In a year when travel's recovery began, only to sputter, the pandemic was still a story for Skift that just kept giving. Our reporters and editors kept their heads down on crisis coverage, but shared some of the adrenaline too, on other worthy travel topics. Here's our team members' favorites, and how those stories came to be, in their own words.
The first year of the pandemic was an extraordinary achievement for Skift’s team of reporters and editors covering the unparalleled crisis in real time. Year two tested the mettle of the team in new ways, as glimmers of hope seesawed with the heartbreak of setbacks. But the journalism was no less exceptional in 2021.
As I am at this time every year, I am proud upon reflection of what Skift’s journalists accomplished. As is our tradition, I once again asked the difficult question of every reporter and editor who each produce a couple hundred stories a year: Which one was your favorite? They delivered, of course, explaining why the story was their favorite, and how it came to be.
We hope you find that our favorites are yours, too.
The Backstory: After writing so much about airlines pulling down their schedules, parking jets, and threatening to furlough staff, it was refreshing to actually see how airlines were recovering. In this case, how American Airlines put their jets back in the air to be ready for the then-forecast surge in summer travel. I flew to American’s largest maintenance base in Tulsa, Okla., to see exactly how the carrier did this. The team in Tulsa walked me step-by-step through the process of checking and re-checking every flap, seal, door, and crevice to make sure they were up to par for carrying passengers again.
What really struck me on my visit to Tulsa was how, for all the doom and gloom around the pandemic, the dedicated professionals at American never ceased working hard to make sure every aircraft was safe and ready to fly. Even for the seemingly thankless task of keeping black widow spiders from building webs in wheel wells.
Matthew Parsons, Corporate Travel Editor
The Backstory: The conversation around business travel shifted even further to remote work In 2021, as the phenomenon flipped from temporary measure to mainstream movement. It spring-boarded countless scenarios, mostly tinged with tourism because destinations saw plenty of marketing opportunities.
But among the images of work and play, I was struck by a conversation I had with the co-founder of a community interest organization who wants to level the playing field. Talking with Lorraine Charles of Na’amal, I was reminded the brave new world of remote work doesn’t revolve around middle and high-income countries, where people have ample opportunity to travel and work where they please.
Charles’ mission is to make remote work available for refugees, for people who don’t have the privilege of a U.S. or European passport, or the means to hop from one sun-kissed island to another with their laptop. She told me she wanted to help convert refugees into employees by training them on the softer skills needed, like Zoom meeting etiquette, then help them connect with potential employers.
In the same way travel broadens horizons for a tourist, does the same apply to an organization that recruits outside of its comfort zone? Later on in the year the topic was broached by immigration lawyer David Cantor, while the growing need for intercultural communications also emerged as a one-to-watch topic during 2021.
The plight of refugees around the world was brought home as we witnessed crises such as the large-scale evacuations from Kabul, and the tragedies of migrants in France attempting to cross the channel to the UK. Climate migration may also become a factor in the years ahead.
A lot of progress has been made in diversity and inclusion over the past few years, and this is one area that I imagine, or hope, more organizations will address over the coming years.
Sean O’Neill, Senior Travel Tech Editor
The Backstory: This year, we launched Skift’s first Travel Tech Briefing, a guide for travel executives to decide if their company should “build, buy, or partner” to stay ahead in enterprise technology.
I was delighted that the first edition spotlighted Floor Bleeker, who gave his first interview since becoming Accor’s chief technology officer. The hotel giant had taken a contrarian tech strategy but hadn’t publicly discussed it before.
Until recently, Accor had planned to centralize its core technology systems. That’s a common trend among many large hotel groups. But around the time Bleeker came on board, the company decided to give up its plan to centralize its core technology systems. It will now be running multiple property management systems instead, allowing owners to tap upstart players, such as Treebo and Mews, after it certifies them.
While the move may seem like small potatoes to an outsider, the decision is significant for the hotel technology sector. It allows smaller players to compete to provide critical software to properties. Guests could be the ultimate beneficiary as competition may spur faster innovation in how hotels interact with guests.
Madhu Unnikrishnan, Editor, Airline Weekly
The Backstory: On February 20, 2021, one of the two engines on a United Airlines Boeing 777 exploded in spectacular fashion, showering a Denver suburb with wreckage and terrifying passengers with sights of flames shooting out of the jet. The story dominated U.S. television news for several days, and pundits spouted dire predictions about Boeing’s future and the safety of commercial aviation.
Granted, it’s been an exceedingly difficult few years for Boeing, after two fatal crashes grounded its best-selling 737 Max for almost two years (forcing Boeing to admit that the aircraft’s flight-control software was flawed and responsible for the crashes); Federal Aviation Administration inspections of its 787 have halted delivery of a long-range aircraft airlines depend on; and its 777X has been delayed by several years. Boeing has gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, but the United 777 failure was not one.
