Skift is one of the premier resources for insider travel industry information. I attended the annual global forum this week which was virtual for the first time. It was an impressive lineup of speakers including major airline and hotel CEOs. This 3-day event was stocked with current industry news, technology roadmaps, and prognostications for travel’s rebound from the COVID pandemic. Here’s what I learned and you need to know.
These People Care
Crystal clear from the start was the passion Skift moderators and industry speakers bring to their jobs.
Travel isn’t only an industry. Yes, it’s goals include profits. Yet the people working towards those profits seek a stronger purpose. To provide the expertise and ability to assist others to experience the world’s wonders. All-the-while traveling themselves. And currently concerned the industry is suffering tragically.
Airline executives Joanna Geraghty (JetBlue) and Scott Kirby (United) were particularly candid about the current state of their airlines. And, of course, projected corporate confidence they’re well-positioned now and will thrive when travel roars back.
Laurie Garrett, a well-known author on emerging global epidemics, threw shade on a vaccine as the cure-all to our return to normal. Masks in her opinion are of utmost importance in driving infection rates lower.
Universal adoption of mask use and vaccinations when available is not foreseeable in the U.S. based on our divisive politics right now. Not the best outlook for our divided states short-term.
Sustained optimism for travel’s rebound was on display throughout the 3-days. For the day the world is widely vaccinated. Then travel is back in business like old times. That outlook appears misguided based on Laurie’s opinions.
Remote Is The New Black
Darren Murph, the Head of Remote for Gitlab, was bullish on worker’s new freedom to boost the travel industry. It’s not hard to see large numbers of workers moving around as able and increasing travel demand.
He explained Gitlab workers have been remote from company inception. Some employees are true digital nomads while others don’t travel much at all.
That freedom to choose is what’s important. It provides lifestyle options. As not everyone wants to live out of an RV year-round.
Gitlab is impressively transparent regarding their company policies. Full company guides are available on their website for all to glean knowledge from years of discovering best practices. These types of resources assist companies still adapting to the “new” normal.
Inclusion Is Gaining Momentum
There is no doubt travel is complicated and burdensome for those with certain disabilities. Based on Mobility Mojo’s website, 500 million people don’t travel because of uncertain accessibility.
That’s a lot of untapped market potential. And, the travel industry is taking action by using new platforms like Mobility Mojo.
Another common theme throughout the forum was a renewed focus on the customer.
Hyatt stated their attention is on people’s problems. First, they need to know what those problems entail. That’s where big data comes in.
Travel companies are looking to better understand their data on customer preferences/purchases. To create more value and get customers coming back for more.
A number of new hotel specific apps were announced featuring more robust functionalities with the customer experience in mind. Most notably, QR codes have been given new life for touch-less check-in at hotels. More on this later.
Wyndham Hotels is working on its app to be as personal as possible.
The issue I see is the customer needs to be in control of how close this relationship gets. That will be a juggling act for travel companies. To balance the push for business. But not be too intrusive for information.
Also, if we are to become close buddies, you (travel company) best not sell my information to the highest bidder. What kind of friend does that?
Business Travel 2.0
Because business travel, in general, is very profitable, all eyes are on when that’s returning full-force. Large companies like Microsoft don’t anticipate it for 2 or 3 years if ever like it was.
The business world has become comfortable with zoom calls instead of intercontinental flights for a 2-hour meeting.
Many at the forum suggested there’s a business travel transformation going on. Less long-haul trips in the future. Smaller groups to travel with less emphasis on content sharing and more focused on in-person relationship building.
This makes a lot of sense. There’s already been a movement away from big group meetings from the likes of Amazon. What value is the company getting from all that resource time?
Instead, content is shared ahead of time and reviewed. The in-person team can focus on fine-tuning, action plans, and developing those important relationships to be effective.
The future of business travel is laser-focused on getting to know people. Putting our heads together for creative solutions. Technology will then disseminate the need-to-know content.
Tech was a hot topic at the forum. AI is evolving at a rapid pace. The digital transformation push is accelerating because of COVID.
How you pay as you travel will change. Companies like Amazon and Uber have essentially automated payment as a behind the scenes transaction. Expect airlines, hotels, and others to use their apps for similar customer experiences. Make paying as easy as possible.
In that vein, expect more payment options in the future. Global companies are seeking payment methods to be local/region focused. Depending on where you live, you’ll pay by credit card, QR code, or something else. One discussion was about changing our view of alternative payments. Simply remove the word alternate. They’re all payments. A great point.
What about customer data?
MGM Resorts is working with Medallia to uncover customer pain points contained within their data. MGM states the key is balancing tech and human welcoming. Contact-less doesn’t mean zero interaction. Think about it. More staff time to assist guests with a human touch and a welcoming smile. I like it.
MGM’s new check-in technology essentially eliminated the check-in queue at their Las Vegas resort. It was one of the biggest complaints from customers. MGM doesn’t want them standing in a queue. No one does! The casino wants them gambling. The customer wants the action. Win-win! Well, maybe. Good luck on that ace sir/ma’am/they!
MGM’s Prakash Ranjan along with Jeanne Jones of Aperity talked about using data to create better profiles on customers. To understand their transactions. Then gain insights for marketing and product development for the short-term and long-term.
The customer needs to provide a willingness to use their data to set the level of the relationship. Otherwise, it’s creepy.
Destination Marketing Evolution
Crowdriff works to enhance destination marketing. They spoke of a new focus on safety, local stories, and sustainability.
In order for travel to return with vigor, tourists will want to feel safe/comfortable. Marketing will be a big part of convincing them when it’s safe.
However, a major issue hovers over travel’s return.
Over-tourism was a big problem leading up to the beginning of this year. Certainly, aggressive destination marketing was partly to blame. A change in marketing strategy towards a local emphasis is a good sign for everyone.
Locals want the benefits of tourism revenue. But, not the traveling hoards running amok ruining the special nooks that make their spot on the planet special. Dubrovnik is a case-in-point.
Tourists want to understand local rules better. In speaking with tourists in my travels, they want to keep the place as good, if not better than they found it. Why? Because they want to come back and not see it tarnished.
Expect spending partners to increase within loyalty programs.
Amy Weinberg from Hyatt spoke to the need to increase loyalty currency options. Where you can spend your points not only for hotel stays or at properties.
What’s interesting is the potential to create more brand loyalty. Say you could use your points for a local restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. There are many intriguing directions this could evolve.
All You Can Eat
One of the most exciting carrots thrown around the forum was subscription models. Imagine a monthly or yearly fee to fly as much as you want? Or, as many hotel stays for a particular hotel brand.
JetBlue COO Joanna Geraghty discussed bringing back the “All You Can Jet” option. It’s not on the horizon yet. She stated their reservation system isn’t ready to make it happen without their customer service team getting crushed.
American Airlines tried an unlimited version of their AAirpass decades ago. While that particular strategy wasn’t continued for financial reasons and others, a refined strategy could work.
It will be interesting to see if any travel companies move on it.
Sebastien Bazin is the CEO of AccorHotels. He garnered a large number of positive chat comments during the forum.
He faced difficult questions and owned up to failures while showcasing a high degree of transparency. You can tell he’s tenacious but comes across as the fun uncle. He was a forum favorite.
No One Knows
The future of travel and when it returns is unknown. The suggested timelines vary from the most optimistic hoping for summer 2021 to some point in 2024.
What is known is China has rebounded fairly close to pre-pandemic levels.
Based on all that I heard over 3 days, what we will see is different markets returning at different times. And, most likely in different waves.
But, what that does mean is it will return. And that’s exciting.
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