Daniel Levine still had one foot in the car at the end of his very first Uber ride, when his cell phone buzzed.
It was a message from Uber asking him to rate the driver.
Levine, the executive director of New York-based Avant-Guide Institute, looked at the driver and told him to expect a five-star rating.
Without missing a beat, the driver looked back and said: "You were great too; I'm giving you five stars."
"We are living at a time when everybody and everything is being rated by everybody else," Levine says of the recent experience and its broader message.
Our ratings-driven culture is one of five trends identified by Levine that's changing the way people travel and work in 2016. And it's a trend that will have a significant impact on the average traveler.
"The bottom-line is it's going to make customer service better for everybody, because everybody has to raise their game," said the well-known trends expert, who spoke at a recent travel industry conference.
"There is this culture of transparency," he continued. "It used to be that the service provider was the only one giving you information, and now, especially in travel and tourism, people are getting information from other travelers."
Improved customer service and increased transparency are merely two of the trend's obvious impacts. Because the ratings culture lives and dies on social media, it has inspired other subtle, or not so subtle, changes as well.
Take for instance the way restaurants serve food.
The next time you eat out, whether it's fine dining or casual fare, take a closer look at your meal.
"Restaurants and chefs are very consciously plating foods to be camera-worthy," Levine explains. "They know people are taking pictures of food all the time now, and they want to encourage that, because it's free publicity. So more and more we are seeing food that is Instagram-worthy."
Whether an Instagram-worthy meal translates into a better tasting dish remains an open question. But the point is, the ratings game 2.0 has not been lost on restaurants and chefs. (Remember the old days, when there was merely a Zagat or Michelin Guide?)
Businesses these days know that it's best not to let customers be talking about you, (or rating you,) behind your back, says Levine. The best way to avoid such a scenario is to become part of the online conversation. Thus the move toward more photo-ready food, moments and memories.
Hotels are also jumping on the bandwagon, deliberately designing spaces throughout their properties that are social media ready.
"Hotels are getting more sophisticated, they're creating more interesting things that people want to take pictures of," says Levine. "The (Fairmont) Royal York, in Toronto, has beehives on its roof for honey, and now they're inviting guests up and encouraging them to take photos...Hotels are creating cool experiences that people want to share with visuals."
Here are some of the other 2016 trends Levine identified.
Make it Simple
Remember when online travel and booking platforms proliferated, and it seemed like the traditional travel agent would go the way of the dodo?
Turns out, travel agents have survived such an untimely demise, and are now fully rebounding.
"We did see initially, a paring down in the number of travel agents, but what's interesting is now we're seeing this resurgence," Levine explained.
The recovery of the travel agent profession has a great deal to do with the vast amounts of information available to travelers, at a time when our lives are busier than ever.
"The problem with online is that there's too much information, people don't want to sit for days, and so they need a curator," Levine continued. "You want someone who has expertise, who can understand you and what you want."
Enter the 2016 version of a travel agent. Many have changed their business model. It used to be that most, if not all agents, were paid on commission, therefore finding the lowest price wasn't necessarily the aim of the agent.
Now, says Levine, more and more agents have shifted to a model in which they are charging for their services. And at the same time, those that are thriving, are the agents who offer particular expertise, specialize in a specific area or are focused on a certain travel concept.
"Travel agents are experts who are helping people out," Levine said. "And some things are still hard to find online. For example, if you wanted to rent a house in Tuscany for a week, it's not the easiest thing to do online, but you can find an agent who specializes in Tuscany and knows all about the best houses available."
Customization and Personalization
Although not necessarily new this year, the trend of customization and personalization of travel is one that is snowballing, says Levine.
"It keeps getting bigger and more intense, and it's working hand in hand with technology," he says.
Customers are being trained by companies such as Starbucks, to expect customization in every experience. As a result, truly unique experiences are the new luxury.
"When everybody can afford to have the same car in their driveway, it becomes about unique experiences, especially on the high end," Levine said. "And pretty much in every industry, luxury leads and then the masses follow. Rich people want unique stuff, and underlying that is the idea of braggability."
Pictrip, a company that just launched in January, epitomizes the ever expanding personalization and customization trend.
