Mary Gostelow goes to Skift’s first international forum on the future of travel
Skift’s first Europe Forum took place on Wednesday 4 April 2017. New York-based Skift, founded in 2012, has become the largest, and most important, intelligence platform in travel, thanks to its strong team, led by Co-Founders Rafat Ali, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief, Jason Clampet. Skift has held highly successful forums in its home-town, but this is the first time it has ventured internationally.
The venue was London’s Tobacco Dock, a good 15 minutes’ walk south-east of the Tower of London. Tobacco Dock is a brick building, used when it was put up in 1811 for storing imported tobacco. Today it is a significant venue centre, holding up to 5000 at any one time.
Skift’s Europe Forum attracted over 400 intrepid hospitality and technology professionals, all eager to hear about the Future of Travel. The full-day event, from 8.45am sharp, was click-clock organised. There were, in lightning succession, 15- or 20-minute highly professional presentations, no spaces in between other than for first-class food and drink, and, thankfully, no questions and answers. Well done to Rafat Ali and his colleagues, recognisable by their buttercup yellow socks. They had rehearsed content, to absolute professional level, with no paper notes and no autocues.
I would have to say, at the end of the day, that the main messages that came out were, unsurprisingly, constant and unexpected change in the entire fields of travel and tourism, and hospitality – and the need for even more attention to the customer. Let me give you some examples. Bruno Chauvat, Co-founder and CEO of Travelsify, owner of MoodMatch, pointed out that hotels’ websites all too often stress beautiful rooms and other facilities – but what consumers want to know is not that, but experiences. Today’s travellers also want trust. This is the new guarantee in travel. Trust requires transparency and explanation. One hint that came up on several occasions is to make use of online virtual assistants (VAs) as communicators. If you do not you might well even lose business.
Lonely Planet CEO Daniel Houghton said travel is something you do not want to mess up, you do not want a bad hotel, a bad meal, a boring tour, and getting it right is in the details. Another speaker, Hugo Burge, CEO of the Momondo Group – stressing the fact that metasearch offers transparency – said go for emotional engagement. As it happened, that emotional connection was reiterated by Steve Hafner, Co-Founder and CEO of the mighty Kayak. Yes big players were here, including Expedia and TripAdvisor, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities for Jordan and even both founders of Mr&Mrs Smith, Tamara Heber-Percy and James Lohan. Far more impactful on the stage were, separately, IHG CEO Richard Solomons and – the only presenter wearing a tie – Gerald Lawless, Chairman of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). Other hoteliers, in the audience, included Jumeirah’s branding expert, representatives associated with the Citizen M and the Dorchester Collection, and The Set boss Georgi Akirov, who had flown in specially from Tel Aviv.
There was admittedly no health or wellness in the action-packed programme. Restaurants, however, were important – and everyone associated with luxury hotels and resorts should take note. One panel included Ben Liebmann, COO and Partner of Noma & Overture Holdings. Everyone involved in the hotel sector should take food more seriously he said (food is vitally important for millennials, who care about what they eat and where). He described Noma’s next pop-up restaurant, in La Playa, Mexico, where 90 Noma culinarians and servers will decamp temporarily from their Copenhagen base. Tickets of course sold out in days, with 90% of the fortunate purchasers flying into Mexico specially.
Getting the message out is a challenge, but Whalar’s Co-Founder and CEO Neil Waller described how its structure allows such an entity as Dubai Tourism to be in touch with specific influencers whose message is put out through a multitude of social media to reach millions at a mere cost of 6¢ per engagement. It did seem that luxury is forever moving. Another riveting speaker was the bearded, shawl-wrapped Claus Sendlinger, founder of Design Hotels (and being 75% owned by Marriott is highly advantageous for his business, he admitted). The Burning Man movement has awakened the need for individualism and he believes there will be gatherings of travellers with similar ideologies. He now lives on Ibiza at the first Design farm, La Granja, selling bedrooms to those who want to be temporary friends of farmers.
The Chinese effect came up continually. Skyscanner co-founder/CEO Gareth Williams said they are the leaders, and will be the first to move on from credit cards to the next stage of payment. On customer service, surprisingly he said successful Chinese companies think first about the customer, and, next, how can this lead to more money? The Chinese are getting used to fantastic service, and right now. No wait for them. Although artificial intelligence (AI) and the big-tech-picture were the goals of the Skift team, it was two young Asian speakers who stood out. Shanghai-based Troy Liu discovered airmiles and free travel when at UCLA in California: back home, 3 years ago he started Mileslife, now a partner of Europe’s massive Miles & More, offering entry to hotels, restaurants and other travel sectors worldwide
Almost at the end of the action-packed day, Acacia Leroy, undoubtedly on her way to be a top leader either in her native Indonesia or her chosen base, Singapore. Now APAC Trend Strategist for TrendWatching, she has an impressive background, from philanthropy in education with Mission: We Care! through to studies at the University of London and the National University of Singapore, plus a three-month stint with Ogilvy & Mather. Here at Skift, she cavorted on stilt-like shoes as she pointed out that whereas no-one in the audience admitted they would wait 12 minutes for their Uber vehicle to arrive, so the hospitality world has to be quick, to take advantage of the anticipated $422bn annual spend by Chinese travelling overseas in 2020. Her secrets? Get into the life-streaming economy as soon as you can, be aware of the need for a good deal, and think differently, say by MyBump, when it comes to communication. I am just so sorry I had not been able to take part in the pre-Forum evening cocktail, at London’s City Hall, and I could not stay for the postcript cocktail. But my day, from 8.45am until 5.30pm, never had a really weak moment. Well done Skift. For those interested, the next Skift Forum is in New York, 26-27 September 2017.