How the cloud has changed the travel industry

Digital access has changed the business travel experience for years now, but that evolution continues as busy professionals find new ways to be creative and productive on the road. They’re also doing it with fewer and smaller tech tools because so much of the connectivity they need has shifted to the cloud.

Thinking back 15 years, it’s easy to see how much has changed by considering a business trip to Toronto for two journalists covering the pope’s visit amid a crowd of thousands. A multimedia team might easily carry their weight in gear, since a heavy old-model laptop and brick-like batteries would be an absolute necessity and mobile smartphones weren’t an option. Neither was wireless, so the cords for dialing in to file a report were a lifeline to the newsroom – and real-time posts to social media weren’t invented yet.

The photo images might be digital, but not on your iPhone, so you’d need to take a separate camera, and its cards and upload connections and charging cord too. The broadcast photo journalists lugged an even bigger mountain of gear, and harried producers and editors hanging on deadlines were fortunate to get text messages or calls to the field. There wasn’t Twitter or Instagram or Facebook or even Gmail. The based-in-the-cloud storage wasn’t there, so losing a file or the device it was on was a catastrophe.

“It’s hard for some people to remember, and even harder for a millennial generation that never saw it, but technology has completely changed the way people do business travel,” says Chris Rivett, a travel expert with HotelsCombined. “For many professionals, their hotels served as a base for all the gear they’d need to work and that was true in many careers, especially as sales became more data-driven.”

Hotels with a fax machine and copier in the business center were yesterday’s version of what travelers need, Rivett said. Documents weren’t stored in the cloud, much less transmitted there, and amenities like complementary Wi-Fi access common in even the most modest accommodations today were still rising on the horizon. “Devices changed that experience, but so have cloud capabilities,” he added.

Now, the thinnest of lightweight laptops manages entire marketing events and sales presentations, while mobile streams those events live and keeps colleagues connected across borders and time zones. The papers and presentation decks travel with you in your palm, as does the instantaneous messaging. A delay at the airport may mean an extra hour to call on clients with the profile data you need right at your fingertips – or, as is often the case for travelers, to check in with loved ones or check on your pets. The new era’s cloud-based IoT apps even make the quick visit with the dog and a treat dispenser easy.

Almost too easy, according to some security professionals. With more travel and more devices come far more risks, and they point to ways that some practices reduce the potential for expensive data loss or breach in a security climate that makes travel a stressor for people in high-risk careers like journalism.

Zeynep Tufekci is an expert on digital security, writing often for the New York Times and serving as a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. The associate professor from University of North Carolina recently whipped up some serious tips for business travelers in high-risk careers, including reporters and NGO activists, but Tufekci noted that the practices are “good business” for travelers in any profession who want to protect their work and data.

Ironically, Tufekci created her list in a Twitter thread, which she discourages for professionals who want to protect their privacy (move to Signal or WhatsApp, she says). The encrypted messaging systems vary in terms of what’s stored in the cloud, but generally users with highly sensitive information have options to assure it’s not retrievable. That level of security may also mean no backup plan if you lose or break a device, and that’s where Tufekci understands different professionals may not all want the same tools.

“For example, I backup all my iOs photos to the cloud. I don’t back up any chats,” says Tufekci. “I lose a phone, I lose all my chats. I thought about this long and hard, and decided this was the best option for me. My pics are memories/places/people and nothing ever that would be a threat to me.”

Along with her other advice for high-risk travelers – tips for locking down device access when clearing security or customs, for example – the technosociology expert and author recommends that everyone take a look at their security options. She recommends Security Planner from Citizen Lab as a smart start.

So for the business traveler of any kind, there’s a long list of ways to benefit from “cloud power” in getting the job done, but there also are cautions that make sense. As the technology has evolved, two journalists traveling on assignment to a foreign country now may carry next to nothing at all when compared with the luggage of the last decade. There’s a phone, there’s an iPad, and much of the digital advantage – for them, and for other professionals – comes from the expanding capacities of the cloud. Yet that comes with some invisible weight too, and business travelers hitting the road for airports, hotel rooms, coffee shop WiFi spots and other unfamiliar digital terrain will want to use the power wisely.