There’s an old adage that says a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth puts on its pants. Television news fell all over itself to air video that had already spread on social media. Important context was missing. Yes, the footage was horrific, but what was lost was why the incident happened. A fan blade broke loose from one of the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney engines, causing the engine to fail and exposing its combustion chamber. The fan blade did not pierce the fuselage.
What was lost in the consumer media’s coverage was this: The aircraft stayed intact, and its many safety systems prevented a catastrophic accident. The crew performed flawlessly and safely landed the airplane without any injuries. In fact, most of the flight’s passengers were rebooked and carried on with their travels that same day. In other words, the real story was that the everything and everyone worked as they should, which may be a lot less exciting than the breathless stories the news media reported, but important to note.
Lebawit Lily Girma, Global Tourism Reporter
The Backstory: The horrific pandemic surge in India in April had just unfolded and in parallel, the travel industry in the U.S. and Europe, and their consumers, were focused on planning for the start of a “hot vaxxed summer.” The contrast was glaring and a clear sign to me that vaccine access would be critical for a full and fair tourism recovery. So while it was a difficult choice to make — this being my first full year of tourism coverage for Skift — I am most proud of this initial story on vaccine equity. It became the first in what has been a series of updates from us throughout the year after leading this conversation for the travel industry.
Why this topic continues to matter is because first, it’s an issue that remains critical for the industry and continues to impede and influence travel’s recovery everywhere, as we’re currently witnessing with the Omicron variant. Second, it’s critical to push travel leaders in the major source markets to recognize that solely advocating for the lifting of border restrictions is a short-sighted approach. There’s a clear business case for the industry — particularly the World Travel & Tourism Council and the United Nations World Tourism Organization and their members — to use its political muscle to push for more rapid vaccine distributions and donations globally so that the recovery is sustainable.
Third, this is a time in which we need bold leadership and vision. We saw companies such as Intrepid Travel and Expedia Group move forward with vaccine equity campaigns some months after this initial story was published. Many more need to follow.
We need this industry to have a reckoning on what global tourism should represent and stand for in the future, and that it’s about more than arrival numbers and gross domestic product. Vaccine equity is an opportunity to do just that.
Rashaad Jorden, Editorial Assistant
The Backstory: I was looking to write a story about a tremendously successful tour operator marketing campaign that I thought could become a regular feature, and I was referred to Steve Born, the chief marketing officer of the Globus family of brands.
How exactly? Globus was saying that landmarks popular with their guests – including the Eiffel Tower and the Easter Island statues – had missed them by singing Player’s hit Baby Come Back. Born explained in the story how the campaign came about and why it had enjoyed success.
It was my favorite story from the year because as Born mentioned, travel is fun and supposed to bring a smile to travelers’ faces. Seeing the video of popular landmarks — or even thinking about it — has never failed to elicit a chuckle from me. Born talked about the hard work that went into creating the campaign, which was timed to coincide with the reopening of numerous destinations.
But most importantly, travel for many is a cause for celebration, and despite numerous ongoing challenges, some tour operators have had things to celebrate this year.
Cameron Sperance, Hospitality Reporter
The Backstory: Some travel stories span beyond one’s assigned beat. It was timely to see the late Anthony Bourdain’s travel guide come out just as unruly airline passengers and rude hotel and restaurant guests became the unfortunate legacy of the pandemic. You couldn’t go days without seeing a headline of a diverted aircraft because some idiot wouldn’t wear a mask and punched a flight attendant to make a point — a point the federal government and airlines responded to with jail time and a lifetime ban from flying.
Restaurants and hotels weren’t spared the abuse. Irate was the default mood for patrons who had to wait longer than expected for a meal or, heaven forbid, were told by hotel management to keep their volume down.
Bourdain’s book made me miss his weekly wisdom doled out on his TV series, and I felt a particular bond with the words since I live in Provincetown, Mass. — the seaside town at the end of Cape Cod where he got his start in the world of restaurants.
But the guide also painted some important travel lessons: Always remember you’re a guest in someone else’s hometown. Be patient in this era of longer waits: It’s not neglect; it’s a labor shortage crisis.
Oh, and stop being a jackass to hospitality workers.
Angela Tupper, Deputy Editor, EventMB
The Backstory: A major part of our 2021 news cycle was dominated by Covid coverage, but this story was particularly compelling because it approached a well-known news story from an under-reported angle. While major publications were drawing attention to Australia and New Zealand’s success with enforcing a zero-Covid policy, there was very little coverage of what this approach meant for the event industry. Headlines announced that life Down Under was able to continue largely as normal, apart from periodic snap lockdowns whenever a handful of cases were confirmed. Were large-scale events able to move forward as well?
