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Curious Conversations, a research podcast

"Curious Conversations" is a series of free-flowing conversations with Virginia Tech researchers that take place at the intersection of world-class research and everyday life.  

Produced and hosted by Virginia Tech writer and editor Travis Williams, university researchers share their expertise and motivations as well as the practical applications of their work in a format that more closely resembles chats at a cookout than classroom lectures. New episodes are shared each Tuesday.

If you know of an expert (or are that expert) who’d make for a great conversation, email Travis today.

Latest Episode

Zheng "Phil" Xiang joined Virginia Tech’s “Curious Conversations” to talk about the intersection of technology and tourism. He shares the significant technological shifts in the tourism industry over the past decade, including the influence of social media and artificial intelligence on trip research and the experience itself. 

About Xiang

Xiang is a professor and the department head of the Howard Feiertag Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. His research interests include travel information search, social media marketing, and business analytics for the tourism and hospitality industries.

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Travis Williams (01:07.968)
Awesome. Well, I know you do a lot of work at the intersection of technology and tourism. And so I guess what I'm curious about just right off the top is in maybe the past decade or so, what has been in what have you seen? Maybe that's a bad question. I guess what I'm curious about is in the past decade or so, what has been the largest or the most significant technological shift in the tourism industry?

Phil Xiang (01:34.874)
Absolutely, it's a great question. You know, it's a question actually, we as researchers and scholars, aim to understand, right? If you don't mind, I would like to go back a little bit further than just the last 10 years, because to me, technology is always, comes from the historical point of view, goes way back. If you think about travel and tourism, hospitality included, this is an experience-based industry. If you go to the destination for a vacation and you have no idea what it takes. This is a very complex experience-based...and also highly individual based. Your goal from the vacation point of view could be very, very different from mine, even though we are planning to go to the same destination. What you try to get out of it could be very, very different. So given that, there are products that have been used to support vacation.

Of course, there's transportation, there's hotels, accommodations, there'll be restaurants, there'll be attractions, there'll be activities you do when you are on vacation. So it's complex, it's also heterogeneous, right? It involves a lot of things. So the reason for me to say earlier, we need to go back because at the beginning of

technological development for this industry is always about providing the right information at the right time, right? So this takes us back to the 1960s when Sabre, now of course Sabre is part of, is behind some of the online travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, and right? Sabre actually was developed in the 1960s as sort of the...of the inventory of airlines, right? Flight tickets. So these are early days of the technological development for travel. Then in the 1990s, all of a sudden we had the internet. Right? You know, from the distribution point of view, Sabre, you know, would say, okay, let's put everything online. Let's create portals. Like now we call them travel aid, online travel agencies.

OTAs in short, right? And so that people, customers, access the information and make reservations. So that's the early days of the internet. And then of course, you know, later on, we had all kinds of websites. We have, you know, in the beginning of the 2000s, we had Google, right? Google, of course, started in the 1990s, but actually it became big.

Right? In the early 2000s, we have search engines that served as the gateways for travel. Right? Now all of the people can find information on, you know, every type of information through search engines like Google. And then later on, as, you know, everyone is aware of, we have social media. Right? Of course, we can talk about social media for days. This is the fascinating. It's very...

diverse and very is a huge topic. Right. So social media started maybe around 2005, 2006 when all of the sudden people were able to contribute to the internet, not just the suppliers. Right. The industry suppliers are always there trying aiming to provide information for travelers, but now individual travelers were enabled by social media to contribute to the information space. So starting maybe 15 years ago, we had the social media. And of course, from there, there's a huge amount of data accumulated. Now, if you ask me what happened in the last 10 years, I would argue it's all kinds of AI-based, machine learning-based tools actually can organize the information in a novel way and present the travelers, present the information to the travelers in a meaningful way. Okay, so that's one of the major shifts or major developments in terms of technology. When it comes to information, of course travel is a process, right?

it starts, if you're going to have a vacation sometimes, you know, in the future, you start with planning, you start looking for information. And then once you identify the information that is useful for you to make the decision, then you go about, you know, you start, you know, you go about, right, you go there, and then of course this is the process involves, you know, en route and on site, there.

