About 800 attendees gathered at the second Skift Global Travel Forum 2015 in Brooklyn to listen to 37 top strategists, technologists, and marketers talk about the future of the global travel industry. Skift’s founder, Rafat Ali, opened the event and vowed to the audience that it was indeed a different kind of conference, focused on real content, debate and issues, not simply networking and “navel gazing”.
Much attention was focused on “the fault lines” forming in one of the world’s largest sectors brought on by new entrants, new technology vs. the status quo. Another prominent theme was embracing social media to open up possibilities to speak to a much larger audience than existing marketing platforms allow, tapping into the storytelling and social aspect of travel experience. Notably the audience and speakers were an interesting mix representing the focus pillars Skift proclaims to future proof businesses: marketing, technology, user experience and design.
Jeremy Jauncey, a serial entrepreneur and a founder of Beautiful Destinations, a company with the largest (7 million followers) community on Instagram talked about visuals as the new language of engagement for consumers. With over 400 million users per month sharing over 80 million images daily and with 353 million pieces of content relating to travel, it seems Jeremy and team believe that Instagram is the new silver bullet for destinations. Ironically Travel industry has been the second slowest industry after financial services to adopt Instagram. Jauncey emphasized that creating real, engaging and social vs. advertising content, which shows a unique perspective of a destination or travel experience is the key behind success on Instagram.
Similarly, Issam Kazzim, CEO of Visit Dubai focused on creating and promoting experiential, personalized and local travel experiences through #MyDubai hashtag campaign which invited residents to build a “biography of the city” while building a community around the brand. 20 months after the launch of #MyDubai, the hashtag has been used 9.78 million times on Instagram and 632,000 times on Twitter.
More support to the concept of using locals as the co-marketers of their city in social networks came from Fred Dixon at NYC&CO who created the #SeeYourCity hashtag for New York City and encouraged locals to explore their city like a tourist and inspired them to share their experiences on social media. #ThisIsNewYorkCity was another hashtag created for visitors to share cool local experiences.
On a related topic of sharing travel experiences, Chris Collins, co-founder of Zero Point Zero Production emphasized the importance of storytelling surrounding travel and how central is someone’s point of view on a place in shaping new traveler’s idea and expectations about a destination.
While the use of social networks was a strong theme throughout the Forum, there were many other interesting insights.
Camilla Vasquez, discourse analyst and sociolinguist at the University of South Florida, addressed the topic of online reviews outlining that best management of negative reviews is viewing the written responses as opportunities not only to address the customer’s concern but to reinforce the brand. She warned against disparaging the writer of the original review and somewhat counterintuitively, outlined that reviews skew toward the positive, not negative and that bad reviews are better for the business than no reviews. She also mentioned that reviews do not carry equal weight and people tend to be more influenced by those perceived to be similar to themselves.
Josh Lesnick CMO at Wyndham Hotel Group explored a set of macro trends which make a strong case for servicing the economy hotel sector. There are currently 2 billion middle class people, expected to reach 4.9 billion in 15 years, with unlimited travel aspirations yet on limited budgets, and there is tremendous scope for innovation as loyalty programs aren’t working well for economy travelers.
Eric Pearson, CIO at IHG outlined that growth in China’s outbound travelers (currently 67 million to become 100 million in a few years) calls for micro-segmentation of guest demographics and that each brand at IHG targets a specific demographic. He further noted that demographics alone is not a true predictor of consumer intent and that it’s important to also focus on travel “occasions and needs.” He also observed the shift to mobile with 20% of IHG guests booking with mobile, and 30% of those bookings less than 24 hours before arrival. This shift to mobile offers expanded opportunities to customize guest experience and the rise in on-demand booking makes real time pricing and availability essential to conversions.
The Skift Global Travel Forum was held at the hip and trendy Duggal Greenhouse and while I heard many complain about the logistic challenges to get there, it was certainly a vibrant place to be. As the dust settles and the buzz fizzles out, it’s comforting to remember that beyond incremental innovations and various success tools, there is an inspirational experience of adventure and exploration that has always shaped and will continue to shape the core of the travel industry.