When Skift launched five years ago the travel industry was in a much different place.
American Airlines and US Airways were two different airlines. Micky Arison was still the CEO of Carnival Corporation. Starwood was showing other global hotel brands how international expansion was done. And in U.S. politics, President Barack Obama was fighting for a second term against a Marriott-backed Mitt Romney (actually, lots of the industry lined up behind Romney, despite the tourism industry’s fondness for Obama).
We were also living in the pre-online travel consolidation phase. Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz were separate companies. Kayak was but a twinkle in Priceline’s eyes.
And on the tourism front we were halfway to crossing a finish line that had never been passed before: In 2012 over a billion people traveled internationally for the first time ever.
That last fact is the most amazing to us. One Billion People Crossing Borders.
We don’t believe all the stats we see about tourism, but of all the stats we didn’t always believe, this was the stat we wanted to believe the most. Imagine that over one billion people freely crossed borders for the first time ever. They didn’t cross because of a brutal sectarian war or a massive humanitarian crisis or the shocking effects of global climate change, which are all significant reasons that people move from one place to another.
They did so because they wanted to see a landmark or buy an iPod or see a loved one or take a selfie or just pursue their own curiosity. They had the freedom to travel because their country and the country they wanted to travel to — combined with the travelers’ own hard work in so many cases — made it possible to go from place to place.
That’s really the wonderful thing about travel: the freedom to make a choice.
We started Skift because we were fascinated with both the industry and our own desire to exercise our own choices. This mirrored the industry we set out to follow, too.
More than many other industries, travel is still caught between worlds. We can do it yourself on Expedia any time of the day, but we can also physically go into the local travel agency run by an ethnic Greek or Dominican or Philippine who definitely has a better package for you. We can Global Entry all we want, but when it comes to an ambitious political leader from Venezuela or Hungary or Brazil or Columbus Circle, we know that now you’re going to have to wait in a line you shouldn’t have to think about just to satisfy their pettiness.
No matter the technological advances, and there have been many, it’s about people.
The Big Business Things
In the five years of Skift there have been significant developments of course (as if we have to tell you).
It started with the first big consolidation of the modern period: Priceline buying Kayak shortly after the latter’s IPO. It led to our first and only ridiculous photo illustration, and also signaled a wave of consolidation in the online travel world that’s led to two key players in the U.S. (Priceline Group and Expedia) and one in China (Ctrip).
Another ongoing story for us has been one the travel industry didn’t really see coming: Airbnb and the reshaping of vacation rentals. We recall a meeting with a CFO of one of the largest and smartest hotel companies who said to us shortly after our launch, “what’s with this Airbnb thing?”
We were on it of course, fresh from meetings with Airbnb execs prior to us forming Skift, as well as a basic understanding of how people were traveling in 2012. Our feature about Airbnb in New York City got the tech press as well as political leaders thinking about the non-unicorn elements of Airbnb’s business. We’ve tried to maintain a neutral focus on Airbnb which has allowed us to cover it as real journalists, as can be seen in this entirely comprehensive look last week at its road to an IPO. Short story? It’s a fascinating, complicated business.
We next broke the story that defined travel media in the early 2000s: Lonely Planet and the BBC. The biggest travel publisher and the most prestigious media brand split and when it was all over a reclusive Tennessee billionaire was at the heart of it all.
That proved to be indicative of the type of stories we’d do: Unexpected, insightful, and unique. We didn’t wait for press releases, and we didn’t seek approval. And that was before the first year was over.
In year two we began experimenting with in-depth reporting on travel trends, which grew quickly into our subscription and custom Skift Research division. That same year more people began returning our calls and we talked to top CEOs in online travel and then the hotel industry. We went deeper into both these subjects recently with comprehensive oral histories of the early years of online travel and boutique hotels where we talked with everyone.
These deep conversations with leaders took on new meaning when we hosted our first Skift Global Forum during a one-day event with 400+ attendees in October 2014. That grew to two days and 800+ people in 2015, and over 1,000 last year. This past spring we took the show to London, we’ll be back in New York this September, and in 2018 we’ll be going to two new cities.
On a small scale, we’ve quietly done our work in simpler ways talking to the rank and file of the industry. When Executive Editor Dennis Schaal wrote about regional pilots in the U.S. and poor pay, it set off a multi-year discussion across other media of job security and safety among regional carriers, and foreshadowed future talks about pilot shortages worldwide. The spark for that story had been a conversation with a pilot about how the numbers for flight crews and regional carriers just didn’t add up right.
We’ve tried to follow those numbers under other circumstances over the following four years.
Whether it was Expedia buying up nearly every former competitor, or Accor buying nearly every future competitor, or Marriott buying every adjacent competitor, we’ve tried to add up the numbers to seek to determine how well thought out these purchases have been.
We’ve also sought to understand what the less “sexy” companies were up to. Whether that was Wyndham with a smart budget purpose or Spirit with a strategic fare, or some compelling destination such as a Colombia with a new offering. It hasn’t been about the dollar in the press release, but it’s been about the impact on the ground.
That’s why you’ll read here first why the U.S. Travel Association is totally ticked off by the big three U.S. airlines about Gulf Carriers. You’ll understand why cruise lines are trying to mitigate their impact. And you’ll get why some cities are so strategic about how to manage the flow of visitors.
But at the end you’ll be reminded what a complex thing Travel is. It has such an incredible power to improve lives for the better, lifting people from one income class to another more efficiently than any other industry. And it also has the power to radically change a destination for the better in nearly every instance. At the end of the day it’s about the choices consumers make to experience something in a different place, wherever that may be.
So here’s to the next five years and the next billion travelers.