Last month, thousands of college freshmen met their roommates. But likely not for the first time. Universities have discovered that matching up students before school starts — through Facebook and other social networking algorithms — generates more lasting friendships and a happier freshmen class.
There’s a lesson here for travel and leisure companies, whether cruise lines, hotels or theme parks. This season, millions of travelers will meet their fellow vacationers. These people will be seated inches away, sleeping with only a wall to separate them, and sharing similar experiences, but they may never exchange a word.
Would they be happier if they did? Science, common sense, and experience suggest that the answer is yes, and the travel industry might want to use this opportunity to play matchmaker.
Whether squeezed into a three-seater on Amtrak or lounging in a luxury cabana, studies show that travelers are happier when they speak to strangers. We know this is true of vacationers because it's even true of commuters, who endure one of the most miserable tasks in everyday life. A striking study from the University of Chicago showed that commuters say they prefer to sit in silence, but actually feel more cheerful and upbeat after speaking to strangers. Most participants ended up appreciating the very conversations that they dreaded. The New Cities Foundation also demonstrated that drivers who use the Waze app to share traffic tips with others find their commute less exasperating.
When it comes to vacations, Professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University finds that people who speak with strangers about their holiday experiences end up with even fonder memories of the trip after the conversation.
Despite the proliferation of websites designed to facilitate so-called “social travel,” the largest potential players are often missing from the table. Hotels, cruise ships and amusement parks could be driving the process and designing proprietary strategies to bring travelers closer together. Otherwise, they risk losing out to third-party intermediaries, from apps to small group tours, that explicitly promise to optimize social travel.
These strategies could be customized for each industry:
Amusement Parks: Despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of like-minded, avid fans, amusement parks can be an isolating experience. Families generally stick to their own roller coaster car, and may never converse with anyone other than a costumed Pluto or Spiderman to ask for an autograph. This isolation could be discouraged before people even arrive at the entry gates.
Imagine, a week before the trip, your family is matched with the Rodriguez family. They’ll be vacationing at the same time, and also have a 4-year-old who wants to be Elsa and a 10-year old who loves "Star Wars." Suddenly, there’s someone else to sing “Let It Go” with your kid for the 37th time while you’re waiting in line.
Cruise Lines: Cruise lines are increasingly promoting more active shore excursions, from white-water rafting to cooking in a local kitchen. Yet some travellers stick to the city bus tour for fear of being teamed up with Olympic rowers or "Iron Chef" runners-up (or, conversely, they'd rather avoid being the last kid picked in gym class or the clumsy guy who burns microwave dinners). Teenagers might not want to go ziplining with their parents (so embarrassing!), but what if the tour was only for teens? By collecting simple data about the demographics and interests of their passengers, large ships could tailor some of these excursions to the age, experience level, and tastes of potential participants, making them more likely to sign up.
Hotels: Even the most senior executive might feel shy walking into a hotel restaurant, asking for a table for one, and pretending to read emails for fear of looking hapless and friendless. Hotels could try organizing a nightly dinner for solo travelers, to encourage conversation, networking, and naturally, the purchase of delectable food and drinks from the hotel restaurant’s menu.
Of course, we all have different levels of extroversion and introversion. Some people would be horrified to speak with a seatmate, while others would gladly pay to “surf” on his couch. A lot of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle.
Any program designed to bolster social connections should be optional and unobtrusive. But this is where the travel industry can actually help us learn more about ourselves.
Princess Cruises executive Gordon Ho explained the paradox to me: Passengers say they prefer not to dine with strangers at a group table, and yet when they do, they admit enjoying their meal and cruising experience more.
Cruise lines, amusement parks, and hotels are not dorms, but they do jam strangers into what could be an exhilarating or an uncomfortable experience. By combining new technologies with age-old human nature, they can deliver more novel and memorable experiences.
After all, what could be more novel and memorable than a stranger-turned-friend?
Victoria J. Buchholz practices corporate and intellectual property law in Los Angeles and writes about the business of travel.