On Nov. 5 at 6:05 a.m., an email appeared in my inbox from the Travel Industry Association. It contained a statement from CEO Roger Dow alerting the new president-elect that if he needed help stimulating the economy or strengthening America's image abroad, the TIA had a few suggestions.
While the TIA gets points for moving quickly (at 6:05, not all the states had even finished counting ballots), the question of whether an Obama administration will be travel industry-friendly represents only one post-election question that should interest us. A parallel inquiry might be whether the electorate itself is still travel industry-friendly.
TIA lobbyists certainly must have pored over Obama's statements and past votes to determine his receptiveness to travel initiatives and how best to approach him. But there are also indicators from the campaign that might help those who create, package, distribute and sell travel to better understand how to approach consumers. As we're all too aware, stimulation of the economy must occur concurrently in Washington and in everyone's hometown.
The consumer research firm DYG believes that there are clues to be gathered from the campaign that can help all businesses better understand the societal shifts that made this past election historic. It occurred to the researchers that it would be foolish to pass up the chance to learn, for free, "all the things a billion-dollar marketing campaign can teach us," their analysts wrote. "Because the election has been so long, so surprising and so dynamic, it has been a breeding ground for deeper trends in society to find expression."
DYG's analysis focuses on the two candidates whom voters found most riveting -- Barack Obama and Sarah Palin -- because they manifest "an outlet and expression of trends in society."
"The Obama Phenomenon," as DYG calls it, represents (among other things): the social trend of working for changes that "create a more valuable life"; the technological trend "toward giving everyone a voice"; the demographic trend of an emerging generation; the demographic/social trend of embracing diversity; and the political trend of rejecting polarization. In summation, they wrote that voter interest in Obama reflects optimism and a desire to move away from "business as usual."
The "Sarah Surprise" reflects the social trends toward spiritual and religious awakening, new forms of family, the rising power of women and anti-elite sentiment.
There is a common denominator between these two opponents, the report indicates: Both attracted voters who reject "business as usual."
Some of the themes noted by DYG were, in fact, pioneered by companies in the industry, and, curiously, most of these are trends identified with Palin supporters. The focus on family is reflected in multigenerational programs; large tour operators are offering religious and spiritual themes; and the rising influence of women can be seen in companies like Gutsy Women and the creation of girlfriend getaway packages.
Likewise, the boom in voluntourism mirrors a theme of both candidates: change as a means of creating a more valuable life.
But I think the industry is behind the curve on many of the societal changes that President-elect Obama in particular tapped into and that seemed to have left his opponents flatfooted. These are trends that have not yet taken root in the travel industry.
In particular, travel agents, tour operators, hoteliers and cruise executives need to take stock of their efforts to "give everyone a voice." That involves providing a mechanism for them to express opinion in a manner that goes beyond guest comment cards.
The Obama campaign showed that consumers highly value technology vehicles that enable them to share feelings and experiences with a larger social network. By running a business, you create a unique network, a community of people whose commonality is that they all buy travel from you. There is some risk involved in giving them a common forum and encouraging them to compare notes, but there's usually much more upside. Your clients and guests will be sharing experiences that you, personally, enabled for all of them.
Likewise, parts of the industry, particularly the retail sector, are not in tune with what DYG describes as generational changes. The up-and-coming "millennials," young adults Obama attracted in huge numbers, are drawn to businesses that understand their values and the ways they communicate. DYG says they live a 24-hour life, focus on "emotional well-being" and health, want to customize experiences and are very tuned in to the communication revolution.
Accommodating this has been, frankly, tough for many in the industry, particularly travel agents. The belief has been expressed to me, too often, that as young people age, they will mature and come to appreciate the value of a travel agent. In reality, they might never become aware of the value of travel agents if their interests and tools of communication aren't exploited.
There is some very good news in the report: Two core values that lie at the heart of Obama's appeal are inherent to travel: embracing diversity and rejecting polarization. Marketing open-minded exploration of different people, cultures and lands is the core mission of the industry.
Yet the industry does not look diverse. When travel people gather, it is a sea of white faces. And while women are present in significant numbers, very few of them are CEOs. For all the genuine open-mindedness and good intentions of people in the travel industry, it remains overwhelmingly white, its leadership predominantly male.
Historic barriers have fallen with the election of Barack Obama, and the industry, through the TIA, is exploring opportunities to work with a new administration. But it's just as important for owners of travel industry businesses to evaluate indicators of societal shifts and take advantage of the opportunities to align themselves with the new trends in society.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].