The travel sector couldn't afford to lose money on efforts done merely to appear innovative for social media optics. So the companies and destinations rediscovered innovation's original spirit. They focused on lasting boosts to operational performance and traveler satisfaction.
Crises prompt innovation, and that's been true of the travel sector during the coronavirus pandemic. A theme of Skift's reporting in the past year was an innovation surge. The crisis compelled companies and destinations to seek inventive fixes to problems.
As the world laps a year of drama, we're pausing to recall some representative modernizations, sector-by-sector.
"One surprise about the trajectory of travel tech innovation in the past year was that the spirit didn't just come from startups," said Máire Walsh, senior vice president, digital technology, Enterprise Ireland. "The industry overall became more open to new solutions."
Exhibit A: In November at the Skift IDEA Awards, we highlighted brands defining the future of travel through innovation, design, and experiences. See: Announcing the Winners of Skift IDEA Awards 2020.
Some of the willingness to experiment came from a painful collapse in revenue.
"We see today an enormous appetite in certain parts of the hotel market for something different that we wouldn't have seen three or four years ago," said Ben Stephenson, founder and CEO of Impala, a startup that offers connectivity and distribution tools for hotels.
"When occupancy levels were high, hoteliers were fine with the status quo," Stephenson said in an interview this month. "But many hotel executives are now like, 'Well, let's give it a go with new partners because what's there to lose, really?'"
Anticipating rising demand, the London-based Impala doubled its headcount during the pandemic to about 60.
It wasn't just hotels, of course. Skift columnist Colin Nagy spotlighted several examples of cross-sector creativity in his roundup, "The Biggest Innovators in Travel and Hospitality: Covid Edition."
A Practical Definition for Innovation
To be clear, we're defining "innovation" in a modest and pragmatic way. We mean travel companies experimenting with new methods, ideas, processes, and technologies.
The travel sector adopted many innovations that weren't "new" in a strict sense. Travel companies imported ideas that have worked in other sectors, such as e-commerce, retail, and banking.
Travel companies focused on modernizations intended to drive profitability and customer satisfaction. The innovations weren't glamorous, such as jetpacks, housekeeping robots, or perfect universal translator devices. Instead, the transformations mostly boosted quality control, provided more consistent service, or reduced traveler and employee pain points.