So Falls The World: Inside PhocusWright Europe 2019
By Simone Puorto , Travel Tech Journalist | Published Author | Consultant
SO FALLS THE WORLD: AN INTRODUCTION
- "Quamdiu stat Colisæus, stat et Roma
- Quando cadet Colisæus, cadet et Roma
- Quando cadet Roma, cadet et Mundus"
This famous epigram can be approximately translated with: "As long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome. When the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall. When Rome falls, so falls the World" and it refers to the Colossus Neronis, a sumptuous statue built for Emperor Nero. After Nero's death, the statue was moved next to the Amphitheatrum Flavium, better known as the Colosseum. In retrospect, the epigram's prevision turned out to be surprisingly accurate, as the statue, eventually, fell on the 4th century, just a few years before the final downfall of the Roman Empire. At its zenith, the surface of Rome was over 4 million km², a monolithic entity built around a central hub (Rome) connected to a myriad of interdependent, yet very diverse, regions, each one with its own cultures, habits, and mixed feelings toward the big Empire. And "mixed feelings towards big Empires" is exactly what you can feel in the air of the 2019 edition of PhocusWright Europe. Empires on the Edge, in fact, is the tagline welcoming attendees in the stunning venue of Beurs van Berlage, the famous former stock exchange building in the center of Amsterdam. After the opening speech, the event goes straight to "battle-mode", with some of travel's newest startups pitching their disruptive ideas: GuruWalk, Cruisewatch, Efectio Sleep, Nannybag, Klazz, Travel Ledger, Questo and Setoo share the Effectenbeurszaal room stage, followed by MediaAlpha, Radware/ShieldSquare, Exoticca and Zizoo.
Brand Loyalty Is The New Success Metric
20 minutes of caffeine recharge and networking, then breakout sessions start. Topics are well balanced amongst rooms, so there is virtually no risk of missing out something of interest. I, unsurprisingly, kept the proverbial walk on the geek side and opted for the Can AI Help Build Brand Loyalty?'s panel, moderated by Pim Van Den Nulff, Client' Partner at Criteo. "Brand loyalty is the new success metric for travel companies", opens up Edwin Hof, Digital Director of the TUI Group. "Unlike hotels, TUI really does not have its own loyalty program, but we collect data and ask feedback, and this helps us improving every part of the customer journey".
According to Hof, AI plays a crucial role in brand loyalty, going as far as saying that, "in a way, investing in AI is the best brand-awareness marketing strategy any travel company can get today". Nevertheless, "it will be hard to provide a really personalized experience until we get rid of obsolete asynchronous systems, unstructured and unorganized data", warns Ian Di Tullio, SVP Guest at Accor. Van Den Nulff shares similar opinions: "making data actionable and connecting the dots in the Customer Experience is, still, really difficult". But, luckily, we're at a turning point: "AI today is still quite cold", Di Tullio points out, "but, in the near future, we will see AI and humans working together more and more, rather than one against each other".
When Millennials Breed: Generation Alpha, AI And Brexit
I quickly move to the next session, Generation Alpha: How the World's Youngest Generation is Already Influencing Travel, presented by Expedia Group Media Solutions. According to EMS, 68% of families with Gen Alphas children opts for domestic travel, and they are more sensitive to price when compared to other travelers, factors that hotels trying to market this audience, should take these into consideration. After lunch, the action moves to the center stage. Lorraine Sileo, Senior VP, Research and Business Operations at Phocuswright introduces Dana Dunne, CEO at eDreams Odigeo for an intimate interview. The main focus of the interview is, again, AI. "We're in the very early days of AI personalization", Dunne says, "but our strength is that we're not competing against other OTAs, we're simply focusing on customers. That's why we invest in such sophisticated machine learning algorithms: to show to each customer exactly what he wants, in that particular moment". Then it's time for one of the hottest topics in Europe right now: Brexit. With the "Dead Ahead" roundtable, the tone of the day starts swinging from pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. Whatever side you stay on the argument, the underlying message of the round table is pretty clear, as I counted the word "uncertainty" pronounced over a dozen times in half an hour. I move a few minutes before the end of the roundtable to get an exclusive interview with Francesca Benati, Senior VP Online Travel WEMEA at Amadeus.
