Skift Take

In episode seven of the Skift Ideas Podcast, host Colin Nagy is joined by Michael Canning of Exceptional Alien, to discuss how how they are leveraging the power of creative communities to curate unique and authentic travel experiences.

In episode seven of the Skift Ideas Podcast, we are joined by Michael Canning, co-founder and chief brand officer at Exceptional Alien, a travel platform leveraging the power of creatives and influencers to curate travel communities in order to highlight unique experiences through its ‘Travel Playbooks’.

Hot off the heels of their 2023 Skift IDEA Awards win, Exceptional Alien has the ambition of being the world’s most trusted travel destination platform, by inviting inspiring, exceptional talents from around the world to share their personal travel experiences, insights and stories.

Listen in as Colin and Michael discuss how Exceptional Alien is weaving a unique and authentic tapestry of the world, by bringing together a community that offers a genuine world view through the lenses of creativity, exploration, and action.

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Host: Colin Nagy
Guest: Michael Canning
Producers: Jose Marmolejos and James Magallanes

Episode Notes

Colin Nagy: In this week’s episode, we dive into the world of travel marketing and storytelling with our special guest, Michael Canning, co-founder and Chief Brand Officer at Exceptional Alien. Hot off the heels of their 2023 Skift IDEA Award win, we speak to Michael on how Exceptional Alien are leveraging the power of creatives to meticulously curate travel communities in order to highlight unique experiences.

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Skift Ideas podcast, thanks for tuning in. Very excited to be joined by Michael Canning, co-founder and Chief brand officer at Exceptional Alien.

It’s a new travel platform powered by a global community of exceptional talent. They recently won a Skift IDEA Award and the company is on a mission to build the world’s most trusted travel platform, featuring travel playbooks of experiences and recommendations that are shared by exceptional talents, that bring authentic inspiration, discovery and action together.

Before Exceptional Alien, Australian born Canning earned a reputation as one of the world’s most awarded advertising industry leaders with global experience across three continents. Working in the U.S., the ‘Visa for Aliens of Exceptional Ability’ was the underlying inspiration behind the name of the company as a new platform to share experiences with travel.

He’s the only creative director to be awarded with a Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Media Innovation on two occasions and has led the creative output for Fortune 500 brands and creative companies as CCO and Managing Partner. 

Michael, it’s awesome to have you with us today. Thank you for coming in. 

Michael Canning: Thank you, Colin. Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Nagy: Cool. So would love a little bit to kick off with some of your background in like the creative worlds, the advertising worlds. Because when I look at this brand, when I look at the cleverness of the name and the concept and the execution, I see someone that has had his hand in some kind of conceptual areas, in a lot of areas of craft.

So I’d love to know a little bit more about the underlying operating system and skills that you’re bringing to the table with the company. 

Canning: Yeah, thanks, Colin. My background is in advertising as a creative and a creative director. I’m from Sydney but have been really lucky to live and work in different places around the world. So from Sydney, I’ve lived in London and in the U.S. for many years in New York and Los Angeles and worked in many different places in those countries and around the world.

And it’s always been an experience that I’ve felt very lucky for, in that as a creative person travel just unlocks so much, you know, in terms of how you see the world, the people that you get to meet, you know, the communities you get to meet, you know, and ultimately, I guess the cultures you can learn from and, you know, grow to understand better.

With my own experience and the experience of my co-founder Justin Drape, and the whole team that we have now, everyone just shares that experience of loving travel. And I guess what it unlocks for your own personal creativity, but also, you know, how it can build your perspective, you know, and how you see the world.

Exceptional Alien is a travel platform that’s powered by a global community of exceptional talent. The reason we’ve created Exceptional Alien is because we have the ambition to be the world’s most trusted travel destination, ultimately, and I guess by trust, the way that we go about that is to invite inspiring, exceptional talents around the world to share their personal travel experiences, their insights and stories.

And then we package those up in multimedia that we can share at scale. So it’s almost like being able to tap into the types of trusted travel recommendations and stories you’d get from a friend, but for different talents all around the world. 

