When the Covid-19 pandemic began sending seismic shocks through the global travel industry, the hospitality company Sonder sought first to tighten its belt.

But the San Francisco-based company also saw opportunities.

Sonder offers a mix of hotel rooms and private rentals and supports its clients with touchless hospitality -- a combination that left it better positioned than most during the crisis. As travel came to a near halt, Sonder turned its attention to the extended-stay market, where essential workers and a few remaining adventure travelers presented at least a small ready market.

The strategy has paid off, Sonder vice president of revenue Shruti Challa explained during the Phocuswright Conference Thursday.

These days the company is enjoying an 80% occupancy rate for its units, and it has been acquiring new units both inside hotels and on the private market at discounted prices.

Sonder was just one of several companies at the virtual travel technology conference to detail ways in which in which it is finding opportunities during this most adverse of times for the travel industry.

"It has done nothing but accelerate adoption of our technology," said David Strange, CEO of Beachy, whose software solution enables resorts and other service providers to offer touchless sales of items such as beach umbrellas and poolside food and beverages.

Some new resort customers had plans before the pandemic to develop such capabilities internally, he said, but when Covid-19 created a sudden urgency for touchless offerings, they turned to the already-developed Beachy software.

Blacklane, a provider of a chauffeur-driven ride service, has also used technology to facilitate a pivot during the crisis. Pre-crisis, CEO Jen Wohltorf said, the company's primary advantage was its scope. But the pandemic taught Wohltorf that Blacklane has been too focused on the luxury airport transfer market.

During the pandemic, Blacklane has diversified, placing a bigger emphasis on city-to-city transit. The company has also slashed its charges, using the combination of an improved pricing algorithm and a new dispatch system that has enabled it to more consistently fill vehicles with separate customers for return legs on intercity trips. As a result, said Wohltorf, Blacklane can sometimes beat train prices on city-to-city journeys and it consistently underprices airlines.

Up next? A move toward electric vehicles.

"There are a lot of avenues we are following," Wohltorf said.

Small companies weren't alone in talking at the Phocuswright Conference about ways in which they've found opportunity during the massive downturn.

More from the Phocuswright conference:

Peter Kern, who became CEO of Expedia Group as the crisis raged in April, said the sharp travel slowdown gave the booking giant time to step back and rebuild its core foundation, both from a technology standpoint and on its products side.

"You don't get those chances when you're going at full speed," Kern said.

He said that Expedia Group, whose suite of OTAs includes Travelocity, Hotels.com, Expedia, Orbitz and Vrbo among others, has worked to optimize specific brands in the most appropriate markets while also removing or de-emphasizing brands in other markets. The result is that the Expedia Group brands don't compete against one another as much.

Expedia Group also took advantage of the pandemic to speed the process of phasing out the HomeAway brand entirely, which has now been folded into Vrbo.


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