On its 50th anniversary, Tzell looks forward

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During a panel discussion at Tzell's branch meeting, from left, Emirates' Joel Goldowsky, Sabre's Shelly Terry, American Airlines' Vasu Raja and Travel Weekly's Arnie Weissmann.
During a panel discussion at Tzell's branch meeting, from left, Emirates' Joel Goldowsky, Sabre's Shelly Terry, American Airlines' Vasu Raja and Travel Weekly's Arnie Weissmann. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

NEW YORK -- Some challenges that industry executives anticipate in coming years, such as terrorism, are largely out of their control. Others, such as attracting new talent, are things they can work to overcome. But whichever type of challenge is faced, continuing innovations promise better products for agents and clients alike.

Innovations and challenges were among the topics discussed by a panel of executives representing the airline, cruise, hotel and GDS sectors during Tzell Travel Group's annual branch meeting here last month, coinciding with the company's 50th anniversary. The panel was moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann.

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Terrorism and global conflicts are challenges the industry faces together, said Simon Yip, vice president of sales for Peninsula Hotels.

Nikki Upshaw, senior vice president of sales at Oceania Cruises, agreed. "How do we address ... the fear that someone may have due to the global terrorism that is affecting our world and is so random and no one can predict it?" Upshaw wondered. "How, together, can we create a ... sense of safety and that travel is still something that we should all aspire to?"

For travelers who are concerned about terrorism but still want to go on vacation, Upshaw said, cruising could offer an attractive option because cruise lines have the ability to quickly move port calls away from destinations where incidents have occurred.

Another challenge identified by Yip is attracting new talent to the industry. Peninsula Hotels, he said, is investing in providing training and career opportunities to attract young talent to the company.

Dave Hilfman, senior vice president of worldwide sales at United Airlines, said attracting new talent was especially critical for the airlines, which are facing pilot shortages. And while United is working to attract more pilots, he said, it is also dealing with another set of challenges stemming from government involvement. He said airlines face an uphill battle in dealing with the "efficiency of the air traffic control system," heavy taxation on airlines and market regulation.

Emirates faces a different challenge in the U.S.: getting passengers to try the airline, said Joel Goldowsky, the carrier's regional sales director of the eastern U.S. Agents could help with that, he told the Tzell crowd, asserting that once the product is sold, "our retention rate turns out to be pretty darn high, because once they experience the product and what we profess to have, they tend to come back a second time."

In the GDS sphere, Shelly Terry, Sabre's vice president of travel product solutions, predicted, "The greatest innovations that Sabre will be making in the coming years will be those that actually support the transition from the transaction to the experience."

She said Sabre's innovations will be focused on helping buyers understand what suppliers are offering and what has the greatest value to deliver the experience they want. Meanwhile, she said, other challenges will stem from the changes to business practices that those innovations are likely to cause, though she did not offer examples of what those changes might entail.

In the hotel sector, Yip predicted that the customer experience as a whole will change, becoming more "holistic." For example, a wellness program wouldn't be limited to a spa treatment, but might also include healthy eating at a farm-to-table hotel restaurant, among other components.

Upshaw said innovation already abounds among all segments of the cruise sector, from contemporary to luxury. One thing cruise lines are doing better, she said, is differentiating their brands. For example, Oceania identifies itself as the "cruise line for foodies," she said.

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When it comes to airlines, the executives in attendance agreed that most future innovations would come down to customer service improvements and to creating a better overall product.

"We've got great technology that's finding a way to help do better and make more money, but it's mostly just doing the basics better," whether that be through better on-time performance, improvements in baggage handling or other places that affect consumer attitudes, Hilfman said.

"We just want to do better by each of your clients," he added.

Vasu Raja, vice president of network and schedule planning at American Airlines, said carriers are no longer "playing survive the winter." Now, he said, airlines must turn to sustaining and growing business, which comes down to customer service.

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