Dimensions of the Digital Divide

By Glenn Withiam, Director of Publications, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | June 10, 2011

We usually think of the digital divide as the line between the technology “haves” and the “have nots.” A set of studies from the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research has unearthed an additional set of dimensions involving people who have technology, but use it in different ways, starting with “users” versus “non-users.”
 
Let’s start with a look at fast-casual restaurant carryout orders. A study of 470 Internet users by Cornell professor Sheryl Kimes found that about half ordered food using a restaurant’s website, mobile app or text message. Those who placed an electronic order indicated that confidence in order accuracy, convenience, and ease of ordering and delivery are important factors.

Despite this, a substantial number of participants indicated that they won’t use technology to order food because they prefer a personal connection. Overall, the telephone remains the top channel for food ordering.

On the hotel side, a study of 2,800 travelers (“How Travelers Use Online and Social Media to Make Hotel-choice Decisions” by Laura McCarthy, Debra Stock, and Rohit Verma), found a digital divide between business and leisure travelers in terms of how they gather information about hotels. Business travelers tended to rely on recommendations from their company, but use search engines and online travel agents to work out travel details and bookings. In contrast, leisure travelers conduct a considerable search of social media sites and online travel agents and search engines. Yet, the number-one source for travel information is via friends and family.
 
This presents another kind of digital divide: customers do use the Internet for information gathering, but they still rely heavily on old-fashioned word-of-mouth. With the basic information and recommendations in hand, leisure travelers are more likely to turn to electronic sources for prices and availabilities. Finally, late in the process, these travelers were likely to book their room through the brand website or an OTA.
 
What’s more, additional research points to a demographic digital divide. The Kimes report on electronic food ordering revealed that technology users tended to be younger than non-users, and also frequent restaurants more often. But there’s more. Speaking at the Cornell Hospitality Research Summit last fall, Chris Klauda, vice president of quality services for D.K. Shifflet & Associates, outlined the dimensions of the demographic digital divide. The challenge begins with the fact that online sampling covers “only” about 75 percent of U.S. households. That’s a lot of people, but it’s important to look at the 25 percent who are left out of Internet studies.
 
D.K. Shifflet studied two groups of consumers: one group of nearly 52,000 people received a monthly mail survey; the other group of just over 23,000 consumers filled out a monthly Internet questionnaire. Findings revealed that Internet-only market research studies under-represent two important groups: business travelers and households with incomes of more than $50,000 (since a heavier proportion of younger, tech-savvy travelers responding to the Internet survey haven’t yet hit their peak earning potential).
 
If your main market segment is leisure travelers with household incomes of under $50,000 (which is a valuable market) you may be able to rely on consumer data from Internet sources. But move carefully with regard to business and upscale travelers. A blend of electronic and traditional market research is probably the best approach. While these studies present a snapshot in time, we know that the general trend pushes toward the increasing use of the Internet and social media. However, we should not let our enthusiasm for electronic sources cause us to overlook the many dimensions of the digital divide, whether that’s for users versus non-users or business travelers versus leisure travelers. In short, don’t disconnect your landline, just yet. 

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