Through multiple interviews with event professionals in Australia, a consistent story emerged: The nation’s successful suppression of Covid transmission made it much safer to hold events from a public health standpoint, but the measures needed to maintain zero-Covid status also meant that a lockdown could be triggered by just one case — with events therefore prone to last-minute cancelation. In other words, reducing the health risk indirectly amplified the financial risk. In turn, What began as an investigation into the viability of events turned into a conversation around the need for event cancelation insurance. With private insurers unwilling to cover the risk, lobbyists were calling for government-backed programs.
In some ways, this story provided a glimpse into the “stop-and-go” future that the global event industry would soon be facing in a post-vaccine world periodically threatened by new variants of concern. Since then, the UK has announced a government-backed event insurance scheme, as has the Australian state of Victoria. The impact of these programs will be a story to watch in the coming year.
Dennis Schaal, Founding Editor
The Backstory: This story combined two things I love: A scoop of sorts and scouring Securities and Exchange Commission financial filings.
What’s the first thing that travel veterans ask you when they learn of an acquisition? Namely, what do you think the sale price was? On smaller deals, when a startup gets bought by a public company, the buyer doesn’t necessarily have to explicitly disclose the price, and when a private company acquires a startup, the usual thing is there is no public statement about the price.
Vacasa’s acquisition of a smaller property management company, TurnKey, wasn’t a small deal, it turns out, but it involved two private companies. I therefore didn’t expect Vacasa to disclose the acquisition price — and apparently neither did the rest of the press — but the twist was that Vacasa was slated to go public in a blank check merger and was filing its financials with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Vacasa eventually went public, on December 7.
I love reading certain Securities and Exchange Commission documents and frequently tell my reporter colleagues that you can find all kinds of news bits and scoops if you take the time to read them, which I often do during the evenings or on weekends — for fun.
So there was the price tag and details about the deal in a Vacasa financial filing. Vacasa acquired TurnKey for nearly $619 million, mostly in stock. As TurnKey had only raised some $120 million in funding, it appears as though co-founders T.J. Clark and John Banczak did fairly well for their investors.
Miguel Neves, Editor-in-Chief, EventMB
The Backstory: For my favorite article, I am going to say the EventMB Event Tech Investment Tracker. This continually evolving post sums up a lot of my learnings in 2021. I knew that joining Skift to lead EventMB, I would bring the event professional’s point of view with me. With this post, I am not distilling what I have learned from all the amazing editors at Skift and their unique ways of looking at the travel industry.
I’ve had help from many members of the Skift and EventMB to make this post a real at-a-glance review of the crazy world of mergers and acquisitions in event tech. Everyone I have shared it with has given positive feedback and I know it will be an important part of future iterations of the EventMB website, so the story will continue to evolve.
Colin Nagy, On Experience Columnist
The Backstory: This was an interesting story to report, as Doha is in the harried run-up to a major milestone, the World Cup in 2022. The event has been a forcing factor for a lot of the obvious things like hospitality and infrastructure but also has accelerated a lot of Qatari soft diplomacy: museums, interesting small businesses and centers to attract more of the global creative class. Covid has put a damper on a lot, but it is clear to see there’s been clear vision and a lot of progress. I liked this piece because it was an honest look at what is working well, and what needs to be improved in a region that has a lot of shallow, one-note coverage from Western outlets. There is a lot of depth and moving parts to the modern Qatar story: from regional and global politics, to business, investment, real estate to national country branding and the desire to live up to the promise of the World Cup. These are my favorite stories to try and make sense of when I can.
Ruthy Muñoz, Freelancer
The Backstory: I love writing feature stories that bring extraordinary people to the forefront, but surprisingly, when faced with choosing my favorite account this year, a Skift feature wasn’t it. Instead, my favorite story is accountability in the other pandemic- unruly passengers.
As a former flight attendant, I understood there’s only so much flight crews could do without the backup of airlines, the FAA, the Justice Department, and Congress. Writing this and other stories on unruly passengers and holding everyone accountable to bring about needed change is what the power of the journalistic keyboard is for me.
Lisa Jade Hutchings, Branded Content Writer
The Backstory: I have had the opportunity to work on some great stories this year, such as the effect of the pandemic on local event industries around the world and an analysis of the sector’s commitment to net-zero. However, my favorite post explored the topic of how event professionals can better cope with imposter syndrome.
While massive technological advancements and innovation have taken place within the sector, I wanted to delve deeper into the human experience of an event professional through real-life insights into the current situation. As professionals working in a high-stress industry (events), the cancellations and job losses due to the pandemic have impacted the mental health of those working within the space. Because of this, many planners have experienced crippling self-doubt in adapting to new tech, event formats, external stressors — all while learning new skills.
In writing the post, a background of the syndrome was given, alongside actionable tips to coping so people could gain tangible value by reading the piece. To better understand imposter syndrome, its effects, and how people can manage, insights were gained by speaking at length with a counseling psychologist, researching the topic online, connecting with others in the industry, and drawing on past personal experiences.
The highlight of the post for me was seeing the effect it had on others in the industry — people were able to relate and felt that a voice had been given to an experience so many people live with daily.