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Travel in the Age of Permanxiety: Skift Event Recap

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I attended the Skift Global Forum in New York City on 26-27 September. While the idea of “travel in the age of permanxiety”, or increased worry about risks such as terrorism, violence, and natural disasters while traveling, was an overarching theme of the Forum, topics related to innovation and disruption also saw significant discussion.

Risk and renaissance

As traveller perceptions shift about which destinations are safe (with destinations such as Western Europe and the Caribbean seeing hits to their reputations as a result of terrorism and natural disasters, respectively), several speakers spoke about how travel companies and destinations should respond to crises and how reputations can be recovered in the future. President of PR firm Percepture, Rene Mack, for example, drew a strong contrast between companies with weak crisis PR strategies and those who responded strongly (Royal Caribbean International cruises, for example, which was the first to break the news of a fire on its ship over Memorial Day Weekend in 2013 and addressed the situation head-on). VP of Tourism at ProColombia Julian Guerrero Orozco had similar advice based on the country’s experience building Colombia as a tourism destination after years of being perceived as a dangerous destination. Similar to Percepture’s recommendation for travel companies to be proactive and direct in their disaster responses, Mr. Guerrero highlighted that their first major tourism campaign of their new tourism initiative was based around the slogan “the only risk is you’ll want to stay”. Rather than trying to sweep the country’s recent history under the rug, the campaign took on Colombia’s reputation directly. Euromonitor International estimates that inbound arrivals to Colombia increased 63% between 2012 and 2016, reflecting how successful ProColombia’s initiatives to boost tourism in the country have been.

A second topic related to travel in the age of permanxiety touched on by numerous speakers was how and when travel companies can and should express opinions on current political events. Many speakers at the event from across a range of industry sectors, including Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya and Marriott President & CEO Arne Sorenson have been outspoken critics of recent policies in the United States, particularly of the various iterations of the Trump administration’s travel ban. The consensus across most speakers was that travel companies can express their opinions, but should limit themselves to speaking on issues that conflict with their business and their brand identity, and resist the temptation to comment on every issue. Mr. Sorenson highlighted that Marriott speaks about political issues not just for guests, but primarily for the 750,000 people employed by the company. Per Mr. Sorenson, “it’s important for them to know where the company stands on issues that affect the company – things like the travel ban, the LGBBTQ community… so the company speaks about them in a way that’s consistent with the company.”

Innovation and its forms

Despite the climate of uncertainty for travellers, travel companies continue to pursue innovation at full-speed. Numerous speakers spoke about how their companies are prioritising innovation and designing new services and products. Chief Digital Officer of Lufthansa Dr. Christian Langer, for example, spoke about the unique challenges of disrupting and innovating as an airline. He cited the fact that passenger airlines are asset-intensive as a factor that shields the industry somewhat from unexpected disruption, though he acknowledge that they are facing challenges in other areas such as in airline maintenance. Further, one of the top factors travellers consider when choosing an airline is the airline’s safety record, making it difficult for airlines to take the kinds of operational risks that are common in other sectors. To address this, Lufthansa built an innovation lab in Berlin, separated both organisationally and geographically from its main operations in Frankfurt, to research new ideas without introducing them to the rest of the company before they are fully vetted.

A number of speakers also spoke about the new technologies on the horizon, and which have the best applications for travel companies. The Jordanian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Lina Annab and the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, Ernest Wooden, both indicated that Virtual/Augmented Reality is the technology they see has the most potential to disrupt destination technology. President and CEO of Expedia, Mark Okerstrom, identified the growth of personalisation and voice technology as developments to which he is paying particular attention; particularly with regards to how voice technology has the potential to change consumer habits and behaviours. Several speakers highlighted the potential for blockchain to be a disruptive force as well, in particular Bonnie Simi from Jet Blue Technology Ventures, who described blockchain now “as what the internet was in 1995”. Other speakers were more cautious regarding blockchain, including Mr. Okerstrom of Expedia, who acknowledged its potential, but also gave the opinion that the technology would need to be “either cheaper or better” before it could be a major disruptive force.

Looking ahead

While the travel industry may seem to face particular uncertainties in 2017, one constant throughout the event was the theme that change in the industry is inevitable and will continue to be so in the years ahead. Companies in the space as well as destinations will need to keep factors such as future-proofing destinations against shocks, how loyalty will evolve in an increasingly digital age, how to incorporate new technologies into existing strategies and products, and many others in mind in the years ahead. Successful companies will proactively prepare and pursue opportunities related to these spaces.

For more insights, please contact Amanda Bourlier at amanda.bourlier@euromonitor.com.

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