And even afterwards, you like to share your story. So there's a process of involves all kinds of technologies that could contribute to your experience of the travel products, of the vacation. So to me, technology really has changed a lot in terms of people, how they search for products, how they experience the products.

How they engage with others. So it opened up. Now it's a if you look at the information space it's very diverse it's very complex, very rich.

Travis Williams (08:08.2)
Okay. All right. So it sounds like I'm trying to, cause you just gave me like a lot of, uh, of information that I haven't really thought about before. Um, but it sounds like that it, it sounds like the evolution of the travel industry has gone from where maybe a limited number of people say back in sixties or seventies could tell you, could give you their thoughts on how you might travel or what was a nice place to go to.

Phil Xiang (08:17.495)
Hehehe

Phil Xiang (08:34.967)
Yes.

Travis Williams (08:36.492)
this point in the 90s where that information became more accessible, to a point where we were, we were as the users, as the travelers, giving that feedback to each other, and maybe now all of this information is starting to be put together in meaningful ways for us.

Phil Xiang (08:54.07)
Yeah, absolutely. During the early days, of course, it's travel agencies, right? Everyone goes through a travel agency. If you want to book the vacation, book tickets, airlines or hotels, make reservations at the hotel, you go through a travel agency. When the Internet came along, you don't have to do that anymore, right? You go through online travel agencies. When social media came along, right? You not only consult with travel agencies, but you also consult with your peer travelers. You learn from them what this product or destination is good at, or where the pitfalls, what you have to pay attention to, right? People tell their stories. So the internet became the platform where people can share their personal experiences and stories with others. And of course, as the traveler in return, you also contribute to that information space.

Now, with the huge amount of information being accumulated over the last, say, 10, 15 years, now AI is tapping into that information space. The data, the rich data of people's experiences, now AI can organize information and come up with novel ideas. Take GPT as an example.

If you're planning a trip to a destination you have never visited, you can ask Chachi BT who can actually come with some meaningful results for you, right? In an organized way.

Travis Williams (10:32.78)
Yeah, that's fascinating. I was going to ask you, uh, when it comes to traveling, because one of the things when I want to, we're getting ready to go on a trip with me and my family, I will most of the time just put stuff into a search engine and I'll just start to search for things. I'm curious though, how much stuff like social media, uh, and user experiences and places like Yelp or People Leave reviews, how much, how much does that in influence what you, you know, the search engine results that I'm looking at?

Phil Xiang (10:44.247)
Yes.

Phil Xiang (11:01.678)
Absolutely. If you think about TripAdvisor, the number of reviews on TripAdvisor, we're talking about travel-related products, abundant. We're talking about, if I remember correctly, 1.5 billion reviews on TripAdvisor on one single website. And there are only 300 million

people in the US population. Right? So this is a huge amount of information out there. You know TripAdvisor of course is just one website. You know, there's websites about food, there's websites about destinations, there's websites about hotels, there's websites about, you know, there's all kinds of, we call domain specific, you know, search engines or portals.

If you think about travel as the dominant domain under travel, there are different kinds of domains. Each one of the domains has its own unique or specific information portals. We're talking about a large number of these players. This is just amazing.

If you look at the academic literature, there's a lot of now research that focused on understanding how reviews actually have impact on people's decision-making and actual travel experiences.

Travis Williams (12:44.28)
Yeah, and I don't know, maybe this is not a question for this interview, but I'm just curious if there is a, if we're getting to a point now when it comes to stuff like chat GPT and are people able to kind of game the review process and maybe manipulate that.

Phil Xiang (13:01.474)
It's a possibility, but I, you know, the broad picture of course is that, you know, so-called disinformation, misinformation. People actually have been doing that for years, not just for the sake of chat GPT, but, you know, people have been creating fake reviews, right? Misleading reviews all the time. But that is not just, you know, a perturbing to the travel domain. It happens everywhere.

you know, speaking of politics, right? It's just, you know, people's trying.

Travis Williams (13:33.62)
Yeah, I mean, I guess, I guess people, people used to write letters to the editor about how terrible this restaurant was, who knows if they even went there.

