Three Themes From Skift Global Forum NYC 2017

Takeaways from the travel industry's biggest annual event.

Skift’s fourth annual Global Forum NYC wrapped up late last month, touting Travel & Tourism’s heaviest of hitters at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a venue befitting the pedigree of the keynote speakers, attendees and organizations represented at the New York event. As the forum is fast becoming one of the most prominent platforms in travel, from innovation and research to reporting and insights, it’s no doubt that it’s being dubbed the “TED of travel.” C-suite executives from some of the most notable brands in the industry, including Hilton, Wyndham, Delta, Airbnb, Expedia, TripAdvisor, and Carnival—there were even reported sightings of the Trivago guy (ok, not really)—walked the proverbial plank across the empty stage, save for two lonely chairs, for one-on-one interviews with Skifters. Over the course of the two-day forum, an impressive 550+ attendees from over 1,000 companies, representing some 33 countries, descended on Midtown Manhattan to listen, learn, share and promote some of the defining trends emerging from all sectors of the travel industry. Below is my take on the three prominent and underlying themes of this year’s show:

Feeling “permanxious”?

You might be. Terrorism, neo-isolationism, geopolitical tension, culture wars, climate change—whether it’s early-morning policy by tweet or record-breaking hurricanes and the unrelenting devastation that ensues, most of us are living in a near-constant state of anxiety, whether we realize it or not. Skift founder and CEO Rafat Ali is calling this new reality the “State of Permanxiety,” adding that it is “exacerbated by hyper-connected citizens using social platforms to create a state of permanent frenzy.” Travel, Skift argues, is where these “permanxieties” show up “in a concentrated form.” Where they converge and become the most tangible, felt and experienced. The irony of this is that traditionally travel, in its largest and most all-encompassing capacity, has been marketed to consumers as the ultimate anxiety salve, promising soft white beaches, foreign shores, gentle breezes and remote locales. Can travel as a collective rise to the occasion to give solace to the “State of Permanxiety,” despite being the vehicle through which these very anxieties manifest? Can it be the ultimate uniter when the world seems more divided than ever? Skift believes that it can. And urges it to, by saying, “Travel is the largest industry in the world. Let’s start acting like it.”

Hold the friction, please.

What would a marketing blog post be without mentioning technology? Exactly. I’d be equally remiss not to mention it as the underlying fabric lining virtually every panel discussion, interview and presentation at Skift Forum 2017. Its ubiquity makes sense, however. To once again quote Rafat Ali, “[Travel] is where the largest consumer and tech trends first meet and are quickly tested.” And he’s right. It’s a deep and daunting abyss, ranging from IoT to artificial intelligence that focuses on hotel “DNA” vs. consumer psychology. Its collective aspiration is to remove as much friction as possible throughout all phases of the travel cycle. Much of it is in play already or currently being tested: connected rooms, butler service by voice recognition, keyless entry (and therefore no check-in), facial recognition, even wearables that allow you explore, eat, browse, shop and book whatever you want while on vacation (think cruise ship or amusement park). In other words, in the travel industry, we’re on the precipice of a digital ecosystem that will not only drive better guest experiences, but create more loyalty (more on that below). Exciting, right? Yes, but (and there’s a “but” here) as Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group articulated, as an organization, “You can’t just do technology for technology’s sake. What problem are you solving for?” True that, Keith.

Loyalty is the new battleground.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Arne Sorenson’s, president and CEO of Marriott International, who said: “Loyalty is the new battleground.” Are we somewhat partial? Perhaps. As a Forrester-ranked Leader in loyalty and CRM solutions, we at Olson 1to1 could arguably turn any conversation into one about loyalty—we love it and live it. But at Skift Forum 2017, loyalty truly was an unspoken theme at this year’s show. And it makes sense—the oldest and longest-standing loyalty programs were born out of the travel industry, starting with airlines and soon followed by hotel and hospitality organizations. And it’s no coincidence that some of the most passionate and fervent loyalty members belong to them (and for some, it’s even passed down from generation to generation). The landscape, however, is a little more complex than it was in 1981, the programs not as rich, the structures not quite the same. Today’s loyalty focal point is centered less on the programmatic, and more on the outcome—program and brand loyalty. That outcome is dependent on so many things: the experience, the rewards, the consistency and the emotional drivers that make one person a loyal Delta flyer or a World of Hyatt member. And much of that rides on the inputs and data that these brands capture. As Hilton president and CEO Christopher Nassetta put it on day one of Skift Forum NYC, “We’re all trying to build loyalty and relationships. The more we can have direct relationships, the better,” he said, quite simply making the case on the irrefutability of the value and purpose of a loyalty program, from an organizational perspective. From OTAs, lodging and hotels to airlines and tourism boards, we’re all being fought over as travelers, dwellers, flyers and experiencers—our preferences, transactions, history and future plans are the spoils. As Wyndham Hotel Group’s Geoff Ballotti put it, “Loyalty has never mattered more.” We happen to agree.