Skift Take

If necessity is the mother of invention, its first cousin must be travel demand. The coming rebound is spawning a surge in innovative thinking.

The pandemic-related revenue crisis has prompted many people in the travel industry to shake up their old ideas and try new approaches in all aspects of their operations. Skift’s Design the Future event on December 9 highlighted many of the innovators and remarkable ideas percolating in the sector today. Below are some lessons we drew from the event.

Travel’s Digital Future

Travel will someday step into the metaverse, a concept that Facebook, Microsoft, and Epic Games began planning for this year. The metaverse is broadly the idea that consumers will have online avatars that can move seamlessly between virtual worlds, holding a Zoom call one day and going shopping by using virtual reality headsets the next.

A case in point is Atari Hotels, a brand that’s still in the design phase.

“We’ll have you create your own avatar to let people interact with you while you’re in the space, using technology to merge the physical and the digital,” said Tom Ito, hospitality leader, principal, Gensler, which is helping to design the brand.

Travel marketers will want to watch how new ways emerge for people to signal their status and their membership in social tribes in the digital realm. Those will be keys to unlocking the roles that travel brands can play in the metaverse.

“NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are having a moment right now because covid has forced us to do much more socializing online,” said Cynthia Huang, head of growth at Dtravel. “It’s not coincidental that we’ve seen an explosion in the popularity of NFTs. People are seeking ways to express their identity online through a creative expression of their interests, such as how they feel about art.”

People want to take their identities from the physical world and port them into the digital realm. Travel brands will have a legitimate role to play here, experts said. Co-working spaces and hotels have opportunities to help people in similar social tribes meet and interact.

NeueHouse, a provider of inventive co-working spaces, aspires to use artificial intelligence to help pair up people with similar personas at relevant moments, said Jon Goss, chief brand officer.

But brands will have to rethink some of their assumptions in response to emerging consumer behaviors. The rising usage of voice-activated internet devices, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Microsoft Cortana, will have implications for hotels.

“It’s very interesting to ask how can we leverage that as an opportunity,” said Alexander Schellenberger, chief luxury and premium brands officer, Accor. “You need to think about what is your brand’s voice.”

Live events are another example of a category that has experienced a lot of rethinking during the pandemic. This morphing of norms and practices will continue post-crisis.

“Our traditional idea of live event engagement is that someone is speaking and the audience is listening and not doing anything else,” said Liesl Perez-Leary, vice president, corporate marketing, Hubilo. “That is not the way the audience is going to be in the future. When I think about the metaverse, I think about the ability to explore and uncover information rather than wait for it to be disseminated to you.”

The New Traveler Consciousness

Climate change will cause upheaval in consumer behavior over time. A mix of peer pressure and government intervention will discourage travel practices that have the greatest carbon emissions. The travel sector will need to adjust its mix of offerings and practices in response.

“There’s no vaccine for climate change,” says James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel. “And the decade ahead is going to be firmly centered around climate change.”

Thornton’s tour operator business has been “carbon neutral” for many years but is now adjusting further. It’s removing flights of an hour or less from itineraries when less carbon-intensive alternatives are available. It’s also offering more regional offerings in its traditional source markets in recognition that long-distance travel risks becoming unfashionable.

In a related move, the travel sector needs to ditch the notion of “eco-tourism” or “sustainability tourism” as being niche, high-end, and rural concepts, said Kelley Louise, executive director of the Impact Travel Alliance. All types of travel will have to adapt to impacts from climate change. To make the point, Louise’s organization recently ran a press trip in Scotland that was an affordable urban tour with a low-carbon theme.

Some destinations are rebuilding their infrastructure in the pandemic in anticipation of the new traveler consciousness. Panama, for example, has been adding new hiking trails and improving existing ones, while also promoting eco-friendly trips such as a hike between views of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

“Our ocean-to-ocean trail has no carbon footprint and is done by bicycle, rafting, and walking — while engaging with local communities along the way,” said Iván Eskildsen, Panama’s tourism minister.

Building Trusted Brands and Experiences

The pandemic has presented some challenges to hotel brands, including their purpose at a time when some offerings, such as housekeeping, may be disrupted, and when competition from alternatives, such as short-term rentals, is strong.

“We need a clear differentiation of the brands we have because they all deserve the space,” said Schellenberger of Accor. “We need targeted audience segmentation and a care for brand fundamentals.”

“For example, we’re using social media listening tools with artificial intelligence to separate customers into tribes beyond hospitality, such as what content they’re engaging with,” Schellenberger said. “Then we can leverage the right influencers and partnership programs.”

Rethinking Health and Happiness

Wellness is more than a spa visit. Especially after the pandemic’s tumult, wellness encompasses all aspects of hospitality including every single touchpoint from bedding selected to what is served poolside.

“Gratitude, awe, and inspiration — they all move the bottom line,” said Mia Kyricos, a consultant and the former SVP and global head of wellbeing at Hyatt.

Yet the rise of remote working requires a re-evaluation of the products and services that many wellness providers offer.

“in light of how work has changed, we need packages that are much more flexible,” Kyricos said. “People want richer experiences.”

Designing for Inclusion

Many travel leaders we spoke with said they’re aiming to design the future with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. But not everyone in the sector is on board.

“A year later, you can see what a difference leadership can make,” says Aaron Walton of ad agency Walton Isaacson. “For the risk-averse, we remind them that the bigger risk is not responding to the changes in society.”

Several destinations have been attempting to make changes in how they go about representing themselves to the world.

“We need to diversify the stories about a destination, but we also need to diversify who gets to tell the stories about a place — and not just cater to the people flying in,” says Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, co-founder of Local Purse, a marketplace that combines live commerce with virtual travel and cultural connection.

As the hospitality sector rethinks its spaces in an era with possibly more remote working long-term, it needs to find ways to make sure all customers feel included

For instance, NeueHouse, which this year took over a museum in New York City and turned it into a co-working space, thinks of its goal as providing “multi-hyphenate spaces for multi-hyphenate creatives,” Goss said.

Diversity and inclusion efforts have reached a higher standard and a broader scope, some leaders said.

“Before, inclusion was primarily about how people were treated,” said DeShaun Wise Porter, Hilton’s global head of diversity, inclusion, and recognition. “But in recent years, the baseline has expanded. We’re now talking about things like how do companies ensure they’re tapping a diverse pool of talent, how do you evolve the talent process to address and remove bias, and how do you have a call for great representation at all leadership levels?”

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Tags: design, diversity and inclusion, hotels, interior design, wellness

Photo credit: At Skift's Design the Future Event, Tom Ito, hospitality leader, principal, Gensler, presented this slide about possible designs for a proposed Atari Hotels brand that Gensler is working on envisioning. Source: Gensler.

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