Tech Has No Gender: Women's Leadership Initiative
After its debut at the latest U.S.Phocuswright leg of the conference, the Women's Leadership Initiative has been replicated in Amsterdam as well. As I was not there during the session (that took place on the 14th), Benati helped me catch up. "I was raised on a very matriarchal family", Benati says. "I've never even considered the issue of gender inequality growing up, because it has never been my model. My mother was a journalist and she was the one that was never around, not my father". For Benati, everything changed when she entered the working world. "In 2000 I had my first child. When I came back to the office, I was taken away a good part of my job. I felt discriminated for the first time. Consider that this was a different time, where YOU HAD to physically be at your workplace". Technology, anyhow, helped Benati managing her work/life balance later in life and, when she gave birth to her second child in 2005, things were way different. "Smart-working can really help to eradicate gender inequality in the workplace. Women can work remotely even during and after pregnancy and not feel disconnected from their companies while they're away".
To Hotels And Beyond: Airbnb
One of the highlights of the day is the interview to Jeroen Merchiers, Managing Director, EMEA at Airbnb. "Hospitality is about making travelers feel like they belong", Merchiers opens up. "We went from pure home sharing to where we are now, but it's still very much about feeling like a local". When asked about the future of the company, Merchiers commented that "millennials, Airbnb' original customers, are starting having families now, and we want to evolve with them". When pushed about what the real motivations behind the HotelTonight recent acquisitions are, Merchiers got candid about the company's plans to get into the hotel space: "We're presenting a distribution alternative to independent hotels, and that is why we acquired HotelTonight, to move faster into that direction. They have the people, the technology and the integrations". About the OYO investments, Merchiers does not open up too much: "We have a lot of synergies in OYO. We have never seen them as a competitor, in fact, some of OYO inventory is already present in our platform". The million dollar question, however, remains unanswered: when asked about the imminent IPO, Merchiers simply smiles and says: "there is not really much to say at this stage".
Of Buzzwords And Ecosystems
"Digital transformation is a buzzword", states Dirk Tietz, Chief Digital & Transformation Officer at DER during the Tech Heads roundtable moderated by Peter O'Connor, Senior Market Analyst Europe at Phocuswright, "because a lot of what we do in the industry is still manual, whatever we like it or not". "We have to move from a transactional to a relational relationship with the industry", echoes Christian Langer, VP Digital Strategy at Lufthansa Group. Ian Di Tullio gets even more pragmatic on the topic: "at the end of the day, we're all fighting for customer attention and, in order to do it, we have to understand that travel is not about hotels only, it's about the whole ecosystem". "We should ask ourselves: is our strategy right?", says Dara Brady, Digital Director at Ryanair. "In a business that is very operational, we need to monitor technology costs vs benefits". The roundtable ends with O' Connor debunking some of the most (over)used industry's buzzwords.
Amazon? Well... A bookstore.
The day moves to its end with the Experience This!' roundtable, moderated by Lax Poojary, Founder of Touring Bird. "How can we remove friction for the traveler?", asks Ram Papatla, VP Global Experiences at Booking.com, "this is what drives us". "What is amazing about our industry is that we can collaborate with all the participants of the travel ecosystem, being that Google, TUI, or whoever", continues Javier Arévalo, Managing Director Beyond The Bed at Hotelbeds. For Alessandro Petazzi, CEO at Musement, this is a no-brainer: "if cannibalization must happen, then it's better that it happens from a company within the group, not outside of it...". David Armstrong, CEO at HolidayPirates is more known as the CEO that never spent 1€ on Google Ads. Born as a travel blog, he likes to refer to his company as a travel-deal-sourcing-platforms. "We're working on hyper-personalization heavily. If you're not offering just a random travel deal, then users will get interested, buy it or share it. Right now we have more fans on Facebook than Expedia, and it's all because of the pertinence of our offers". The first day of PWC Europe ends with the Innovation Awards Ceremony, won by Nannybag, Setoo, GuruWalk, Questo, MediaAlpha and Zizoo.
