Three Themes From Skift Global Forum NYC 2018

Takeaways from the travel industry's biggest annual event.

Skift’s fifth annual Global Forum NYC wrapped up last week, once again bringing the best and brightest of Travel & Tourism, where leaders from some of the most notable brands in the industry came to convene at the lavish Jazz at Lincoln Center, including Hyatt, Uber, Airbnb, Delta, American Airlines, Four Seasons, to name a few, along with outside players like Google and Hermes. They all sat down on stage to tackle tough questions and share their thoughts on the future and evolution of the industry. This year saw an impressive 550+ companies from over 43 countries over the course of the two-day forum. Below is my take on the three most prominent and underlying themes of this year’s show:

“Technology is our lifeblood.”

At Olson 1to1, we believe that technology truly is the great enabler. We’re not alone; in fact, investment in technology was often cited as one of the key pillars by industry speakers throughout this year’s Skift Global Forum. Whether it’s Carnival’s ambitious Ocean Medallion, through which a wearable device connected to the internet of things unlocks an endless array of seamless experiences on board, or Delta’s announcement of its first – as well as the nation’s – biometric terminal in Atlanta, where facial recognition will alleviate the pinch point of waiting in lines, technology improves operations and enhances experiences. Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta (and who’s quoted above), even boasted in response to a question regarding their outage the week prior, saying the downtime was only 26 minutes and that an isolated network device went down. “So it was a physical issue, not a system issue,” said Bastian. He went on to make the case (convincingly) that, due to improvements in operations and infrastructure enhancements, Delta saw a profit of $5bn YOY, this despite a $2bn incremental fuel cost increase over the same period. Some say talk is cheap. Jet fuel sure isn’t. Key takeaway: technology is improving travel, both operationally and experientially. Brands investing in future technology today will be the winners of tomorrow, with or without immediate returns.

But technology itself is a means, not an end.

Eye rolls aside, it’s true. Great technology is invisible and intuitive and poor technology leads to a course in anger management. Another constant theme that permeated this year’s Forum was that connecting with passengers, explorers, guests and travelers on a more human level is critical to the overall customer experience, and fundamental to building brand love and fostering loyalty. In fact, Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of Skift kicked off the Forum touching on this idea when he revealed his eight tenents on the “Post Experience Economy: Travel in the Age of Sameness,” the first of which is to focus on the human elements of travel. He wasn’t alone. Hyatt CEO, Mark Hoplamazian, when asked about how he is positioning his company in the wake of Starwood joining Marriott, answered that part of his strategy is to “not scale into all segments.” He also emphasized the need to remain “hyper relevant” and focus on guests, adding, “I’m happy to prove analysts wrong that the only thing that matters in this industry is scale.” JetBlue COO Joanna Geraghty unapologetically and squarely planted this notion on the jaw when she said that the raison d’etre of JetBlue’s existence was to “bring humanity back to air travel” when it was born in 2000, later touting that “people are mentioned by name when giving reviews. “Nowhere does that happen with airlines.” Good point. Key takeway: travel brands that consistently deliver experiences that connect on a human level will build more loyalty and create more brand advocates than anything technology alone can do.

Welcome to the Post-Experience Economy.

Brands everywhere are marketing experiences instead of products, leveraging lifestyle and millennial-style maven-ness to associate themselves with something beyond, something aspirational. Often times this approach is flawed or too thin, especially when your core offering or services aren’t delivering. Travel and hospitality brands in particular are increasingly needing to differentiate themselves in an industry that has always been about experiences. For Geetika Agrawal, it’s about elevating travel through the act of creation. She is CEO of VAWAA, a curated marketplace where you can book immersive, one-on-one apprenticeships master artists and craftsmen in remote locations around the world. Geetika argues that “once in a lifetime” should be replaced with “lifelong,” and that “consume” pivot to “create.” Hyatt, too, is seeking to elevate its experiences through focusing its brand purpose on mindfulness, shifting its vision from a place to stay to fulfillment and wellbeing. They’ve even hired a Chief Wellness Officer, and recently launched FIND, a selection of curated experiences focused on food, drink, relaxation and exploration, allowing World of Hyatt members to earn and redeem points during and outside of hotel stays. Key takeaway: in the post-experience economy, the most successful brands – travel or otherwise – will  push the boundaries of innovation to answer the question, “how are we different?” that both elevate but also enhance their core products.