Nagy: Now, a lot of people have tried things in this space, you know, the Venn diagram of creators, recommendations and travel – hard to crack. But I’m really excited to hear more about like, why this is working, you know, I would love our listeners to hear more about the approach and also like, what was the differentiated whitespace that you guys are running after in a kind of commoditized world of influence and creators? 

Canning: Yeah, with Exceptional Alien, so the name as you mentioned, the name was inspired by the Aliens of Exceptional Ability visa in the U.S.

So I was working in New York and then Los Angeles and you noticed that on your visa and it makes you take notice like, okay, that’s, that’s an interesting title. But beyond that and bigger, bigger than just the name, the brand that we’re building really is about people who love travel, but love travel through a unique and also creative lens.

So at Exceptional Alien, what we’re doing is tapping into the travels of a global community of exceptional talents, and we invite people to share their travel recommendations and stories and insights, which we then package up into our platform, but into a multimedia product that we call travel playbooks. What we’re trying to achieve there is to really give people a trusted lens on travel.

You know, we have the ambition to be the most trusted destination for travel inspiration in the world by bringing together the types of stories and insights that you’d really just get from trusted friend. You know, when we travel, there’s really no better source of inspiration than we all trust than if you can call someone up that you know, and say, hey, you know, have you been to New York before, I’m going, you know, where’s where’s an awesome place to check out? Where should I go? What should I see? Or further fun places on the planet where trying to really just capture that idea of personal recommendations and trust and then make it really easy for travelers to then uncover those experiences. 

And ultimately where we’re building our platform is to make them very easily bookable also. 

Nagy: So what I think is interesting is how you can go to a city, but you can view it from like lots of different angles, right? Filters, lenses. 

So when I go to your site and I look at a deep sort of fashion person, their lens on like the underground interesting Tokyo fashion is going to be a lot more vibrant than just an average stock standard, let’s go or like whatever guide, right? So you’re able to pair a psychographic interest with authority or trust, and then make that actionable, right?

And I would imagine that a. that’s  compelling, but then when you when you look at like the product roadmap with some AI and how that can plug in to other things or the bookability, the booking engines, this creates almost an end to end solve, right where I have awareness and intelligence on the place, but then sort of action in like my my itineraries booked, I don’t need to spend hours trying to book my hotel and stuff like that because I also want to know, you know, this fashion person might be staying at the Mercer in New York. It might be like the cool fashion Hotel, you know, might be someone that’s more food and wine, would have very calibrated like deep cuts in that area.

So is this kind of the gist that you’re going for? 

Canning: Yeah, that’s exactly right, Colin. We describe Exceptional Alien as a travel platform that’s powered by a global community of exceptional talents. And our ambition there is to number one, be the most trusted destination, but also bring that trust together with action and booking.

We actually, we call it actionable inspiration. So for a traveler to go to Exceptional Alien they know that they’re going to, you know, tap into what would be trusted recommendations from people around the world, but also just make it easy you know, make it easy to discover those places, find bookable links, ultimately to book them. We know that, you know, it’s been reported that there’s something like 38 different touch points on average that travelers go through when they go through the process of inspiration, through to booking.

And it can sometimes be many more. So we’re looking to just really reduce that number right down. Ultimately, you know, we’d like to get to one touchpoint and just make it a better experience. You know, it’s amazing how many people we come across, you know, you mentioned the end to end experience and in research we’ve done and, you know, people that we feature on our platform to our own networks, everyone seems to just come across that same problem, you know, and you find different behaviors that people tap into to share their own travels.

You know, you find like people often share that they use PowerPoint or, you know, they’re the person that always puts down their recommendations in a PDF and those things are still, when you come across them, they’re they can be quite gold. Like if you find someone who you go to Barcelona and someone’s taking the time to put together a PDF of the places they visited in Barcelona, it’s amazing how even something like a PDF spreads around, you know, and gets shared amongst people because it gives you that trusted lens that someone’s shared personally. 

I guess tapping into that way that we share and, you know, people share through email, through text, through socials, there’s so many ways, but we’re just looking to really capture it in one place and make it easy ultimately.

