Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

There are headwinds and tailwinds ahead. But, said Sabre president Kurt Ekert, the tailwinds will be greater than the headwinds.

Ekert was being interviewed onstage on Day 1 of the Phocuswright Conference in Phoenix by PhocusWire senior Europe reporter Linda Fox. (Europe, it turns out, is in the headwinds category: "Europe in a recession, no doubt about that," Ekert said.)

The onstage prognoses on economic matters was somewhat mixed, but the positive vibe at the conference seemed to return to prepandemic levels as travel tech titans (Expedia CEO Peter Kern and Tripadvisor CEO Matt Goldberg also spoke that day), trailblazers, wannabes and investors showed up in force. 

The day featured a segment called "Launch," during which established travel technology companies and unknown entrepreneurs alike pitched their latest developments to an onstage bleacher of critics. Following the presentations, critics and audience alike held up either a green "thumbs up" or red "thumbs down" paddle in response.

Much of what was pitched reflected a more efficient application of a function that already exists in human or digital form. The twin goals of speed and cost savings have been the dominant forces propelling commerce since at least the Industrial Revolution, and indeed, presentations often focused on familiar concepts that were being improved incrementally.

Innovation and efficiency are linked but aren't the same. Shortly after carmaker Henry Ford, who embraced the pursuit of efficiency like few others, advanced automobile ownership in America by refining assembly lines, he said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." 

That quote bestows more credit on himself than he deserves -- he didn't invent the automobile -- but the sentiment behind the quote has come to define innovation versus efficiency: Come up with something new rather than improve what exists.

Of course, both refinements in existing operations and completely new concepts grow existing businesses and create new categories. What struck me as I listened to speakers was that, on one hand, small travel retailers, including home-based travel advisors, already possess the attributes that technologists are pursuing, and on the other that small retailers could benefit greatly by jumping on trends that technologists have identified.

Goldberg, just 100 days into his tenure at Tripadvisor, didn't provide many specifics about what he was planning but talked about where he wanted to go directionally. Two words came up repeatedly: "reimagining" and "trust."

With "trust," he sets a high bar, though the word applies differently in different businesses. If you're selling a commodity -- a Ford, for example -- then trust falls first on the brand (is it a reliable car?) and second on the salesperson in the showroom. But in service industries, it falls first on the advisor who's recommending branded products.

The challenge for Tripadvisor, which is also a sales portal, is that it must, through inferred recommendations based not on the brand's expertise but on the experience of other customers, create something akin to the trust that's a natural byproduct of human interactions.

In order to build trust for its own brand, Tripadvisor must simultaneously a) collect information about users looking for guidance to gain insight into their preferences and b) try to ensure, through technology, that the advice aggregated by fellow users is presented and perceived as credible.

That Tripadvisor is still working on this 22 years after its founding underscores how complicated it is to build trust digitally. Trust is difficult to put into words, let alone code. People can accept "artificial intelligence" without the phrase seeming ironic; can the same be said for "artificial trust"?

It was, nonetheless, clear from listening to presentations that advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence do move companies closer to creating trusted platforms, edging toward what already exists between good travel advisors and their clients. (Emphasis on the word "good." Not all humans are equally talented in developing the expertise and empathy that lead to trusted advisor-client relationships.)

What can advisors learn from the technologists? It comes back to Goldberg's second most oft-used word: Reimagining. (I'm glad, by the way, we now have an alternative to "pivoting.")

Reimagining presumes you're intimate with the goal but reconsidering how to attain it.

One sales platform that came up repeatedly in conversation and presentations on the first day of the conference was short-form video, a la TikTok. This year's Travel Industry Survey shows that travel advisors are no slouches when it comes to social media; TikTok usage is on the rise with advisors but is still in low double-digits.

Short-form video seems an easy point of focus in reimagining an advisor's business. Videos on TikTok aren't expected to be polished, studio productions; creating them (or posting ones provided by suppliers) is within easy reach of any advisor.

Perhaps ultimately, whether a company (large or small) encounters headwinds or is assisted by tailwinds in 2023 may hinge on two things: the depth of trust in its relationships and its ability to reimagine itself. 

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