Phil Xiang (13:38.135)
Yes, people.

Phil Xiang (13:42.086)
Yes, it's that. Also, businesses are doing all kinds of things in order to game the system. So it's nothing new. But when it comes to chat GPT, I would argue because the algorithm of AI, like chat GPT, actually relies on a huge amount of data. So individuals, of course, can contribute. It's really, really difficult. But of course, the quality of chat GPT relies on the quality of the data. No doubt about it.

Travis Williams (14:24.004)
Well, I'm curious too, if what maybe changes are happening right now or have happened in the recent future that are the recent future. I mean, I said question wrong. Let me ask that question differently. I'm curious what changes are have happened in the recent past or maybe you're still ongoing right now that are impacting the average traveler and they may not even realize that it's happening.

Phil Xiang (14:48.63)
Yes, this is a very good question, Travis. I think we used to think technology is about information, as I said earlier. It's about access to information, the richness and meaningfulness of information. But also I talk about travel as the process. So it's not just information. There are different types of technology actually.

have direct impact on people's experiences. If you go to a hotel now, many hotels have the robots. Many hotels, if you look at the so-called the touch points of customer interaction, there's robots, there's chatbots, there's automation in different areas of experiences. We go to Disney World, there's all kinds of technologies that have been used within that context in order to improve and enhance the experiences. So now I would argue we are living in the world with all kinds of the mixed realities. We know some of the realities are real, right? Food is real. You have to eat the food. But some of the information, you know, if you think about information, it's not real. It's...generated by AI, it's created by other people, and who knows where the information comes from. And if you look at, say for example, museums, right? Museums have been using like, say virtual realities, augmented realities in recent years trying to enhance and the user or customer experiences.

That's something new. That's something that is created based on, not just information, but sophisticated algorithms. Now we call AI. Even the notion of AI goes back to say, many, few decades ago. In our domain, people have been studying, working with computer scientists, like studying how we can make better recommendations for travelers in terms of the vacation.

So virtual realities, augmented realities, if you look at Facebook, right, now it's meta. Of course, what they're trying to sell is the metaverse, it's the virtual reality-based information space.

Travis Williams (17:35.324)
Yeah, so it sounds like maybe one of the shifts is that technology for a while enhanced our ability to get information about the trips and the vacations and now it's enhancing the experience itself.

Phil Xiang (17:48.49)
Yeah, absolutely. Enhancing experiences or creating new experiences, right? Especially during the COVID years. I remember, of course, the travel industry was struggling, right? Nobody is traveling, so what can we do? We have the product here. How can we make sure people actually don't forget us, at least, right? So the travel destinations, museums, Hotels have been using virtual realities to give people that kind of experiences. Now virtual realities are becoming so authentic, so real. It's not virtual anymore. People can actually have the real experiences within the space of virtual realities. I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day, and she was experiencing some food-based experiences. She used to say, She basically told me this is amazing and I really cannot differentiate whether this is real or virtual. So we're getting there. Of course it's not perfect yet. Metaverse, well, Facebook is trying to sell the metaverse. We know it's far from being perfect, but this is something that is moving the field forward. If you think about travel as the experience, How is that different from watching a movie? Watching a movie is the experience. How we can come with the help of technology, something new, something that could be equivalent or close to the actual experience is the question that is driving the technological development in this field.

Travis Williams (19:37.708)
Yeah, I was going to ask you kind of what's on the horizon for traveling. Technology was.

Phil Xiang (19:40.394)
Yeah, it's no-thins. It's virtual realities, augmented realities. If you go to the actual place, with the cell phone, with the, several years ago, Google developed these Google glasses, which is the kind of the augmented reality that is imposed on top of the real actual realities. So there's a layer of information on top of the real reality.

