The lowest point, no question, was when I arrived in Qatar in April 2004 and noticed that the Arabic-language newspapers in Doha's airport all had a large photo on Page 1 of a man in a black, pointed hood and tunic standing on a small box, his arms held out in a weak-armed crucifixion pose, wires dangling from his hands.
The Abu Ghraib story had broken as I was en route to the Middle East, and it would dominate local media for the 10 days that I was traveling in the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar and Oman. My very presence seemed to be a test of Arab hospitality; people would ask where I was from, and my answer made their easy smiles disappear.
But walking the streets of London and Florence these past two weeks has been quite a different experience. Americans abroad, it seems, now wear Barack Obama pins and T-shirts to tell the world they are from the U.S., and do so with enthusiasm equal to the Canadians who wear maple leafs to let the world know they are not.
Regardless of whom one voted for in the last election, it's good to be popular again, and despite a tough economy, this popularity is one more item in your toolkit to motivate your clients to get traveling (other tools are bargains galore, a strengthening dollar and cheap fuel).
And there's yet another reason to encourage clients to travel abroad now rather than wait, though you might not want to mention it. It's possible that, once those abroad have had time to reflect on the U.S. role in creating the economic tailspin, maple leafs might once again outnumber American-based ornamentation, perhaps even on Americans.
• • •
I was in London attending the World Travel Market, then went to Florence last week to receive a Web 2.0 Award for my collective writing about online developments in travel, presented at an Italian online travel conference called Buy Tourism Online.
The conference was, in many ways, reflective of issues facing the sale of off- and online travel, both in the U.S. and abroad.
For the most part, the conference focused on tactics to increase online sales. Speakers representing the likes of Google, Expedia and TripAdvisor stressed the importance of travel blogs and whatever tools or opportunities they happened to be selling.
The average age of attendees was about 30, with speakers skewing slightly older. But to me, the most interesting presentation was made by a man who was at least a generation older than any other speaker.
Let me preface my reaction to his speech by saying that the painful truth is, in the online world, experience is just as likely to get in the way as to be helpful. I got involved in online services relatively early; but is my experience as a content provider to AOL back when it was still a dial-up service helpful to me when I look at possible strategies for Travelweekly.com? Not really. Are my current views about online travel sales colored by my discussions with the founder of Expedia during the 18 months leading to the launch of that service? Barely. At this point, the primary value of those memories is sentimental in nature.
For the most part, from the points of view of both technology and evolving social consciousness, a 22-year-old college graduate launching a travel Internet site will have a more intuitive grasp than I will of the tools at her or his disposal, precisely because they're not burdened with a growing clutter of outdated terms and discarded models. My 16-year-old daughter raises my consciousness about what's going on online every time we talk about it.
So what did the oldest speaker say that the younger ones did not? What value did his experience bring to the conference?
The speaker, Tommaso Zanzotto, is chairman of Wandrian, an online rail-booking service. He is not new to either the online or traditional travel industries, having served stints running American Express in Europe and as president of Hilton International before becoming involved in Internet startups related to travel.
While others spoke of search optimization and look-to-book ratios, he spoke about the comparative importance of destination, price, brand and blogs and how they interact in a consumer's decision-making process.
The importance of brands, he believes, is diminishing. "And this is painful for me. I've spent most of my life with big brands," he said, truly looking pained.
But he believes that an individual hotel's reputation, as enhanced or damaged by blogging, is of greater importance than brand. Blogging may indeed be the strongest of the factors in decision-making, stronger than price, destination or brand.
After his presentation, European Tour Operators Association President Tom Jenkins told me, "If you boiled down his presentation to one sentence, it would be: 'Embrace the Web, embrace blogs, but care most about the service you give customers."
That is hardly a cutting-edge sentiment, but it is actually more, not less, important as the world becomes more wired (or rather, wireless). And that message, put in the context of the present economic environment, is perhaps the most important one for those young Italian hotel Web masters in the audience.
You'll recall that the last recession, following 9/11, occurred during what is now called "Web 1.0," before the era of social networking. In fact, we might want to begin calling the recession that began in 2001 "Crisis 1.0" and the current economic meltdown "Crisis 2.0."
To me, the biggest difference is that during Crisis 1.0, consumers had money to spend but were afraid to travel. In Crisis 2.0, they want to travel but are afraid to spend money.
Last time, lowest price, in combination with brand, secured the booking. Prices will fall this time, too, but the companies that survive Crisis 2.0 will be the ones that understand that exploiting social marketing is only a tactic to support the strategy of good customer experience. People booking travel, online and off, will turn to blogs, carefully weighing reputation as determined mostly by other customers' previous experiences.
Perhaps, in fact, they will give even more weight to the bloggers than they will to their own previous experiences with the same brand or destination.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].