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Streaming for Holiday Travel

Holiday travel doesn’t rank as high on the personal pleasure list as gift giving or gift getting. Long lines, inevitable delays or car trouble are somewhat expected during the holiday season, but the assumption is always that those hassles will be mitigated upon arrival in the distant city or town by a clean, comfortable room and the opportunity to relax.

For those traveling to visit friends and family, but appalled by the idea of staying in cramped quarters for several days at the family homestead, a hotel is often the first choice. As creatures of habit, we often go with what we know and book into the hotel chain of popular choice.

When name-brand choices aren’t available, however, many users are left wondering how to choose lodging. Traditionally, the role of recommending alternative lodging has fallen to a travel agent, but with the uptick in use of online travel booking, a new group of Web sites have emerged that allow travelers to rate their experiences and several of these sites are using streaming media as a visual aid.

User review sites have been around for several years, providing feedback on everything from cars to cruises. The proliferation of broadband and smaller digital cameras – some of which can be used to capture both still images and short-length videos that are captured in streaming formats such as MPEG-4 – allows travelers to post their experiences and show examples of gripes or benefits.

One such site is TripSmarter.com, which allows user postings of favorite locations alongside hotel and restaurant video reviews. TripSmarter.com focuses on Southeastern US cities, such as Atlanta, GA; Myrtle Beach, SC; Key West, FL; and New Orleans, LA. Some of the video reviews show "Top 5 picks" for restaurants in particular towns, but the highest rated videos are from travelers or aspiring amateur tour guides.

Besides the video clips, TripSmarter.com has live Webcams showing some of the cities it highlights, plus a unique streaming audio feature called "Speak Like a Local." The RealAudio clips allow non-natives to hear local pronunciations of particular words such as Versailles, Kentucky, which is pronounced "ver-sales" rather than the traditional "ver-sigh".

These user-review video clips are part of a growing trend in the travel industry to use streaming video and audio. As noted in a StreamingMedia.com article in 2001, travel videos evoke a visceral response in potential buyers as well heightening anticipation of an upcoming trip for those who have already purchased a vacation package.

Even travel agencies are using streaming media to their advantage. Saga Holidays, a UK firm that books holidays for travelers over 50, is using streaming video to dispel the myth that senior travel has to be mundane. A spot on their Website highlights this point in a way that words cannot.

The clip shows beautiful shots of the Taj Mahal, Rio de Janeiro, and Saharan camel expeditions juxtaposed against a voiceover that says, in part ". . . if you think we only do coach trips, if you think our customers are over the hill, think again . . . "

Several travelers interviewed for this article say that they have come to rely on the Web reviews and vacation clips as they make travel plans.

"While I might make my decision for a particular vacation based on personal recommendations and travelers’ reviews," says Dan Valenti, General Manager of the Holston Business Development Center, "my young daughters are more interested in knowing what the hotel or pool or cruise ship looks like. Streaming video allows me to show the girls where we’re going, so that they’re both familiar with it when we arrive as well as looking forward to particular parts of the vacation before we go."

Louise Nuttle, with East Tennessee State University, agrees that online reviews and visuals of a particular location or hotel also carry weight in her purchase decisions.

"I tend to discount reviews that only have a few users listed," says Nuttle, "and I’m aware that someone with a gripe against a particular hotel could ‘plant’ a problem and then photograph or videotape it. But if I see consistent praise or consistent criticism, especially if it appears legitimate, that may very well change my decision on where to stay".

Convention and Visitors Bureaus are also championing the use of streaming media to attract visitors to their communities. One poignant clip on the TripSmarter.com site, labeled "Christmas in New Orleans" shows a Christmas tradition in one of the city’s parks. While it has traditionally been a walking/driving tour, the city has limited it to a walking-only tour this year. The video conveys the spirit New Orleans has cultivated throughout the years, reminding anyone who views that clips that–while New Orleans may have to scale back the celebrations in this time of rebuilding–they want the world to know they’re still open for business.

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