk through hotels, resorts, even art museums and cities anywhere we could find a phone line. More damaging to travel agents, travel suppliers like airlines, hotels, and cruise ship lines have figured out they can reach consumers at a very low cost by posting sales on Web sites. That helps them avoid paying commissions to travel agencies. And it's a sophisticated way to practice yield management, otherwise known as getting rid of excess inventory at the last minute by letting the world know you've reduced prices.

As recently as two years ago, I attended a travel agents' convention in Glasgow, Scotland, where the president of the American Society of Travel Agents belittled the prospect of consumers forsaking agents for booking on-line. In a Marketplace report, I said he couldn't have been more wrong. I was right.

So what in the travel world will we be talking about on Marketplace ten years from now? Hopefully, we won't be talking about upgrading the nation's air traffic control system. That's already way overdue, and if the FAA doesn't work the bugs out of its new radar system soon, expect gridlock in the sky. At airports, passengers can expect some high-tech changes to streamline the check-in process and help reduce lines. For example, major U.S. airlines are working on little electronic cards that you'd carry that would mark your arrival at an airport. An electronic signal would check you in as you walked into a terminal. It could even silently summon a taxi or sedan service car upon your arrival at your destination.

Amtrak swears it's going to develop high-speed, magnetically levitated trains in busy corridors. Cruise ships are finally realizing not all passengers like to eat at the same table in the same big banquet room every night. Look for more intimate restaurants on board the new mega-ships of the future. Pay phones -- already harder to find outside airports and hotels -- will become obsolete as go-everywhere cell phones become the travelers' best friend. The computer nooks you find in some airports now will have a short life; eventually, you won't need to hook up your laptop to a phone wire to go on-line. And travel agents? Well, the ones who don't want to become travel kiosks on the ash pile of history will have to specialize and offer services most of us can't get with a few keystrokes of our own.

The Savvy Traveler on Marketplace

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