Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The Phocuswright Conference overflows with stimulating ideas. There, onstage, is a managing director of travel for Google. The CEO of Expedia. There's a parade of entrepreneurs pitching their innovations to investors in the audience and being publicly grilled by a panel of "dragons" who probe for weaknesses. There are the investors explaining what they're looking for. Over there, leaders of legacy technology companies are unveiling new capabilities.

And the human side of technology and innovation gets its due. Tripadvisor CEO Steve Kaufer explains why he's stepping down. And there was a touching tribute to the conference's founder, Philip Wolf, who passed away in March.

Many presenters at the annual conference, which just concluded, are chasing travel's Holy Grail: The Seamless Trip. From research to booking to the travel itself, creative minds are working to sand down travel's speed bumps and dismantle barriers, to smoothly fuse travel's components. In the words of Clear CEO Caryn Seidman Becker, who spoke at the conference, her company's job is to "remove friction."

Several of the speakers are as intent on removing pain points encountered during the pre-trip processes as Clear is focused on the trip itself. How can data be used to better understand consumers and make buying more efficient? How can back-end payment processes be simplified and reduce internal costs? How can hotels maximize revenue opportunities?

Travel technology has become a dizzyingly complex field, and while tech solutions intend to simplify matters, it's been my observation over the years (I attended the first Phocuswright Conference in 1997, and most since) that for every technological advancement that pares down a process, two new enterprises arise that offer new options with enticing, but complicating, factors.

I've come to feel that assumptions about creating a seamless trip are fundamentally flawed. They're analogous to the belief that technology was going to give us more free time. In the 1980s, when personal computing was taking hold, the assumption was that, with our increased efficiency, we were well on our way to a four-day workweek.

Instead, technology has moved many of us to a seven-day workweek. Enhanced communication capabilities mean we are never truly off-duty.

The only way we could innovate our way to a seamless trip would be to press pause on any innovation that isn't specifically addressing the issue of seamless travel. We can't, so instead we work to solve for the complex present and predictable future. But the unpredictable future will always undo us.

Travel is inextricably linked to service, and technology as a service enhancer has some wonderful applications. I'd much rather use a kiosk than stand in a long check-in line. Ride-sharing apps efficiently remove language barriers and enable quick payments.

But when problems do arise -- not just seams, but roadblocks -- we discover the limitations of service technology. If the help we need does not neatly match the choices of a phone menu or requires words that go beyond an AI-empowered chatbot's vocabulary, there is nothing more frustrating.

On the other hand, I once heard Barry Sternlicht, founder of Starwood, 1 Hotel and Baccarat Hotels, say that in an ideal world, he'd have no human beings working in hotels because people make more mistakes than automated processes. And indeed, people do make mistakes that can be as frustrating as the (human-programmed) technology that purports to help us but can't.

It was at an early Phocuswright that I first heard the phrase "high tech, high touch." I don't hear it as often at recent conferences, and that's too bad. Today, the closest we can come to a seamless trip is one planned in great detail by a travel advisor using firsthand experience, highly trusted receptive operators and cutting-edge technology (much of which likely debuted at Phocuswright).

I'm pretty sure the seams will always be there in travel, and travelers will always benefit from the help that a good travel advisor offers to avoid tripping over them. Likewise, technology can steadily chip away at inefficient processes.

The futurist Scott Klososky once told me that being a futurist is easy -- you just have to be sensitive to the things that annoy you. Once these are identified, you can feel confident that someone who has the technical know-how to solve the problem will eventually address it.

I'm not so sure the inverse is true, i.e., that the things you enjoy will always remain in place because you enjoy them. In that regard, I've come to realize the limits of my own imagination. I'm often content, and even enjoy, things that an innovator (and the rest of the world) are ready to replace. (Thankfully, vinyl records did make a comeback.)

I applaud Phocuswright's innovators, but their inability to replace the human role in creating and delivering satisfying (if not seamless) trips isn't purely a function of technology's limitations. If we've learned nothing else these past 20 months, it's that when human contact is minimized, something very valuable gets lost. 

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