Nagy: I love this point because I think about my own behaviors over the years right? Back in the day, there were people that had really great like Foursquare lists, right? Like location based information tagged to a geo, you know, geolocation. And there’s been the ever present sort of cliche of like, I always joke that like, everyone’s got their god damn Mexico City Google doc you know, and then the other thing that I think you guys are tapping into well is like if you read the Financial Times Weekend or you read some of the more narrative interviews, every time some interesting person like recommends their favorite restaurant or some interest, I’m always kind of capturing that because I love when interesting people are giving their they’re kind of like deep cut or like the thing that, you know, a strong point of view, right? It’s like, have you had the Raul’s Bar Burger in New York? And it’s like, you actually kind of have to know about that, right?

Canning: Yeah. 

Nagy: So you guys have been putting this into one place. And then as I look at the collaboration that you did with Skyscanner here, it seemed very interesting because it was also giving Skyscanner a tremendous amount of like deeper editorial content, a lot more depth about a place which I think was was very interesting and actually adds a lot of value to some of the OTAs and these other brands.

So how did that come about? Skyscanner is Aussie, right? Or whereabouts is Skyscanner based? 

Canning: Skyscanner is based in Europe. 

Nagy: Okay. I just know Aussies love it, So.

Canning: But yeah, we’re thrilled to be working with Skyscanner on a new partnership and collaboration. The first piece that we’ve done is called Exceptional City Guides, and really the purpose of the project is to share the inspiration and trusted recommendations of creators, which is then paired with the booking capability and, you know, all that experience that Skyscanner have as a booking engine to ultimately create a better experience and more inspiring experience for travelers. 

So these projects we’ve called exceptional city guides and we’ve tapped into 21 different creators around the world to feature exceptional city guides for six different destinations and ultimately for a traveler what that means is they can go on Skyscanner, they can then see the inspiration and storytelling from Exceptional Alien and these different creators as part of the collaboration.

But then that shows people, you know, the creative underbelly and those unique, I guess, lenses on destinations that they probably wouldn’t find in other places and then can book them right there through Skyscanner. 

Conversely, if you’re on Exceptional Alien, you can see the same content and inspiration and that can direct you to Skyscanner also. So we’ve really paired up and teamed up to create, I guess, what you could describe as more of a, you know, fulfilling kind of end to end experience for travelers.

Nagy: What’s interesting here is, you know, everyone in the travel industry is always like obsessed with like the funnel, right? And you guys are really getting the inspiration side of it in a very interesting way. But what really stood out to me as I was digging into this, there’s a lot of really interesting people. It’s not the usual kind of like blah blah Instagram influencer nonsense.

I mean, like Patrick Johnson, I’m a huge fan of that brand and I know that they have operations in Tuscany, but like having his guide to Tuscany is just absolutely fantastic. You know, John Jay, who I believe is it Uniqlo now, but like was at Wieden and Kennedy and one of the best creative directors on the face of the world. You know, some of his cuts in Nakameguro and parts of Tokyo. 

So the intent behind the casting here is really, there’s just a feeling of quality, which I’m really impressed by, like, how do you find that and how do you get beyond the usual suspects when it comes to some of these people? 

Canning: Yeah, thanks Colion, appreciate that. Exceptionally Alien actually began with ten different friends. So when we started the platform, we started by inviting ten friends to share their perspective on a destination, you know, what’s their insights, why it inspires them.. And then, you know, the specific recommendations for the destination. And from there, we’ve invited every single person that we invite onto the platform, we’ve invited them to then nominate someone else who they think would have an inspiring lens on a place and want to share it. 

So that aspect has created what’s just been a really fun, I guess, organic way to begin growing this community so that whenever someone’s featured, people just did it quite naturally where they’d say, you know what, that was awesome, you should speak to my friend ‘X’ who is living in Shanghai. And you know, they would love to share their experience. 

So it’s just kind of going from person to person. So I guess there’s an element of, you know, people within the creative industries and now, you know, sports, entrepreneurial ventures, design, people like Patrick that you mentioned, just finding ways to invite others that they know will have an inspiring lens on a destination. So that’s one way that we do it. 

The other is we have a world class team who, you know, I guess put forward people that we’re inspired by you know, you mentioned someone like John Jay, for instance, has always been a huge inspiration in terms of the work that he does and the creative influence that he’s had.