APAC / MIDDLE EAST
Day two starts with a focus on two of the world's largest and fastest changing travel markets: APAC and the Middle East. Amadeus, Cambon Partners, TripAdvisor, Travelstart and Wego share the stage and discuss trends, technologies, and challenges. Brent Hoberman, Co-Founder of lastminute.com inaugurates the second part of the day.
Facebook, Oculus, And Whatsapp
"AR is already here, but VR is the future", says Nikhilesh Ponde, Head of Global Travel Strategy at Facebook, talking about the all-in-one VR set Oculus Quest, out in less than 10 days. Ponde then moves to the new WhatsApp Business Product Catalog, which allows hotels listing their products directly on the instant messaging app.
Booking.com, Google, and NDC
Next on the central stage is Olivier Gremillon, VP Global Segments at Booking.com. "Last year we had 40 millions of our users booking a home accommodation", he opens up, "and what we found out is that more and more users book both hotels AND homes, rather than hotels OR homes". When asked about the merging of Villas.com into Booking.com, Gremillon comments that "people want to have everything in the same platform". "Everybody knew it was going to happen at some point", Gremillon says about the recent launch of the Google Travel website, admitting that "it is a very good product". On the other hand, he's skeptical about Amazon getting (again) in the short term. Amadeus, Hopper, and Skyscanner take the stage to discuss NDC, the new IATA's program for the development and market adoption of a standard, XML-based data transmission system.
After the lunch break, Maggie Rauch, Senior Director Research of Phocuswright unveils insights on European travelers preferences. According to Rauch, Europe witnessed a "dip in high-spending travelers", but the Industry remains stable or, to use her words, "resilient". Unsurprisingly, offline channels dropped to "single digits market share" in the last 5 years. There is still a big room for improvement in loyalty programs and mobile bookings, with little differences from Country to Country.
Under A Pale Gray Sky We Shall Arise: DLT
"A ledger is immutable, auditable and transparent", Nadim El Manawy, CEO of Arise Travel explains. It is "a database and a network combined. No need for APIs, mapping or cached data". Data fragmentation is a major issue in our industry, and distributed ledger technology can give hotels more control over their inventory, distribution and even commission management.
TechTalk continues with panels on railways, biometric technology, and vacation rentals. I move to the networking floor and spend some time drinking coffee discussing software integration issues with David Curran, Machine Learning Engineer at OpenJaw. I go back to the central stage where Henrik Kjellberg, CEO of Awaze express its feeling about facilitated bookings: "users don't want an Amazon-like experience when it comes to travel. It's ok when I buy a selfie stick, but I don't want the hustle to be taken away from me when I organize my holidays".
Google Trip, Expedia And The Path To Greatness
The highlight of the day is Google's talk. Thijs Van As, Lead Product Manager of Google Flight speaks about the new trip platform: "We want users to be able to easily switch from flight-search to hotel-search to experience-search. We want to offer a comprehensive, trip-centric UX". Van As then move to the company machine learning algorithm: "people don't know what a fair price for a flight should be, and this cause stress and anxiety. We want our users to understand when the price is high, low or typical. How? Thanks to machine learning, we leverage a ton of historical data and forecast previsions".
"Being continuously challenged is the path for greatness", says Cyril Ranque, President, Lodging Partner Services at Expedia, during the final roundtable of the day. When asked about commissions, Ranque comments that renewed agreements with brands were signed "without drama".
So, are Empires really on the edge? I left without a definitive answer, so I have to wrap up this piece with the wise words of somebody else. I chose a Seneca's quote: "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end".
And this is exactly where our industry is right now.
See you in 2020.
Beurs van Berlage — Amsterdam - The Netherlands
Simone Puorto is a travel tech journalist with over 20 years of experience in the Industry. Lecturer for business schools such as ESSEC, Les Roches, ESG, Hotel Business School by Forte Village and LUISS, published author, public speaker, panel moderator, Board Member for BWG Strategy and author for PhocusWire, HOTELSMag, HotelMarketing.More from Simone Puorto