All things travel at Skift Forum Europe ’17

In early April, Cendyn attended the first ever Skift Forum in Europe. Luckily it was in my home town, London, UK so was a hop skip and a train ride away for me to the Tobacco Dock in the very cool Wapping, London. We were proud to be sponsors of the event, to have the time to spend chatting to other attendees and taking in all the incredible amount of information from their extensive profile of speakers.

There were around 30 speakers in total, so not nearly enough paper for me to write about every single one of them but each one left the whole audience with plenty of food for thought. Topics ranged from the future of specific travel industries to how smaller start-ups had grown to be hugely successful, to how others had maintained their presence in the market place and stayed true to their loyal customers. A few themes rang true throughout; trust, opportunities and growth. All channeled in different ways for each organization but ultimately ending in the same goal — putting the customer first.

The day kicked off with Rafat Ali, Skift CEO & Founder welcoming the 450 delegates to cold (but sunny) London. He introduced the event with vigour and got the audience pumped to hear from each speaker about their individual experiences within the travel industry and how they each are shaping the future of how we interact with travel.

The first speaker was Richard Solomons, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group. Coming from such a huge network of hotels across the globe, he maintained that no matter how much they grow, their one focus will always be the guest and that they’re success is based on the mantra of being a hospitality company, not just a group of hotels. They cater to every aspect of the guest journey (weddings, events, dining, activities, meetings etc) and that’s enabled them to continue to grow.

Because of their size, they knew they had to take on a ‘not one size fits all’ strategy to cater to different markets, interests and customers so with the acquisition of Kimpton Hotels 2 years ago, Richard wanted to keep the two brands separate from each other to ensure the culture of the company was not lost and that their loyal customers would not move on. He went on to discuss the growth opportunities in China, as their second largest marketing outside the US and the three big focuses for them at the moment:

Loyalty — Richard said that most people do still care about points, they want a benefit for travel and want to have engagement with the brand and feel apart of something. In a world with intermediaries wherever we look, people want to engage with brands more than ever, whatever industry their from. He also said IHG customers have been seen to favour other IHG customer reviews instead of third party sites- mainly because they trust those users more.

Direct bookings — to IHG booking direct is not a battle, more of an opportunity as intermediaries work well for a certain type of guest but their efforts go into those guests who will book direct and be brand loyal because of cost and efficiencies

New tech and the future —Richard made it clear that technology has become an enabler for the hospitality industry, especially using enhanced analytics to automate and respond to customer enquiries based on guest data. It’s still in it’s early stages but he said this will become something pivotal for the industry. He ended by stating that in years to come, travel will still be around and as long as organizations can adapt based on the needs of the consumers, brands will stay relevant and up to date.

Following Richard, we heard from Skyscanner CEO, Gareth Williams who talked about their recent acquisition by Ctrip. As one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies to watch, their incredible growth in the Chinese market is indicative of similar Chinese tech giants that just continue to grow and outpace European and N American counterparts. Using Skyscanner’s flexible and adaptable meta search has allowed them to branch into Europe and trial their technologies in that space. Gareth talked about the Chinese model as a leading example for Europe and N American markets and that his big focus will always be to invest in engineering over marketing, to help keep on pace with how consumer behaviour is changing and evolving. His recent whitepaper talked about just this; using branded storefronts that will help turn metasearch into a dynamic marketplace for consumers.

As the morning continued on, more tea was consumed and we delved into the world of Almundo and Travelsify who both reinforced the importance of trust in a brand. Almundo CEO, Juan Pablo Lafosse, eloquently stated ‘trust in the new currency in travel’. Their discussion touched on examples of where trust has enabled brands to flourish, such as Netflix; a brand that has used data to revolutionize their brand and keep it evolving. For example, their most recent change in making recommendations based on viewership instead of ratings has used intelligence to put the consumers preferences first, a common theme in travel technology now. Using data in this way enables brands to provide trusted advice and use customer preferences as a stepping stone for communication. The Q&A went on to discuss how virtual assistants will be the future of this type of communication as they will be able to tailor responses to customers based on what their questions or preferences are.

Before lunch we heard from Senior Project Manager, Richard Chen from OpenJaw who were acquired by TravelSky, another tech giant in China, their platform offers a retail platform for travel companies. The focus of their discussions was on how China is leading the way for technology and how they maintain that at the forefront of their listen to consumers and constantly adapt based on consumer behaviour. We heard a lot about wechat, the app taking Asia by storm by combining everything (purchasing, social, messaging) into one application. Currently China is the no. 1 travel outbound marketing, with the most spend per day and their own technology (giant) platforms. Richard emphasized how mobile is a way of life in China. Technology platforms no longer thinking, about adding mobile to their strategy, but thinking about how mobile can adapt to what consumers want.

We then went on to hear from more of the big brands, Expedia, Kayak and Google, who all talked about competition between each other but also highlighted a few great takeaways:

  • Engineering is the life blood of these organizations, yes they spend a great deal on marketing and advertising but without their engineering teams staying at the forefront of consumer behaviour, they’d be nowhere.
  • Expedia talked about their ‘usability labs’ that allow them to focus entirely on the product and how users interact with their products — human internal reactions to their sites — dopamine levels, eye scanning etc. They are still experimenting with neuroscience and how they can learn and adapt their product but it’s a big focus for them right now
  • Kayak Co-founder & CEO, Steve Hafner was definietly an entertaining addition to the crowd, he talked boldly about his competitors in the room and their different approaches. He said everyone’s doing the same thing, they’re investing in engineering, testing the water to see what works and looking for the next big acquisition. The big questions are always who buys whom and who get get there first.
  • Google said their goal for Travel was to build a fantastic consumer experience and connect the users to the right partners that work with Google. The user should have all the information they need following their interaction with Google and that by investing heavily in AI, Google hope that they can build the ultimate version of Google, one that will adapt to the user instead of the user adapting to the platform.

For me, the two biggest take aways from the day were:

  • Europe’s hunger for growth and expansion into different realms of artificial intelligence. It’s what everyone’s talking about right now, but everyone’s trying to figure out how to do it right, and use it to their advantage to grow trust and loyalty in ther brands. It’s clear that by expanding our knowledge in technology that, as Google said, “will adapt to the user”, instead of the other way round, we’ll start to see a totally different way in how humans interact with technology and how the whole travel industry combines the use of human interaction and technology;
  • The consistent theme that rung through nearly all talks — how China is leading the way in doing the above, and how consumers are pushing the boundaries of how they interact with technology and what they’re open to doing. Whether the extent of this makes it all the way to Europe and N America is another discussion, but one to seriously watch.