I personally was really excited to hear about his lens on, you know, a city like Tokyo because where would he recommend to go and be inspired by. So really, that’s the core of it, where we’re inviting people that we are inspired by as a team. But what we’re ultimately really excited by is just the way that this community can continue to grow itself ultimately.

Nagy: One question I have for you is I get the sense of a shared worldview, even though there is a bunch of like disparate creators that you know, aren’t working for your brand. I think one of the things that I’ve always respected about, you know, like a magazine like Monocle, is that they have a very, very tight worldview.

And while they’re covering the globe, you know, it is through that lens and that worldview. How do you do that and how do you keep it tight, even though you’re kind of doing a much more bottoms up approach right? How do you maintain quality or perhaps your brand pulling through when you’re working through like bottom up creators? 

Canning: Yeah, that’s a great question. We define the mission of our brand as inspiring people to see the world through diverse perspectives. And really that mission is something that we apply to, we think about every time we invite someone to be on the platform, you know? It’s about what’s their perspective on the world, what’s their perspective on a destination? You know, why does this place inspire them?

What’s their story of travel? What’s their story of creativity? How those elements all come together. And then ultimately, when it comes to getting more specific about a place and places that inspire them, you know, that they’re their own unique voice is going to be very interesting to hear about. And the places that they love, whether they be things like, you know, an art gallery through to a little hole in the wall restaurant, whatever it might be.

You know, some experiences cost more money. Some are really cheap. Like we don’t really define anything by the type of experience. It’s more what’s exceptional to the person who’s who’s sharing it. And then, you know, those thinking about inspiring people to see the world through diverse perspectives. Those perspectives all, I guess, add up to that worldview that you’re talking about.

And when ultimately, you know, thinking about exceptional alien and coming from that experience of the Alien of Exceptional Ability Visa, but really just the experience of being able to live and work in different countries and feeling really grateful for that, it’s about this idea of, you know, borderless creativity and having a borderless mindset in a way that, you know, you can learn from different cultures.

You learn from difference, right? Like when you travel to a place. I’ve always loved the experiences the most when you know, you really do feel like you’re in a place that’s that’s opening your eyes. You know, you feel a bit alien to that place. So it’s about really tapping into those differences. But you know how they can inspire us and ultimately help us understand different cultures around the world.

Nagy: Yeah, I get the sense there’s a good diversity of perspectives on here. I mean, my aversion to some of these platforms that I’ve seen in the past are, it’s all the same note, you know? It’s the people that go to the same exact place in Copenhagen, the same exact place in the South of France. It’s like the very like well-trod migratory kind of creative class, but want to make sure that they’re living out loud and you know, telling everyone where they are.

I feel like there’s a lot more depth in terms of what you’re doing here, which is interesting. And then what is the grand commercial ambition? You know, I think great strategy is always like thinking of the promised land and like the outcomes and then backing it up from there. Like if we go out five years, like where do you, knowing the acceleration that we’re seeing with A.I. and all these other things and travel, what does this look like in five years knowing what we know today? 

Canning: Yeah, it’s, it’s crazy to even think of the world in five years, isn’t it? 

Nagy: Yeah. 

Canning: First and foremost, we’re just so excited about seeing, you know, this community of people who are sharing their travels grow so in five years, you know we have an ambition to just continue the depth of what the global community and network that Exceptional Alien celebrates looks like.

You know all around the world from major destinations of course, but right through to destinations that you know are further flung places that inspire people to see, you know, the world through those, you know, different, different perspectives and really inspire travel that’s unique. 

So, you know, community, first and foremost, the next stage of what we see as our growth and how we can ultimately be valuable for travelers is to be growing the media and technology side of our platform.

So with the travel playbooks product that we’re creating, we ultimately see that as, it’s almost like a playlist, but for travel, you know. We’re very inspired by music streaming, I mean, me personally, I’m someone who uses music streaming products every single day, multiple times a day, you know, on my phone, as most people do. And I guess, you know what streaming platforms have done for the user experience of music is amazing.

