We asked Skift's indefatigable team of reporters and editors to pick their favorite stories from the past year. Here's an inside look at how those stories came to be, how they were reported, and what it was like to put it down into prose.
Tens of thousands of words. Dozens upon dozens of stories. The Skift team of reporters and editors had the busiest year ever in 2019 chronicling the global travel industry.
We asked the team to take a pause to pick which of these stories were their personal favorites — not an easy task, granted.
We hope you find their reflections informative as they tell us how the stories came to be, and why they are proud of the work. On that note, I couldn’t be more proud of what the entire team accomplished this year. What you’ll read below is the result of hours upon hours of hardcore reporting, analysis, and thoughtful writing. These are the smartest voices on global travel in the business. We hope you find that our favorites are yours, too.
U.S. Airlines Prioritize Some Flights Over Others When Summer Storms Hit The Backstory: On stormy days, many travelers probably have looked at a departure board and noticed that flight delays and cancellations don’t always follow a predictable pattern. Some flights, perhaps to New York LaGuardia or London Heathrow, might go on time, while others might take a long delay. Airlines play favorites. When bad weather hits, they usually must reduce departures, but they may choose which to cancel, which to delay, and which to dispatch on time. Airline planners typically protect their best customers, who are often flying to London, New York, and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport — home of Walmart — and not Salt Lake or Memphis. “We know what the most highly profitable routes are,” an American executive told me.
Why Is the U.S. Never Deemed ‘Unsafe’ as a Tourist Destination? The Backstory: It’s a simple question that no one has ever really asked. But after Skift posed it — in the wake of two mass shootings in one weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — plenty of people seemed to immediately understand the hypocrisy. It’s true that tragedies happen in tourist destinations all over the world, from natural disasters and civil unrest to terror attacks. But whether or not a country or destination rebounds quickly — or suffers a months-long dip in arrivals as a result — is dependent not on conditions on the ground, but rather the perception of that destination’s safety. That is largely shaped by news reporting on local officials’ guidance but increasingly, by social media as well. And yet even in our thoroughly globalized world, there is an inherent unfairness in how we determine what countries are “safe” to visit in the wake of a tragedy. Nowhere proves that unfairness better than the United States of America.
What Utrip’s Tragic Final Year Can Teach Other Travel Startups The Backstory: A company called Utrip went bankrupt this year, and I didn’t cover the news. I accepted the hot take that any startup offering trip recommendations would be doomed from the start. My bad. A reader messaged that I should take a closer look. Cruise companies like Royal Caribbean and about 80 other organizations had taken Utrip seriously enough to pay for its services. Tech companies like TripAdvisor had considered acquiring it. So why exactly did it fail? I cold-called disgruntled ex-employees and former clients at odd hours of the day and night. They filled me in. I salute Utrip founder and CEO Gilad Berenstein for answering questions analytically, rather than defensively. I see the resulting story as a cautionary tale. Investors and founders should be wary when a public company offers to buy a startup. The nuanced lesson is more compelling than the hot take, proving once again that our readers know best.
The Complicated Battle to End Elephant Rides in Asia The Backstory: How complicated could topics such as welfare of animals in tourism be? “There’s nothing complicated about it. Just stop,” wrote a reader on social media. That’s what I thought too — until I dove into the world of elephant tourism in Asia.
If we just stop, where would the elephants go? Which means we’re killing them. If we just stop, how would the mahouts or the farmers who supply elephant food, to name two dependents in a long chain of supply, survive? Is that responsible tourism?
Moreover, it’s still a moot point that riding an elephant is bad for elephants. Organizations sitting in the West may think so, but vets and researchers who work in Asia don’t.
The story is symptomatic of a few fundamental problems that beset Asia tourism. One is rapid development and its consequences, including vast deforestation that has displaced elephants’ natural habitat, and the need to manage other growth issues that compete with saving elephants. Another is the non-confrontational culture of Asians who remain silent until it becomes too little too late. It is also symptomatic of different agendas of different parties on an Asian matter.
