Arnie WeissmannAn Innovation Summit was held during the PhoCusWright Conference in Orlando last week. Ultimately, the presentations of new travel technology, in aggregate, probably say more about our current economic times than they do about the state of online entrepreneurial creativity.

But they also say a lot about the role of travel agents as a viable distribution channel going forward.

Thirty-six presenters paid $10,000 each to demonstrate their Web-based travel products. The 36 were selected by PhoCusWright from a larger pool of applicants, but the real jury was the audience, who used handheld electronic devices to indicate how they felt about a product. The scale ranged from "exciting as watching paint dry" to "the next TripAdvisor or Google."

Although the summit portion of the conference was positioned as travel technology's "American Idol," it sometimes felt more like "The Gong Show." The metaphorical gong that could eliminate aspiring entrepreneurs, however, was heard not during the presentations but in candid, informal critiques during coffee breaks.

While most people seemed to have a favorite or two, the consensus was best summed up by Mims Wright, a senior adviser for the investment bank Bentley Associates: "These were not big technology ideas."

The problem, Wright said, was a lack not of big ideas, but of money: "What we're seeing are essentially just applications. The reason you're not seeing the big ideas for technology is not because they don't exist. There are great ideas out there, but they're sitting on the sidelines, waiting for funding."

Many of the entrepreneurs presenting at PhoCusWright focused on new approaches for consumers either to search travel inventory or to organize their trip-planning research and travel documents. I asked Yen Lee, former head of Yahoo's travel efforts and current CEO of a travel search site called UpTake.com, if this field wasn't already a tad overcrowded.

The search space was far from saturated, Lee said. "Travel's big. The biggest player, TripAdvisor, has only 10% market share."

Lee said, however, that while there's a tremendous amount of information on the Web, most of the good stuff is either on the "dark Web" or "off Web."

The dark Web is information that's stored digitally but unavailable, typically sitting behind firewalls and inaccessible to search engines.

"Off Web is the knowledge that's in your head and has not been transferred to the Web," he said. "That represents about 99% of what's known."

He can't get at the dark Web, he acknowledged, but he's keen to exploit off-Web knowledge on his site. How?

"Travel agents are part of the long-term vision," Lee said. He's developing a format that will connect travel agents, and their off-Web knowledge, with travelers.

The elusive promise to use the Web to tap off-Web travel agent expertise has been floated before, and it's gaining some traction with sites like Tripology. Beyond that, agents currently share their off-Web knowledge through various social media sites.

PhoCusWright CEO Philip Wolf, however, sees the low percentage of travel agents among his attendees as evidence that the travel agency community "doesn't get it." That is, they don't fully appreciate the Web's promise to help their businesses. Having discussed this topic with many agents, I disagree, but I do think the challenge of bridging the gap between off-Web knowledge and online technology is daunting.

None of the innovators presenting this year directly addressed how to tap into travel agents' off-Web knowledge, though agents could certainly participate in aspects of social media that are embedded within some of the concepts presented. (The only exclusively travel agent-centric product among the 36 was ProfitPlus, a tool developed by Travel Guard.)

It's true that many agents who diligently exploit technology to make their agencies more efficient also believe that their off-Web knowledge is the most important differentiator they possess. They believe that the nondigital, personal touch is why they are successful rather than an indication that "they don't get it."

A debate between the virtues of successful off-Web and online models might seem pointless. Isn't there room for both? And if off-Web agencies are perfectly content with a small-scale operation, they might well believe that it's Wolf who doesn't get it.

The off-Web, personal model might well sustain travel agents until the last baby boomers die, but then the question of sustainability becomes relevant. There might always be some demand for the personal touch, but I'm guessing that ultimately the high-touch agency community will resemble a cottage industry more than an important distribution channel. The public could well bang the gong on the traditional agency model.

Innovations that will enable the direct transfer of data into and out of the brain are actually being worked on but is likely to come out of a university research facility (or, perhaps, the Pentagon), and it's not likely to be debuted at PhoCusWright. But those innovations might actually arrive in time for vast amounts of travel agent knowledge to be truly digitized and offered up on a large scale.

Short of that, travel innovators will inch along, spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to replicate on a large scale what already exists, bountiful but untappable, between individual travel agents' ears.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.

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