And I’ve always thought couldn’t there, and shouldn’t there, be be an experience for travel based recommendations that makes it just as seamless and easy for travelers, whether you’re looking for inspiration or whether you’re actually out there traveling in the moment. 

So from a product perspective, that’s really where we’re looking to design the experience is to be something that, you know, allows travelers to to tap into those really personal recommendations wherever you might be, and personal insights and inspiring stories but essentially in your pocket.

You know, I kind of like to look at it like you obviously can’t call up people that, you know, in every single city around the world to ask for their personal recommendations. But with Exceptional Alien, we really hope that we can continue to grow so that travelers can essentially tap into those personal recommendations of, you know, inspiring people all over the globe.

Nagy: There’s also got to be some interesting opportunities when you go out, you know, five years, when you look at what Apple is trying to do with this notion of spatial computing, you know, when you’re in this like inspiration phase of travel, tapping into John Jay’s Tokyo, but seeing what what the outside of that store looks like, you know. I’m just trying to think about from a futurist lens, how does this become even more interesting?

From reading Geo location where it exists now into new mediums, which, you know, I’m sure you have a product roadmap for this, but it’s just interesting as an expanse of thought, you know? 

Canning: Yeah, absolutely. We spend a lot of time thinking about that. You know, I think in terms of a future state with travel, I think something that becomes very interesting is that there’s always the physical experience of travel, and you know it’s hard to say that anything really beats that when you’re immersed in a new place.

But we obviously don’t get the opportunity to travel every single day of the year. So how can we travel and how can we experience different places when we’re not physically going? And, you know, the idea of immersive technologies, VR, you know,how can we continue to create an experience for people that really makes you feel like you’re there, but, you know, you’re not.

Nagy: And it could just be for planning, right? I want to feel what this place looks like if I’m thinking about putting it on my itinerary. I mean, I think the purpose of this business, in my opinion, is to get people out in the world, right? Period. 

Canning: Yeah. 

Nagy: So it’s just more of like, what are the vectors that can help with that planning phase or the inspiration phase.

Now, what I wanted to talk about with you, too, as we kind of wrap up here, is I would love to know more about, you know, destination marketing and how you guys have been actually powering some campaigns. 

Because I saw you did some work with South Africa and a couple of years ago I wrote about South Africa just kind of missing the boat with its value proposition. They used to have a great campaign, which is called The World in One Country, but because of the sort of political management in this and that, I feel like they never really got an incredible value proposition for whatever that country has, which is like beaches, winelands, Safari, you know, biodiversity. 

So what I think is very interesting and I want you to explain what you do with them, but you guys can talk about a lot wider diversity of things through your approach rather than having like three RTB’s, like a traditional, like, you know, campaign or like a key message and then a few like RTB’s. So explain to me why you’re an interesting solution for destination marketing. 

Canning: Yeah, look, we’re really enjoying destination marketing and working with different tourism brands and destination based brands. Ultimately because we want to share a unique perspective on those places that is more valuable for travelers. The project with South Africa, I guess the uniqueness, probably a good way to describe it would be in where we started and working together with South African tourism, we had the goal to celebrate South Africa through the lens of exceptional creators.

So it wasn’t about us coming up with what our lens on South African travel would be. It was about firstly tapping into and connecting with different talents who have a deep understanding of South Africa, who love it, who are inspired by it, but ultimately can share experiences that are going to be really unique for travelers and I think allow them and invite them to tap into, you know, the real authentic experience of what South Africa offers.

So we, you know, as part of this project, we connected with ten different creatives and talents from, you know, pro surfers, you know, people in food, and wine, you know, entrepreneurs. We had a famous rugby player. We have had, you know, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, for example, who was part of the project. 

Everyone choose a destination in South Africa that, you know, somewhere that they wanted to share, and then we invited them to really sort of lead the storytelling and the insights from there. 

So we traveled around South Africa with the ten different talents and we filmed on location. For example, with Ndaba Mandela, we went to Soweto. The Ndaba showed us around Soweto, you know, all his favorite places. He spoke about, you know, of course, the deep culture, the history, why Soweto is a place that inspires him.