The U.K.-based startup pairs travelers with local photographers in 18 destinations around the world, in order to capture their journeys through the eye of a professional. The process involves organizing routes through cities based on a traveler's unique needs and requests - whether it be a romantic getaway, family holiday, proposal or girlfriend's getaway.
"We are often approached by clients looking for routes that are off the beaten track," said Pictrip's Aaron Burchett. "Often clients ask that we find an area of the city that is little known to tourists and that gives them exclusivity when discussing where they visited when they go back home. It's probably more prevalent with our service than others because they will be showcasing their travels via photography and don't want the standard pictures in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel tower."
We live in an experience-oriented society now. And people want to be able to share stories. But not just any stories. They want meaningful experiences, said Levine.
"People want to learn stuff and become mini-connoisseurs and then share that knowledge," Levine explained. "People are going on vacations to experience one particular thing. There are a couple a Caribbean islands that are becoming well known for chocolate, where you go and see how pods grow on trees, how a chocolate bean is made into a bar...It used to be a few years ago, people would travel around the U.S. visiting all of the baseball parks. This trend is the next level after that."
Technology has created a world in which people are more connected then ever. But at the same time, are we truly connected, or are those connections merely virtual relationships that don't really exist offline?
As people grapple with this question, they are increasingly seeking true connections when traveling.
"People are looking to make connections with people they are traveling with, with people who live in the places where they're going, and with the companies and service providers who they do business with," Levine said. "We're in a very social place and time right now."
One of the most significant examples Levine pointed to when it comes to this last trend is the massive, and continually growing popularity of Airbnb. The home-sharing platform has spread like wildfire around the globe, even recently breaking into the Cuban market.
And the platform's popularity among travelers is not just about saving money.
"There have been numerous studies showing that one of the major reasons people chose Airbnb over a hotel is not just because it is cheaper, but because it helps foster connections," said Levine. "It puts you right into a middle of a town, you make a connection with the hosts and that host may set you up with his or her friends, or point out good cafes."
Airbnb is merely the best known example of the last trend identified by Levine. Countless smaller businesses have since rushed in to capitalize on travelers' desires to make meaningful connections, including such newcomers as Antlos, Shiroube and TalkTalkBnb.
Antlos, which launched in June 2015, is an online peer-to-peer platform enabling travelers to book authentic boat vacations directly from local captains or skippers. The captains on the platform are primarily private boat owners seeking to share their experiences at sea.
All rentals made via Antlos involve sailing with the captain, allowing travelers to experience a Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise with a true local. More than 300 captains have listed their boats on the site to date, says Lauren Schmitt, the company's Digital Marketing Manager.
Shiroube meanwhile is a micro tour guide marketplace covering 3,000 cities worldwide. The site specializes in connecting travelers with local residents who serve as inexpensive guides, allowing visitors to get to know a city or town's local scenes, and activities.
"On Shiroube, you hire actual local people for your travel needs," says Shiroube founder and CEO Tatsuo Sato. "For example, you can ask a local art student in Paris to be a tour guide for your stay. Since the student knows truly local tastes and life, your stay is going to be much more unique and fun."
Another fascinating and unique variation of this proliferating trend is offered by TalkTalkBnb. Launched in March 2015, TalkTalkBnb's goal is to connect travelers with hosts who want to learn a second language. The platform allows travelers to cut expenses by providing free boarding in a foreign country in exchange for the traveler teaching their native language to whomever they stay with.
"TalkTalkBnb allows people to be more than just tourists and only sightsee," said Daphne Duong, who represents the startup. "They're able to gain a much more immersive experience through teaching the host their native language. By using language as a tool, travelers and hosts share stories, cultures, food, and more...strong cross-cultural relationships are built and fostered."
One last point worth noting, if you think the trends Levine outlined are just fleeting or temporary changes in the travel industry, think again.
It is merely the beginning.
"These are trends that will be with us for the rest of our careers," Levine said. "Where will these trends be in five years? They will be more intense. Trends have inertia. When they start going, it's hard to stop them. If these trends were only flashes in the pan, they wouldn't be trends; they would be fads."