I had the chance to catch up with three industry friends during TheTradeShow in Orlando last week, and in the course of three conversations, I saw the year 2010 defined.
They work at three very different types of businesses: One is an executive for a major international hotel company; one runs a small technology company in transition; and the other heads a large host travel agency.
Julius Robinson, who had been recognized the day before we spoke as ASTA's Allied Member of the Year, is vice president of global sales intermediaries for Marriott International and chairman of Marriott's Innovention Network, a collection of 60 hotels that go hard after the meetings and events markets.
This year, he told me, he's seen Marriott become a true global company.
It has, of course, had hotels on other continents and a worldwide presence for quite some time. "International" has been part of its name since 1993.
What made it global? Beginning in 2010, continents got their own presidents. (It's why Simon Cooper was plucked from leading Ritz-Carlton to become president of Marriott in Asia.) As a result, "everything you do doesn't have to roll up to Mother Marriott," he said. "Presidents can be much more nimble than in the past."
The concept of decentralization is certainly not new to 2010, but this nonetheless marks a milestone of sorts.
Marriott is by most measures a conservative company; it would not entertain this type of structural change lightly. It might seem at first blush to be an internal issue, but when Julius said that this was the year Marriott became a global company, I think he meant that in 2010, two important things occurred: 1) The stark, raw economic power of the non-Western world got everyone's attention. 2) There is now near-universal recognition that for an American company to succeed beyond its shores, it must listen to local sentiment as carefully as it hones an image to project.
At TheTradeShow, I also ran into John Peters for the first time since he sold Tripology to Rand McNally. Tripology plays matchmaker between agents and potential travelers on the Web. Earlier this year, a crucial investor pulled out just before a cash infusion was scheduled, and suddenly the company was on the verge of collapse. The staff was let go, and Peters had a very short window in which to find an investor or buyer before all the value he had built into the network collapsed.
Typically, owners in this situation would keep mum about their troubles, call on potential white knights (after nondisclosure agreements were signed) and, if everything fails, go dark as quietly as possible.
Instead, Peters emailed me (and presumably, other journalists) regularly about the status of his beleaguered company, tweeted about it and turned to every social media tool he had to get the word out that he faced extinction.
"Social media saved us," he said. "If I had taken the normal investment route, I might have had four or five meetings in two weeks. Instead, I had 10 in three days. I never would have thought about contacting Rand McNally. Someone read a tweet. That led to someone blogging about it, and four days later I'm talking to Rand McNally."
He didn't know it at the time, but Rand McNally was in the process of starting a travel initiative. "I didn't have to convince them about the travel space," he said. "It was a well-timed opportunity for them, and there was never a no-service gap for Tripology."
The upside of transparency is more often preached than practiced in 2010, but John's completely transparent approach, linked with the surge of social media activity this year, saved his business. It might be just a wonderful, one-off story, but I think it could well represent a 2010 paradigm shift.
The very last conversation I had before leaving Orlando was with Van Anderson, co-president of the large host agency America's Vacation Center/Avoya Travel (No. 43 on the Travel Weekly Power List).
Van and his brother Brad took their parents' full-service travel agency in La Jolla, Calif. -- in fact, it was called Full Service Travel -- and reinvented it as a high-tech host agency with a laser focus on selling cruises. They began to dabble in land packages last year, and Van recently sent an email to his agents with the subject line "Land Ho."
"We now are offering tens of thousands of hotels and resorts," he said. "It's about efficiency. Commissions aren't going up. The only thing you can do is sell twice as much or change the mix of what you sell. We started with cruises because the technology was there. Then land. Now hotels and resorts."
The early cuts of data I've seen from our annual Travel Industry Survey (the complete survey will be published in our Oct. 25 issue) indicate a significant bump in hotel sales by agents. Although cruise remains the strongest segment for agents, we might look back at this shift in the agent revenue mix and see it as the most important agency trend of 2010.
What lies ahead for 2011? The Andersons are ahead of the curve on most things, and, of course, I'm curious about where they're going next. Could they be down in the basement, I wonder, dusting off the old signage for Full Service Travel?
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.