For no matter how much everyone says they care about elephants, objectives differ. Western animal rights organizations want to be seen as going for the jugular in raising awareness of animal abuse. Western travel trade associations want to be seen as having done their duty to declare a ban on elephant rides in the face of public pressure on animals in tourism. Travel companies, whether they agree or not, want to follow suit for fear of being seen as irresponsible next to competitors who have.
So is all this really about saving elephants in tourism?
“This lengthy but all-encompassing article about elephant rights in Asia made me question where I stand on this issue as a travel professional,” wrote another reader.
For journalists, that’s our job.
Marriott’s Mission: Make W Hotels Cool Again The Backstory: I haven’t been at Skift very long (I started at the end of October). But so far, this is the story I’ve enjoyed writing the most. I’ve been covering travel and hotels for more than a decade, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time at W Hotels in many cities: New York, Bogotá, Barcelona, South Beach, Washington, D.C., to name a few. I remember waiting to get into one of Rande Gerber’s bars at the W Hotel in Times Square back in the early 2000s. My friends and I thought it was the place to be seen. Then I watched the W Hotel brand go from being such a groundbreaking idea to just another hotel with a bar and restaurant. I wanted to explore what happened and asked Marriott, which inherited the brand after buying Starwood Hotels and Resorts in 2016. They agreed that the brand needed to be redone and opened up about their efforts to make W Hotels cool again. I hope someday to have a cocktail in a happening W Hotel bar again.
Are Cultural Tours Built on Exploitation? The Backstory: This isn’t the newsiest story I wrote in 2019, but it was high time to write an in-depth article about exploitation in tours to indigenous communities, historically black neighborhoods, and other non-white spaces. Much of the industry takes for granted that travelers can always be voyeurs in communities of color, when in fact all participants need to be asking some key questions. Are outside tour operators making all the money while the local community sees no monetary uplift? Is an outsider whitewashing the storytelling, or does the local community get to recount its own history? Is anyone encouraging the development of the community’s own tourism infrastructure, meaning Native-owned or black-owned businesses? Turns out there are no industrywide standards on this, but a few individual players are making their own ethical guidelines, and travelers are responding positively.
Why Is Wi-Fi at Events Still So Bad? The Backstory: My favorite story of 2019 was one that came out of my own curiosity. I had attended a few of my very first trade shows and noticed that the internet at the venues was almost always painfully slow. Not knowing anything about the way Wi-Fi works, I dug a little deeper into it and talked to some of the people who are responsible for setting up the Wi-FI network at events. I learned the history behind Wi-Fi and the basics of how it works, and I gained a much larger appreciation for how difficult, expensive, and time-consuming coordinating the internet for a big conference can be. In fact, it was one of the most technical stories I’ve ever written, and I had a surprising amount of fun getting down into the nitty-gritty of a technology that is so important in my everyday life.
It’s also a topic that almost everyone has a strong opinion about. Each person I talked to for the story — whether they were an event planner, tech provider, or attendee — had a very different take on the issue. Some believed that attendees’ expectations were simply too high: Over the past decade, Wi-Fi has developed into something many of us take for granted, without appreciating the time and cost that go into making a workable network. Others believed that event planners had their priorities mixed up, willing to shell out for food and drink but not for decent Wi-Fi.
It was also a frustrating story to write. In the course of reporting, I contacted Tim Pozar, a San Francisco-based tech provider who has been setting up internet at trade shows for decades. He said that many of the things people complained about 10 years ago are still an issue today. Even as technology progresses, there is still no easy, fail-safe way to create a good network at an event with thousands of people.
Madhu Unnikrishnan, Skift Airline Weekly EDITOR
A Conversation With Volaris’ Holger Blankenstein The Backstory: It’s not often that an airline executive tells me he thinks his company’s biggest competitors are not other airlines but rather long-distance buses. In fact, it’s happened only once in more than 15 years of reporting on this industry — when I was reporting the feature story in the Nov. 25, 2019, edition of Skift Airline Weekly. Volaris Executive Vice President Holger Blankenstein told me Mexican ultra-low-cost carrier of course competes with Aeroméxico, Interjet, VivaAerobus, and other carriers in the market, but he said his airline’s strategy is to take market share from buses. Mexican travelers take about 700 million bus trips of more than six hours per year, and 100 million of those trips are on luxury or premium buses. Blankenstein argued that Volaris is focused on converting more of those 100 million bus trips into airline journeys.
