Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The Travel Innovation Summit at the Phocuswright Conference, held last week in Fort Lauderdale, began with a moment of silence to remember the victims of the Paris attacks.

Although that was the only overt mention of the tragedy during the summit, Paris kept circling back in my thoughts as I watched more than 40 hopefuls in search of money, partners or affirmation pitch their products to 1,800 investors, competitors, analysts, entrepreneurs and digital strategists in the summit audience.

None of those apps, software or websites addressed travel security, at least not directly.

But there were technologies that conceivably overlap. One of the companies, Proxce, offered a "proximity identity manager." After consumers book a room at a Proxce-enabled hotel, they download an app that not only alerts the hotel's system once they have arrived in the lobby but eliminates the need to stop at the front desk. A guest's mere presence triggers a room assignment and a code to get into the guestroom, accessible through the app. If arriving in a car, the garage will also know the guest has arrived (and start the clock for parking charges).

Summit judge Rod Cuthbert, CEO of Rome2Rio, spoke for many in the audience when he said: "It's a little on the borderline between fabulous and creepy."

Slowly, we seem to have accepted, as the price of admission to 21st century life, that we will be both stalked and enabled by technology. And the results are indeed a mix of fabulous and creepy. Several Big Data processors who presented at the summit focused on the power of their products' "personalization" features, asserting that by collecting and analyzing consumers' Web behavior, they can deduce individual preferences and serve tailored offers that will increase look-to-book ratios and traveler satisfaction.

It's clear that surveillance, which had previously been exclusive to the realms of security, law enforcement, espionage and shamuses, has crossed over, with every click of "I agree," to commerce.

But circumstances in Europe also suggest that the ever-more granular nature of cataloging identity and behavior is not a panacea -- not for security, and likely not for trade.

•   •   •

In 2004, I had interviewed Marilyn Carlson Nelson, then CEO of Carlson, following her return from Davos, where she had co-chaired the World Economic Forum. I asked her if travel security had been on the agenda.

"People were assuming that by 2010, countries would have settled on some standards and that we'll have found ways to differentiate the tourists from the terrorists," Nelson had replied. "The broad-brush treatment [travelers have] experienced to date is because of the imprecision of our technology and information."

In retrospect, one sees limitations even in precision. Exactitude is effective when everyone forms an orderly line to be inspected before crossing a border. In parts of Europe today, systems at many levels have been overwhelmed by a flood of desperate migrants fleeing horrors at home. And there is growing speculation that among them were a few with designs to spread that horror.

How we move forward from here will say a lot about us as Americans, as human beings and as an industry. To suggest, as some politicians have, that we turn away migrants from the Middle East whom we have committed to accept, and simultaneously shut our borders for 30 days to anyone who isn't enrolled in Global Entry, ignores that we have, for 14 years, been refining evolutionary systems that take new threats into account. As regards accepting Syrian refugees, the process is already expected to take two years, and includes interviews by intelligence agencies and thorough biometric analysis.

An alternate proposal in the Senate would modify the Visa Waiver Program to require visa applications from citizens of participating countries who have traveled to Iraq or Syria in the past five years. Given that some of the Paris attackers were citizens of countries enrolled in the program, it seems worthy of debate, as long as the debate is rational, and bears in mind that the waiver program was designed to enhance security by elevating protocols in other countries.

Recent history has shown that irrational, political or fear-based reactivity to terror events results primarily in self-inflicted economic wounds and hands terrorists exactly what they want: a disruption in normalcy. U.S. Travel seems rightly concerned that, in the current atmosphere, political grandstanding and posturing may result in changes to the Visa Waiver Program that are counterproductive, undermining security enhancements and unnecessarily curbing growth in tourism and travel.

A Travel Weekly survey last week showed that many consumers are nervous about traveling to Europe in the short term. Industry veterans know that travel can be fragile, but also that it's more resilient than fragile. The events in Paris were shocking, and require that we reflect -- reflect, but resist the reflexive turns of mind that fear inspires.

•   •   •

Shortly after the summit portion of Phocuswright ended, Sebastien Bazin, CEO of Accor Hotels, took the stage.

"I'm a French guy," he began, "and want to give my heartfelt thanks for the thousands of messages of support I have received over the past five days. Paris is the City of Light but is going through some very dark days. Anyone [who had plans to visit Paris], please do come. I'm not telling you it's safe, but it's as safe as anywhere, and we will make the visit enjoyable. All of us are in this fight. And we will prevail."

In the midst of these dark days, there is inspiration in Bazin's words.

And a different form of inspiration in innovations in travel technology.

The confluence of personal information, leisure activity, commerce, geopolitics, security and surveillance is likely to be with us for a long, long time. To adjust to that will take a while.

But in the short term, to choose to travel as planned is a crucial step on the path to prevail.


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