In Travel Weekly's Preview 2012 issue last week, CEOs from every segment of the industry weighed in on what they expect to occur business-wise next year. Except for concerns (or excitement) particular to their company or vertical, the consensus was that 2012 would look a lot like 2011. There would be no noticeable quickening of economic recovery nor, short of European economic collapse, backsliding.
For someone running a business, these are important considerations, but if 2012 also looks a lot like 2011 in terms of societal changes, it might ultimately be judged as a pivotal year in the emergence of a new world view that can have significant implications for the travel industry.
The pace of change in 2011 was revolutionary, not evolutionary. In any given year, one finds drama that alters the course of a country or even a continent, but the impact of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Europe's sovereign debt issues, the continued rise of the BRIC countries and the growth of social media combined to signal seismic global change.
A friend of mine likens 2011 to 1968 in terms of its potential impact. That was the year that both the Vietnam War and demonstrations against it escalated, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, student protests turned violent in Paris, the Prague Spring bloomed and was suppressed, the Civil Rights Act was signed, the women's liberation movement surged, a highly politicized Olympics was held in Mexico City, Mao began the Cultural Revolution and "The Troubles" boiled up in Northern Ireland.
It set the stage for political developments (and roiling) for years to come. But these events, political on the surface, also had an enormous impact on the culture and lifestyle of the West, and when my friend compared 2011 with 1968, he was thinking about that sort of shift in consciousness.
"We are witnessing the death of the old guard," he said.
My friend is an art dealer, focusing on impressionist and post-impressionist modern art, what he calls "the unassailable bastions of art." He has made a good living with this specialization. Until 2011.
"In the past six months," he said, "prices have plummeted." Matisse? "It'll sell, but only if it's very spare." Renoir? "Dropping."
Young art buyers, he said, don't want anything that strikes them as something their parents might have on their walls. "When they inherit these pieces, they go straight to the market. To keep them would be like displaying their grandmother's Blue Willow china."
In thinking about how this rejection of the old guard might play out in travel, we seem to have inventory on both sides of the new guard/old guard line. Although boutique hotel godfather Ian Schrager recently dismissed the movement he created in the 1980s as "watered down," there are still plenty of wonderfully creative hotels opening every year. I'd be more concerned about the blue-chip brands like Waldorf Astoria, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton. Not only can one argue that these brands have been "watered down" through expansion, but cultural shifts may raise doubts about their appeal to younger, affluent travelers.
In aviation, 20-year-old Virgin Atlantic and its regional progeny have held onto "new guard" status through constant innovation. I visited the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow in November and was impressed. This is an exciting club. The Admirals, Red Carpet and Sky clubs as well as British Airways' lounges are, by comparison, my grandmother's Blue Willow china.
Escorted tours as a group are arguably an old-guard product, but they have evolved with changing tastes and appear well-positioned to cater to the large wave of old-guard baby boomers moving into their traditional demographic.
Likewise, traditional travel agents seem inherently old guard, but as our editorial on Page 24 explores, there are opportunities as well as dangers for them.
The cruise industry has experienced a revolution of its own over the past 10 years that positions them well to welcome the new guard if their messaging successfully conveys the degree to which they've changed.
The travel industry as a whole has proven itself nimble and responsive to societal changes in the past. But the biggest challenge is the rise of a generation that, even more than is typical, defines itself by rejecting anything it associates with previous generations.
When Matisse and Renoir are moving out of favor, is anything safe?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.