As he listened for nine hours while 42 travel innovators presented their ideas during the first two days of the Phocuswright conference earlier this month, Avoya Travel co-founder Van Anderson was struck by something.
Or rather, the absence of something: Not one of the 42 mentioned the word "cruise."
"It was almost as if they all agreed not to talk about it," he told me over breakfast on the final day of the conference.
Jeff Tolkin, co-chairman and co-CEO of World Travel Holdings, which is thought to be the largest seller of cruises in the world, was also in the audience. He attended the conference, he said, to "keep current with what's happening with technology as it pertains to the industry and connect with customers and prospective customers."
But he, too, didn't see any innovations during the conference directly related to cruise.
For most travel advisers, blue water and river cruising are very much in the mix of products they sell. Yet the technology-focused entrepreneurs who were vying for attention during the Travel Innovation Summit portion of the Phocuswright event clustered around segments where the competition for online sales was already stiff and dominated by large players: hotel, air and vacation rental sales, ground transport and Big Data personalization.
Trip planning, group travel, website optimization and even automated ways of getting refunds for airline delays seemed fitting subjects for technology-based innovations.
But cruising? "Nada," said Anderson.
What's going on here? Are the innovators missing an obvious opportunity or consciously avoiding a dead-end path? Were Anderson and Tolkin wasting their time focusing on a segment other attendees had concluded was futile or seeing opportunity where others saw nothing?
The answer to all of the above is yes, no and maybe. The innovators, Anderson believes, were drawn to "big prizes," and sales technology becomes much more doable when the product is a commodity.
"The hotel business is huge," he said. "There are single hotel companies that have more rooms than all the cruise berths put together. So opportunity goes with scope."
Cruising, of course, has resisted commoditization. Although Tolkin said he closes "a fair percentage" of his business over the Web, cruising is nonetheless "a considered sale. It's one price for accommodations, meals and entertainment. It's complex."
As I sat and listened to the innovators present, one thing that struck me was the number of presentations structured around an imaginary person who was frustrated with travel technology but whose problems would be solved by the innovation that was about to be revealed.
"This is Julie..." one began. "This is Greg ..." said another. Julie and Greg are shown discovering new ways to identify and book the travel experiences they're after, quickly and painlessly.
The judges took some of the presenters to task for presuming that travelers don't enjoy travel planning, and indeed, there have been studies that suggest planning and anticipation are actually more enjoyable than the trip itself for many people.
Anderson had a different take. He felt there was a direct connection between the legion of "This is ..." characters introduced in presentations and the absence of new cruise-related technology.
The presenters, he said, realized they had to humanize what is essentially a mechanical process.
"Several innovators described the steps consumers go through when they book a vacation: inspiration, research, booking and enjoyment," he said. "But even if those are addressed with technology, how can technology get involved in a conversation where a husband and wife are having difficulty coming to an agreement about where to go or what to do? Unlike selling hotels and airlines, which are commodities, having a real buyer-seller relationship is important to identify intent in a complicated product like cruising. I find that the ability to build a relationship is more important than previous sales experience to be a successful seller of cruises."
Avoya's model is to market online to generate leads for its affiliated independent agents, and Anderson said he has tested online booking engines, and continues to test.
"Booking a cruise is complicated, and people I've spoken to here have told me that their technology works best when price is the most important factor," he said. "And often, in the pursuit of great technology, developers forget what they're trying to accomplish. It doesn't help to have faster search times that lead to a bad result."
But change is accelerating, and it feels good, Anderson said, adding. "As my dad says, times of change are times of opportunity. Challenges are daunting, but the future is bright for travel professionals who blend technology with human spirit, persistence and passion. Always be testing; innovation is not optional."
For his part, Tolkin believes there are innovators working in cruise and focusing on revolutionizing onboard experiences, developing new pricing models and making search and discovery more rewarding and transactions easier.
He told me that what was most striking was the perception that innovation isn't occurring in cruise. He hadn't listed recruitment as a reason he attended Phocuswright, but he did assert that the sector does attract the young and tech-savvy. He added, with a smile, "We're hiring them."