EAST LANSNG — If only the Griswolds had a PDA with wireless Internet capability with them during their family vacation.
The family made famous by National Lampoon’s “vacation” series of movies would have had the opportunity to check out what’s ahead at the next exit and find a better motel to stay the night, get directions, find out about the attractions along the highway — and they could even have learned long before they got there that Wally World was closed.
Current technology now provides travelers a far easier and faster way to access such information, and in turn is beginning to drive fundamental changes in how motels, hotels and other tourism-related businesses market themselves.
Research conducted by Michigan State University’s Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center shows that seven out of 10 travelers now carry a wireless telephone with them in the car. Ten percent have a laptop computer and 7 percent have a personal-digital assistant such as a Palm Pilot.
Those percentages are expected to grow quickly in the coming years with the emergence of wireless Internet services and the deployment of telematics systems on vehicles.
“We’re going to see these come to mass markets real soon,” Christine Vogt, a professor with MSU’s Department of Park Recreation and Tourism, said during the Tourism and Travel Resource Center’s recent annual conference in East Lansing.
In the not-to-distant future, for instance, travelers equipped with wireless Internet will have the ability to access the Web as they’re traveling in their vehicle, go to a site showing the route they’re driving, and click on the upcoming exits to learn about lodging and attractions and reserve a room, Vogt said.
As more people use technology to plan their vacations and access information — whether in advance of their trips or from the road — Vogt said businesses that cater to the traveling public will need to quickly adjust.
She said that includes doing everything from ensuring that telephone numbers and Internet addresses printed on roadside billboards are clearly identifiable to motorists, to investing in and maintaining a user-friendly Web site that’s easy to navigate and contains the information and links that the traveling public increasingly wants to access.
She said research indicates a growing number of travelers, drawn by the convenience it offers, use the Internet to reduce the time and uncertainty involved in vacation planning and to save costs.
According to research by MSU’s Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center, 72 percent of the people who have Internet access at home have used it to obtain travel information.
With 67 percent of U.S. households online, that equates to almost half of the population.
The information accessed most often was travel routes, road construction and maps (32 percent), followed by transportation (30 percent) and accommodations (17 percent), according to the Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center
Vogt expects the use of Internet and other technologies to only accelerate in the future as new advances and uses emerge.
“The new technology is just limitless,” Vogt said.
A Temple University researcher says that, as with so many other industries, the Internet has become an essential tool for tourism- and travel-related business marketing and consumer contact.
Last year David West of Temple University studied Pennsylvania’s Internet travel Web sites and their usability.
Tourism firms not already making high use of the Internet to serve their customers are behind the curve, he said. Web sites, he said, play a “huge role” in the travel decisions that users make.
“Information is how we design our trips,” West said. “The best Web sites are going to win.”
And the best Web sites are those that make it easy for consumers to find what they want.
West’s research found that many travel sites lack such basic information as price, location (with a map and directions), hours of operation and photos of the attractions or lodging businesses they list. That’s the kind of information users most often seek when logging on.
West said images of the rooms for rent, especially for bed and breakfasts, also are important to users, as are photos and maybe even a Web cam with streaming video of the grounds of a campground or cabins.
The key to an effective Web site that lures the traveler to your town or destination is conducting detailed market research that will enable you to provide the right information people want to find, and then update your site constantly.
At the same time, businesses need to remain careful about overloading their site with information and links that travelers don’t want or making it too cumbersome and difficult to navigate.
“People are expecting to find what they want to know. They’re pretty savvy and they know what they like,” West said. “You want a lot of information, but you have to present it in a not-too-cluttered format. If there’s information overload, they quit.”
And if they quit the Web site, chances are they’re going elsewhere, both to find information and possibly for their vacation.
Even the language a site uses can make a difference, he said.
Links that say “events” or “attractions” are ambiguous to tourists. Research of how people use tourism Web sites found that they are more apt to click on links labeled “find something to do” or “things to do,” West said.
In using Internet technology to serve travelers, businesses need to steer away from industry language and jargon that is meaningless to consumers, he said.
“We constantly have to remind ourselves that we are not the average consumer; we are in the business,” he said.