But that’s not the only reason Volaris was an interesting company to report on. It’s taking a unique approach to attracting passengers, staging guerilla marketing campaigns in bus stations (and being escorted out by security). It’s letting passengers pay for tickets booked online in cash at convenience and grocery stores. And, in order to spread the word about its growing route network from the U.S. to Mexico, Volaris is sending employees into restaurant kitchens, churches, and other places where Mexican expatriates work or socialize.
Like any reporter who has been on the beat for a while, I often think I’ve seen it all before. And, to be fair, that’s probably true, especially when it comes to reporting on airline marketing and competition. But Volaris took me by surprise, and that’s why it was my favorite story to report this year.
Debt, Egos and Bad Decisions: How Thomas Cook Failed to Adapt to a New Era of Travel The Backstory: Up until the early hours of the morning on September 23, it seemed inconceivable that Thomas Cook would go out of business. Surely one of the most storied names in travel and tourism would find a way to stay afloat. Sadly for the thousands of staff and holidaymakers, it wasn’t to be.
When a company this size goes out of the business the sadness is often matched, or indeed superseded by anger, and it didn’t take long for it to filter through. Former executives and others associated with the company were hauled up in front of a UK parliamentary inquiry where they were beaten up — metaphorically speaking — by politicians.
There are so many different avenues you can go down when exploring the demise of a company, but for me it seemed worth looking at how the company had missed out on the digital leap in travel bookings. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Thomas Cook was flush with cash, and if it had really understood what was happening to the industry it could have adapted in time.
A New Way in Norway The Backstory: The airline industry is a nonstop stream of corporate drama. Triumphs. Failures, Bankruptcies. Mergers. Colorful characters. One story in particular this year, though, featured drama in extraordinary abundance.
I can still remember covering Norwegian when it was a rather conservative, narrow-body-flying short-haul carrier focused on its home region. Then came the giant plane orders, the long-haul expansion, the launch of Norwegian Argentina, a takeover bid by IAG, and ultimately worsening financial distress, reaching levels of extreme danger as 2019 approached.
Watching Norwegian navigate its troubles early in the year was gripping enough. When the carrier suddenly produced a sharp summer turnaround, the excitement only grew. Lucky for me, the movie isn’t over. And even better, a story that was looking more and more like it would end in tears now looks more and more like it might have a happy ending.
Budget Chain Oyo Can Be a Nightmare for U.S. Hotel Operators Despite Its Hype The Backstory: I love piercing the hype and learning the facts through reporting. That’s why I went out and conversed with a bunch of owners and general managers who had signed up their properties to be part of Oyo hotels. Oyo’s CEO, Ritesh Agarwal, has talked up the SoftBank-funded unicorn as a cutting-edge disruptor with technology that takes a back seat to no one. But several hoteliers at the property level described a nightmare under Oyo — bottom-of-the-barrel room rates that they have no power to change, revenue guarantees that don’t materialize, and overbooked guests gathering and complaining in the lobby because the Oyo reservation system doesn’t capture the bookings. There is a reckoning or a total reboot in store for Oyo.
How Bad Will It Get When Overtourism Meets Climate Change? The Backstory: The travel industry is always keen to talk about its plans for growth. So why does no one ever really consider how climate change is going to shift not just how, but where, people travel? I asked around and found out, well, not many people are thinking about this existential threat to the future of travel. Those who are engaged with this challenge every day, however, find a lack of concern from local stakeholders and travel companies alike. This doesn’t exactly bode well for the future of this diverse and fragmented sector.
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Photo credit: Tourists ride Asian elephants around the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, Thailand. Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe