Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

When I attended early Phocuswright conferences, the few travel agents in the room didn't always feel particularly welcome. It wasn't that the organizers had an anti-agent agenda, but the attendees -- young OTAs and those in their orbit -- viewed agents the way a Windows early adopter might look at someone who was still using DOS.

I recall one agent who had signed up because his website had automated a portion of the client qualification process, and he was interested in learning about, and incorporating, additional technology. But when he stood to challenge an airline executive who had just predicted the demise of the agency model, the airline exec responded dismissively and derisively. The debate was over, and the agent found no support.

The airline in question no longer exists, but I see more and more forward-thinking travel agents in attendance at Phocuswright conferences. Both agents and the conference have evolved in significant ways over the years.

I've written before about convergence and overlap between the online and off-line worlds of travel distribution. Big OTAs are among the largest employers of human travel sellers, in call centers, and agents not only have become adept builders of websites and social media savants, but the approximately 50% of travel advisers who work out of their houses, either as independent sellers of travel or home-based employees of brick-and-mortar agencies, are heavily reliant on technology to compete (and then some) with agencies that have automated the majority of their sales over the web.

As it approaches its 24th annual edition, the Phocuswright conference has grown from a few hundred mostly American attendees to (last year) 1,850 delegates from more than 30 countries. It remains the premier showcase for innovation, insight into distribution trends and high-level networking in the industry.

(Disclosure: Phocuswright, like Travel Weekly, is owned by Northstar Travel Group, though I would write this regardless!)

There is a reason that travel advisers outlasted the airline that had predicted their demise. The rise of internet competition, the shock of 9/11, bird flu, tsunamis, a major economic meltdown, terrorism, earthquakes and direct-sales efforts have pruned the weak and marginal agents. Those who remain have raised the level of business sophistication, tech savvyness and creativity of the entire agency community.

Sophisticated, creative and savvy agents will not only find a lot of stimulation at Phocuswright this year, they will gather a tremendous amount of business intelligence on competitors and trends as well as get a first look at ideas still in the incubation phase.

The Summit portion of the program, held on the first full day of the conference, pits 24 young companies against each other in the hopes of impressing investors in the audience and walking away with a $100,000 convertible bridge loan. But they must first impress a panel of judges and face an onstage cadre of critics who often give biting evaluations of their presentations. (It's not a shark tank; it's a dragon pit.)

Similarly, Launch, on day two, gives a sneak peek at innovations being developed by established companies developing new technologies. They, too, face dragons.

Travel agents who attend will also be able to get into the minds of competitors, hearing insights from the CEOs of the largest players in digital travel distribution, including Expedia's new chief, Mark Okerstrom, Priceline CEO Glenn Fogel, TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer, Kayak CEO Steve Hafner as well as John Kim, president of Homeaway and executives from the largest OTAs in China and India.

Google's vice president for Travel and Shopping, a managing director of Trivago and leaders from bed banks and booking apps will also take the stage.

Panels featuring investors will share with the audience what they look for when evaluating travel companies, and speakers representing the GDS community are also on the program. I'll be moderating a panel that will include U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow, ARC CEO Mike Premo and Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson on "Travel in the Age of Trump."

Over time, the Phocuswright community has grown significantly, and it now includes everyone from traditional agencies to startups exploring ways to use artificial intelligence to sell travel. Looking over the list of attending companies, in addition to agencies and airlines, I see everything from cruise lines, tour operators and hoteliers to social media platforms (including Snapchat), destination management organizations and car rental companies.

Although airlines and travel agents still don't always see eye to eye, they have learned to cooperate as well as compete, and both are more profitable for it. A meeting ground like Phocuswright is an event where creative sparks fly, ideas proliferate and friends and "frenemies" forge partnerships.

This year's conference will be held Nov. 7 to 9 at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Fla. And the welcome mat is out for all.

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