That's one of the areas that actually will continue to involve. I can imagine maybe in a few years, people will be wearing this, but I don't know what specific technology that could be, right? Like Google Glass was the failure, but I don't think Google will stop right there. Google will continue exploring the possibilities of developing some technologies like this. And of course, now a lot of experiences, you know, it's...engineered by AI, right? So it's kind of scary, but this is how the world is evolving. A customer service now has a lot to do with AI, right? If you talk to someone on the internet, very likely the so-called the person you're trying to talk to is the AI, is the computer program, right? If you pick up the phone, talking to someone, And on the other side, it's very likely it's AI. So it's customer service. Decision making now from the managerial standpoint has a lot to do with AI. Given the amount of the data, now policymakers, managers can make decisions based on, say, what happened in the past. Given the huge amount of data now, we have to use AI in order to sort the information in order to interpret the information in the meaningful way that informs decision making. So I believe what is on the horizon is the technology, is the product that is intertwined with how technology is evolving and technology, of course, is moving the field forward.

Travis Williams (22:00.564)
Yeah, that's awesome. Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I do have one last thing that I'm really curious about just talking to you, and that is what has been one of your most memorable vacations or trips that you've gone on?

Phil Xiang (22:16.63)
Wow, this is a good question. Well, maybe I can relate to something that happened recently. Actually, the way...

Phil Xiang (22:49.498)
Oh, I just lost you, right?

Travis Williams (22:50.102)
Oh gosh, sorry about that. I don't know what happened. This thing crashed, but that's okay because this continues to record and upload as everything goes.  

Phil Xiang (22:53.079)
Mmm.

Phil Xiang (22:57.77)
Yeah, that's fine. Yeah. I'm sure you can, you can edit, you know, to, to your purpose. So we, our family actually decided to go to Portugal for the, for the winter break, right? It's just a few days, you know, it's several of us plus, you know, one of my siblings with her daughter. So we have seven, eight people. Right. So I said, well, this is something interesting. We need to plan because this is a large group, right? So let's, let's plan it properly. So we, of course, we consulted all kinds of, you know, we make reservations for flights, for Airbnb, but eventually it comes down to what you want to do, right? You know, hotel, air tickets, those things are, you know, it's easy to take care of. It's utility, right? You have to make sure you get the right...

right tickets with the right price, that kind of stuff. But when it comes to experience, right, you have to be thoughtful, right? You have to have the plan. So for a family, say, we have like seven, eight people, let's decide what to do, right? It's a family gathering, we have the Airbnb, which is kind of a small villa with the swimming pool, with tennis court, right? It comes with a private tennis court because the family wants, wanted to do that, which is fantastic. Right? Then, of course, it's Portugal, what Portugal is known for, right? It's food, it's seafood, it's the culture. And so we kind of consulted in a chat GPT, given all these parameters, what you can recommend us. Actually, chat GPT came out as a really, really meaningful answers. Here's the list of things you could consider. Top cultural sites, restaurants what types of food you should be considering, what kind of activities outside your birth, like the family, walking on the beach, engaging with some of the local communities, that kind of stuff. So it's quite useful. This is somehow, remember, with the aid of the technology, of course, it became quite meaningful. So in terms of...the memorable experience, I would probably say this is a very good example of how we can use technology.

Travis Williams (25:29.585)
And I guess you tried some of chat GPT suggestions and how they how they go.

Phil Xiang (25:32.754)
Yes, absolutely. Yeah, pretty good, pretty well. Actually, the suggestions were quite accurate, and it didn't actually surprise me. It didn't give us any misinformation.

Travis Williams (25:47.2)
And you actually, you actually did go to Portugal. It was not a virtual experience, right? Well, that's awesome. I am also, I'm curious, have you, how you got into studying travel and tourism? Did you just, do you just love travel? Is that the entry point for you?

Phil Xiang (25:49.842)
Yes, we did. No, no, we did. We did. We did. And it was very nice.

Phil Xiang (26:05.77)
No, well, travel is always something that fascinates people, right? It's an experience that is very different for everyday life. Right? So, you know, it's that, but also, as I said earlier, you know, from the customer point, even from the business point, this is the information-based, you know, field, right? How you can, because it's the complexity of the product. How we can get the information, make it accessible to tourists, to potential travelers is a big question. So this is how I got into this because back to say 20, 25 years ago, internet all of a sudden became huge. How we can, from the business standpoint of your leveraging this new technology in order to accomplish what we want. This is the question that always fascinates me.

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