It was in 1989 when sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “the third place.”
The first place is home and the people we live with. The second is work and the people we work with. The third—which was famously adopted by Starbucks marketers—is a neutral zone where we can interact and collaborate with our communities: Coffee shops, hair salons, churches, bars, recreation centers, even co-working spaces.
At Panasonic, we like to think of the act of traveling as the fourth place. It’s not a fixed location; it’s not home, work, or a community meeting space. Rather, the “place” is a state of mind and being that is linked to the experience of traveling.
That experience is different every time we do it.
Even if you visit the same place over and over again, the process of getting there is rarely the same. You have new seatmates, new flight attendants, new connecting airports, new interactions.
But it also feels familiar. There is a universality to check in, bag check, security, gate lounges, boarding, and ultimately flying. We can expect a variation of a past experience every time we fly.
The problem is, we can never really predict those variations—and unpredictability can conjure up feelings of stress and discomfort. It’s part of the reason why the process of getting from Point A to Point B is often viewed as something to “endure.”
Let’s look at why air travel has a bad rap: Long security lines, flight delays, lost luggage, bad food, cramped quarters, annoying seatmates, and a pervasive feeling of boredom. All of these factors are compounded by an emotional quotient that gives even the calmest, most confident flyers a bit of an edge.
But what if it wasn’t something we had to suffer through? What if flying could be an enjoyable, meaningful, predictable part of the travel experience?
We can’t fix every element of the travel experience, but there is a lot our industry can do to make it better—and it starts before passengers even step foot in an airport.
“Personalization is central to the existence of the fourth place. To feel like a home away from home, our travel experiences need to be entirely centered around us and what we find comfortable and comforting”
Why personalization is central to the passenger experience
Imagine what flying could be: A personally curated experience that promotes rest, wellness, and maybe even a sense of play.
An intelligent search engine helps you find the best flight for your schedule and budget. The booking page is automatically populated with your personal travel information, logs your reward miles, and gives you customized offers tailored to you. Perhaps you’d like to order a special meal or drink, book your transport to or from the airport, or check out the connectivity and inflight entertainment options available on your flight so you know how to prepare. Your preferences are known by the system and content is being curated for you prior to boarding.
Your travel date arrives. The night before, you check in online, confirm your parking space at the airport (the one that lets you check in on your car while you travel), and make any last-minute adjustments to your inflight options. You arrive at the airport and get your bag outfitted with an intelligent tracking tag so that you can ‘watch’ it board, make the transfer, and track it as it is delivered to your final destination. While making your way to the gate using indoor wayfinding, you get a coupon for a coffee at your favorite coffee shop. It’s funny—you were just thinking of getting a cappuccino.
Once on the plane, your seatback screen personally greets you and comes pre-loaded with recommendations based on your saved preferences and offers to resume the last episode you had to cut short on your last flight. Meanwhile, your in-seat experience is at your fingertips, allowing you to personalize the lighting, sound, IFE options, and inflight food and drink offers. You can schedule periodic reminders to meditate, do your stretches, or take your medication. The IFE system can monitor your inflight health to make sure you stay hydrated, get the required rest and arrive in optimal condition.
Did you forget your outlet adapter? Are you in the market for customized destination tours? Want to peruse the duty-free for a last-minute anniversary gift? Swipe through to your personalized shopping and destination discovery tools—then have your purchases delivered to your arrival gate, hotel room, or home.
Finally, you’ve landed. If you’re traveling internationally, you have the option of using self-serve customs stalls outfitted with passport scanners and biometric readers to expedite your passage that sync with the biometric authentication and travel information you did while still on the plane. Your bag, meanwhile, leaves the airport separately which you still have visibility to and meets you at your final destination.
This all sounds great—but what happens when there’s a flight delay or cancellation, bad weather, a last-minute gate change, or some other kind of problem?
In uncertain moments, proactive communication is key. A companion app can alert you to changes to your flight and, if required, offer you automated rebooking options and a quick line to a customer service representative who can further assist by phone, text, or private message. If you’re already in transit, the personalized IFE system can help you find your new gate, coordinate a new connection, and modify or make new bookings.
At home in the fourth place
This picture of the future of passenger air travel isn’t that far off; in fact, some of these features might already feel familiar. The challenge to airlines and airports is to get synchronized so that the passenger experience can be more deeply personalized.
That’s because personalization is central to the existence of the fourth place. To feel like a home away from home, our travel experiences need to be entirely centered around us and what we find comfortable and comforting. Ten years ago, the fourth space would have necessarily been a fixed location. How else could we have possibly provided a personalized experience?
But mobile technology and our growing adoption of it means the fourth place is wherever we are. Better yet, our mobile, connected world can adapt as our preferences shift and evolve. In an era where more people are traveling than ever before, the possibilities are limitless—and that’s the true beauty, and promise, of travel as the fourth place.