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Appy travel: Apps helping travellers connect with locals and destinations

DC | ROHINI NAIR
Published Jan 11, 2015, 12:20 pm IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 1:16 am IST
Apps are helping travellers connect with locals and destinations in a deeper, more meaningful way

The hottest buzzword in travel today isn’t some exotic new destination or experience. It’s “technology”, and more specifically, “travel apps”. Technology is changing the way we travel, and nothing more so, than apps. Travellers are using apps like Tinder to hook up with potential companions on their journey, and social apps that help them engage with locals in the destinations they travel to. From finding hosts who will put you up for the night (Airbnb, Couchsurfing), offer a good home-cooked meal (EatWith) or guide you on a personalised, in-depth tour of a destination (Vayable; or SeekSherpa in India) — these social apps are adding a new dimension to the experience for the traveller who’s willing to keep an open mind.

“It’s been happening over the last couple of years, and is a natural evolution,” says tech scribe Nimish Sawant. “Initially, you had generic apps for travel guides, of the things to do, places to see, airline schedules variety. But thanks to the rise of social media and with a lot more people travelling now than ever before, the ‘social’ aspect of travel has really kicked in and people want to have more real experiences. So you’re seeing many more personalised apps, which cater to this audience.”

 

Those who work in the travel industry say there has been a break from the “package tour” mentality, and apps have fed into this relatively recent demand for unusual experiences. “Inspired by information available through social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, new-age travellers are looking for unique experiences,” says Saurabh Pewekar, founder of Mumbai-based travel firm Tranquil Escapes. “They are no longer content to sit in a tour bus, clicking photos of famous monuments. Special travel apps have made it easier for them to seek unusual experiences and are therefore, popular.”

There’s also an increasing emphasis on truly “local” experiences in travel, and services that help with this are welcome. “The whole ‘local experience’ which used to earlier be categorised as ‘offbeat’ travel has now become mainstream,” points out Sneha Khale, who liased with travellers from all over the world for the past few years in her capacity as a community manager for a travel portal in Bengaluru. “Everyone is looking for something unusual with their travels. I’ve spoken to people who, on their first trip to Europe, stayed away from the France-Spain-Italy triumvirate and instead, visited Croatia because Game of Thrones is filmed in Dubrovnik, and they’re fans of the show. Apps that give information you may have missed out on during a regular online search, is what we’re all about now!”

It isn’t just the traveller who is changing — tourism destinations are also alive to the endless possibilities of appealing to greater numbers of visitors; and local residents/groups/institutions are relying on the power of apps to do so. Most countries with high tourism potential do have apps created by private developers. Then there are “hyper-local” apps, such as SeekSherpa in India — which connects you to a local resident who offers an offbeat guided tour through his/her city, and is fast catching on. The founders of SeekSherpa, Sukhmani Singh and Dhruv Raj Gupta, describe the phenomenon as one that empowers locals to become “travel entrepreneurs” in their own right. “Travel had remained static and restricted to your hotel concierge’s suggestions because of the inability of locals to create and market immersive experiences for travellers,” says Gupta. Mobile apps are offering an effective counterpoint to that experience, he adds.

The change in consumer behaviour too, has benefited service providers as much as it has consumers. “Consumption of travel-related content has moved from the desktop to the phone or tablet,” says Sukhmani Singh. “And due to the constant changing of our thoughts, we need to keep checking this travel content, which is done best on a phone! New age mobile apps are making the experience of a city come alive, and having information and actionable measures at a touch of button is empowering consumers to travel more freely.”

While there is a plethora of apps out there, it’s only the innovative ones that manage to break through the clutter. For instance, there’s HappyCow, which provides a comprehensive guide to vegetarian eating-out options when travelling to a new location. Eric Brent, the founder of HappyCow, says that while the service has been online for 15 years now, venturing into the mobile space became a priority early on. “Our first iOS, VegOut, in 2008 was one of the first apps in the iTunes Store. That’s been replaced by our HappyCow App which has been doing great. We’re always working on improving functionality and design. Over half our traffic is mobile and making it easier for visitors to find vegetarian food is our goal, so apps are really a prime focus,” Brent told us.

While consensus favours apps like Airbnb, Skyscanner, Kayak, SpottedByLocals (a guide to the best experiences in Europe, according to locals), Wwoof (for volunteering while you're travelling) TouristEye (by Lonely Planet), travel writer Raul Dias says he’s found apps like Couchsurfing, Urban Spoon, Wikitude and Hearplanet invaluable for engaging with locals.

“SitOrSquat is the looniest one I've come across though!” Raul says. “The database contains information on 1,00,000 toilets all over the world, complete with reviews and ratings for cleanliness, an indication whether it’s a sitter or a squatter, and a note if the toilet is currently closed!”

So who’re the travellers using these apps the most? Again, consensus puts the major share of users in the 18-35 age group. “Younger people who grew up with these devices definitely have an advantage Smartphones are increasingly affordable, people are thinking of new ways to utilise the technology and the average user’s technical abilities are rapidly increasing, so more is possible,” says HappyCow's Eric Brent.

As people’s reliance on these apps increase, those in the travel industry too are scrambling to adapt to the changed scenario. “The biggest impact travel apps have had on the industry is changing the way companies now market themselves,” says Tranquil Escapes’ Saurabh Pewekar. “Content and marketing plans have been changed completely to suit the ‘mobile’ audience. On the bright side, it is also resulting is quicker decisions by customers and quicker sales conversion for travel companies.”

Kochi-based Priya Q, who runs the customised travel service Bucket List Travels, agrees that service providers do “need to think of various modes for marketing and engaging with potential customers”. However, she does feel that apps won’t entirely replace your professional travel planning. “Apps are impersonal. If you engage a travel company, you have a name and a face to connect with. I think it is comforting to (have someone) to explain your requirements, customise your trip and to get in touch with, whenever required,” she explains.

Apart from the impersonality, there are other issues too with travel apps, especially those that pitch the social/local experience. “One needs to be cautious,” says tech writer Nimish Sawant. “For instance, while booking accommodation on Airbnb and Couchsurfing, go through the reviews thoroughly as you don’t want to book a boathouse and end up in an apartment! Also, do exercise common sense precautions when meeting strangers via apps such as Tinder. If you’re meeting a local who will show you around in an unknown destination, establish contact beforehand via email or a phone call. Read past reviews of this guide or service company.”

Apart from following the basics, experts also recommend that you don’t over-rely on an app to dictate your entire experience. “Over-reliance on an app can take the shine off an important travel tool called ‘serendipity’!” says Raul Dias. “What’s the fun if you know what’s around the corner thanks to an app? Spontaneity takes a hit when one depends on travel apps all the time.” “Some of the best travel experiences come from visiting places that don’t show up on an app (or even a map!),” concludes Sneha Khale. “You chance upon them when you’re out with locals, talking with them, and making friends and memories.”

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