The Travel Tribe has spoken: Who owns the future of travel?

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I recently attended one of the largest travel conferences in the US – a few thousand people representing the biggest names in global travel, including the CEOs and Presidents of TripAdvisor, Google, Skyscanner, Airbnb, Expedia, Virgin Galactic and Booking.com.

As with most things in hospitality, it's a relaxed environment where people are free to speak their mind (as opposed to read corporate statements) and therefore a good opportunity to know what’s really on the horizon for the travel industry - directly from those with the ability to drive it. Because the travel industry is the largest and most digitally driven industry in the world, this usually has a knock-on effect to other industries. So, we go and we listen hard.

Flights, hotels and car bookings have already been digitally transformed; experiences are next. However, the decision-making dynamics are completely different, which is why the larger Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and digital players have been struggling to crack the next potential $150bn market. This market, like many, has been propelled exponentially by the growth of Instagram. People love to show off experiences, encouraging envy and then, inevitably, action.

Travel giants

This has paved the way for the next wave of potential travel digital giants like GetYourGuide and Klook.

When you factor in the SoftBank $100bn pot of funding behind them, we’ll soon be seeing how these new kids are cracking the golden nut that has eluded previous travel giants. Very simply, they worked out that the discovery process for experiences is very different to hotels. Hotel choice is dependent on depth of supply, whereas experiences are not. As Airbnb attest, it's the curation of inventory that is key. You don’t want any old experience with your hard-earned week or two holiday a year – you want the best experience. What also makes sense is the shift of booking experiences from offline to online, and these new guys reckon there’s 20% incremental bookings to be made by getting your experience on a digital platform.

We also heard from Expedia, who confirm what the communications industry has been trying to puzzle out for years. In our industry we’re obsessed with consumer funnels, working out how to pour consumers into top of funnel and squeezing them through to lower funnel conversion. This way of ‘processing people’ as if humans are some piece of logical machinery, simply doesn't apply to the travel industry, with an average lead process of 45 days and 140 sites used for planning. We simply can't speak to people if you’re not watching and learning from their behaviour online, but sometimes watching them is like trying to track atoms bouncing around in their own universe.

I heard another way to express this: there is no consumer funnel anymore – just a SPEAR used at any given moment. We know it’s paramount to understand, segment and target audiences, and we use great AI-driven tools to help and augment with 1st party data to assist with this. This ensures we build a brand and its meaning for the right people who ideally engage and transact in the right way with the right products and services for targeted and sustainable growth. But in addition to this fishing (or spearing), exactly where the fish are has always been pivotal to conversion.

We work with a company called Sojern to track movement and behaviour on travel sites, and can see when and where engagement is happening around individual brands - whether an airline, destination, cruise-liner or hotel. We can then dovetail a targeted audience approach, converting those most interested at a pivotal time.

To seek, to find

All this is happening at the same time that Google – which owns the top of the funnel in search (and therefore the top of much of the world) – is driving its own travel products, competing directly with the OTAs and metasearch engines. They see Google flights and accommodation now visible (and in a highly visual way) in the left-hand column traditionally used for copy-only organic search links. Google are accused of crossing and blurring the line between a great search experience and a gatekeeper that gives preferential placement to its own vertical services, and hence is now subject to various EU antitrust suits.

As a result we heard from the biggest name in travel – Glenn Fogel CEO of Booking.com – who, having built a business with Google, has become less dependent on search and now needs to build the best brand around connected travel. Hotel bookings are one thing, but to be known as first point of call for all travel needs – hotels, flights, cars, restaurants and activities is the goal. To do that requires a brand as strong as an ox to expand across verticals. It also requires great personality, and it appears Glenn, as the most powerful man in travel, has bags of it. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Richard Branson’s book and establishing a truly authentic and human brand stemming right from the top personality may help?

So, at the end of the year in marketing, as with all things, what comes around goes around. Especially at the end of a decade where digital almost factored the human completely out of the process. In travel, it’s called ‘hospitality’ for a reason. It's about real human interaction and if you lose that, as any hotel General Manager knows, you’ll lose your customers. I was greeted by a robot once at a check-in desk. A real one with a face. Novel, but I really didn’t like it. Smartphone check-in is great, avoiding queues and an unnecessary inefficient process, but please don’t try to replicate a human at front desk. It’s just not on.

Seeing the digital landscape mature in travel over the last decade, and helping to drive some of its innovation, we use digital tools to enable the interaction between brand and consumer, not reduce it. The only thing we reduce is inefficiency and barriers to a great experience. And a great experience, whatever your industry, is all about knowing your audience inside out, responding to and pre-empting their needs. This is what the greatest human beings in hospitality do, and they’re the ones you remember as probably delivering some of the best experiences ever had. Perhaps another leaf for us all can be taken from the great hospitality playbook?

At the end of the day and the decade, it’s still all about building a brand. Knowing, caring and responding to your audience and not relying on anything or anybody else. Ensuring your brand is communicated in a human way with bags of personality and emotion that humans actually respond to. There’s no shortcuts or digital free rides anymore. Yes, we all now use the power platforms and AI-driven tools to help us, but we avoid the fundamentals of brand and audience building at our own peril. And if you don’t know them, hire someone who does.

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