Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

How do trend-spotters and futurists identify and label that which is invisible to others?

Rohit Bhargava has perfected a way. He's a business writer who has published "nonobvious trends" books since 2013, and many of the patterns he identifies soon shift from nonobvious to very obvious.  

I saw him speak at SXSW last week, after standing in the longest line I encountered at the festival. (The atmosphere at SXSW is borderline insanity, made all the more insane this year by omnipresent electric scooters and presidential candidates.)

Though Bhargava didn't provide travel examples to illustrate his points, everyone in the industry can find inspiration in his observations.

He said we are living through a "believability crisis." Everything from fake news to misleading clickbait headlines to disinformation campaigns to "alternative facts" make people ever more cynical. It's why some embrace the identity of enragement, and why it's tough to be trusted.

And, very possibly, it explains the growing strength of travel advisors. In an age when it's reflexive to question whether the photo of the beautiful hotel rooms online has been enhanced, building a long-term relationship with an advisor is an attractive alternative.

Further bolstering agents is the nonobvious trend "retro-trust." Because we've become so skeptical, Bhargava said, we want to turn back the clock to reconnect to things we possessed or used when reality seemed clearer and life seemed less complicated. Examples he gave were the re-emergence of board games and the increasing number of people who are downgrading their phones to simpler models.

For better or worse, much of society views travel agents as inherently retro, and retailers can capitalize on this. Bhargava suggested looking for ways to "collaborate with history within your enterprise," and indeed, advisors can tap deep associations connected to fond memories of travel as it was -- and still is if travelers are pointed in the right direction.

Another nonobvious trend he spoke about that I felt had special application for travel was "enterprise empathy."

Empathy used to be nice-to-have, not need-to-have, he said. Examples he cited were "relaxed" checkout lines in grocery stores, whose appeal is the exact opposite of the express lanes. They attract older people who dread the pressure to move swiftly through the process. Other grocery stores open an hour early, pressing the pause button on restocking and other noisy distractions that can create stress for some shoppers on the autism spectrum.

Even if empathy is only directed at a thin slice of one's clientele, it nonetheless signals to all that you care. 'Made with empathy' "is a business strategy," Bhargava asserted.

I've observed that empathy is certainly on the rise among travel suppliers and agents alike, motivated in part by a desire to attract aging baby boomers. Some with special needs also have the time and money to travel well and long.

The final trend that I thought had the potential to strengthen support for the industry is "backstory telling."

Many large suppliers already have media divisions that do nothing but create messaging about their brands across multiple platforms. But Bhargava cautioned that "no child has ever said, 'Daddy, instead of a bedtime story, can you read me some branded content?'"

Dispensing practical information within the context of an aspirational experience is exactly what travel advisors do. Bhargava's advice suggested that travel sellers take care to place information in a useful and contextual narrative arc.

The author also shared a recipe to create innovative trends: Question unquestioned assumptions. Challenge undeniable facts. Break analytical habits.

All easier said than done.

There was a smattering of official travel-tangential sessions at SXSW, but what had brought me to Austin was an invitation to join a luxury travel panel at TravelLaunch, organized by Travel Massive, Voyager and Locale. The event, which attracted legacy as well as emerging travel companies, also included a stage for startups to pitch their platforms, panels on experiential travel and business travel and, it being Austin and SXSW, a two-hour rooftop party.

During TravelLaunch, I encountered examples of what Bhargava had spoken about.

For example, the old model of a travel agency once resembled little more than an insurance agency with travel posters on the walls, a retro-relic no one is clamoring to see return. But Keith Waldon, founder of Austin's Departure Lounge (who was also on the luxury panel) revived the concept of a brick-and-mortar agency, but one that more resembles a coffee shop or wine bar.  

Similarly, one of the startups on the pitch stage was Hitch, a ride-sharing program inspired by a predigital mode of ride-sharing: hitchhiking. Its app secures rides on your phone, using fingers other than the thumb. (Come to think of it, perhaps "predigital" is not the best descriptor for an activity reliant on thumbs.)

The nonobvious becomes obvious whether you read Bhargava's books or not. But early identification of societal shifts do give you an opportunity to hitch rides with trends early in their journey.

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