He shares, you know, where he grew up, which was his household, his childhood home, which is now, you know, a museum because where he lived with Nelson Mandela. And that as we saw it, you know, just as one example, an inspiring lens on South Africa that, you know, is very true, and it’s going to take you to the place in a unique way. 

But then the travel playbook created the actionable side for travelers. So if you wanted to follow the Ndaba’s travel playbook for Soweto, you can literally go right there and discover all the places that he showed us. And ultimately you can find easy links to booking those experiences.

Nagy: Now this is very interesting because it takes us back to the beginning of your career, right as a creative working in some of these big shops. You’re probably, you know, tasked at some point with helping to build the narrative of a country. Why would a destination marketer kind of call you up as opposed to an ad advertising agency today?

Canning: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think really the behaviors of travelers and what people are looking for today, you know, people want uniqueness. People want trusted experiences. They want more culturally connected experiences is what we say, you know. And so they’re experiences that are really hard to find online unless they come straight from the source and come from someone who knows it.

I think in a similar way. I mean, to your question, it’s hard to also share those types of insights, stories and experiences in a sort of a traditional comms way. I think it, you know, it does really need to come from, you know, the people who know it and live it and want to share.

So what we’re offering with destination marketing from Exceptional Alien is really tapping into the types of experiences that, you know, modern travelers today are seeking, you know, the uniqueness and more meaningful, culturally connected experiences that ultimately we want to share. But celebrate the destination through, because it shows travelers a different lens and it invites travelers into experiencing those places in a way that is ultimately, you know, true and real.

Nagy: Makes sense, I think it’s very interesting to see. The challenge with a lot of this for you is just destination marketers are kind of old school, right? I think that they’re stuck in we need to hire a global network agency and do a, you know, a campaign line and yadda, yadda, yadda, where the way creators are working, the way social platforms are working, everything is much more atomized.

So what would be your dream sort of client? What is the destination marketer that you want to call you up? You know what is the place where you would love to do some really good work? 

Canning: Well, that’s a tough question. So many of so many inspiring destinations. 

Nagy: Is there a place that you’ve just gone and were moved by that you would want to help unearth some of those stories a little bit?

Canning: You know, it’s interesting, there are so many destinations that we would love to work with and are looking forward to working with. I would actually say, you know, the U.S. as a destination, it’s somewhere that I’ve lived and have really enjoyed living in the U.S. 

It’s somewhere that has a collection of experiences that people are so familiar with because, you know, in a pop culture sense, they’re quite famous, but I’d actually on a personal level, love to you know, love for Exceptional Alien to share destinations in the U.S. from you know, the perspective of creative communities in a way that almost presents a destination in the world that people think and feel so familiar with because of pop culture, but in a in a way that really, you know, goes under the skin of the place and sort of shows you the creative underbelly.

So in that sense, I’d love the challenge of, you know, sharing destinations you think you know, but you see them in a whole new light. 

Nagy: I like that point because I think that that’s always what Bourdain did well, right? You know, he would go to New Orleans or he would go to an off the beaten path and kind of get into the guts of a place or the hospitality of a place.

And you make a very good point that I think unfortunately, a lot of a lot of the world comes and sees a couple notes of the United States. You know, I was just in New York yesterday and I walked past the World Trade Center Memorial, and I walked past a few places and I saw like, you know, there’s people from around the world and that’s great and these are things that you need to see. 

But you also need to go to like Oxford, Mississippi, and learn about some of the literary history. You need to go to Marfa, Texas. You need to go to like little, little places that normally aren’t on the dance card for most people, right? 

Canning: Yeah

Nagy: So I like that task. And also, you know, it’s an interesting communications task because it’s a big, complicated place, but I think it’s filled with stories and I think that that’s what you guys do well. 

So with that, this has been an awesome conversation. I’ve been really, really happy to speak with you about it. A lot of key takeaways here, not only for the travel trade, destination marketers, but just people that are interested in stories and creators. 

So we have a lot more to come on the future of travel, both on this podcast and all the future Skift events. You can take a look at what’s coming up on Live.Skift.com. And then I wanted to say thank you so much for joining us. This is absolutely fantastic. 

Canning: Thank you. Thank you so much, Colin. Really appreciate it.

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