5 key takeaways from The Phocuswright Conference

5 key takeaways from The Phocuswright Conference

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Will artificial intelligence change travel booking forever? What’s the most important thing to consider when starting a company? Could Hopper become profitable soon? How should travel companies market to Gen Z on social media? Is Kayak under threat from one of its co-founders’ newest ventures?

Whether you were at The Phocuswright Conference 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or whether you’ve taken interest from afar, there is plenty to catch up on after a string of panels, sessions, gatherings and interviews. 

Here are a few key insights from one of travel’s biggest gatherings this year:

Hopper could reach profitability next year

Hopper is on track to reach profitability in 2024, Fred Lalonde, founder and CEO of Hopper, revealed Wednesday on Center Stage. 

When asked by moderator Siew Hoon Yeoh, the founder and editorial director of WiT, when he expected to reach profitability, Lalonde said “next year.” He added: “HTS which is the the B2B is already profitable. And we’ve been closing that gap month over month.”

Lalonde revealed the timeline while opening up about the company’s October decision to lay off 250 employees.

“It was terrible. It always is, and we did something similar pandemic,” he said. “But fundamentally, it comes down to the environment’s change. Money was free for a decade. And now you know, inflation is coming down, but that’s never coming back.”

He said it’s “never fun” to conduct layoffs, “but fundamentally, we have to get to profitability, like everybody else on the planet.”

Companies need to “confront” Google

Matt Goldberg, CEO of Tripadvisor, shared on Center Stage in conversation with PhocusWire senior reporter Linda Fox that the industry needs to “confront” Google and its massive market power. 

“Every company in the world would like to reduce their dependence on any intermediary, and Google is one of the most powerful companies in the world,” Goldberg said. “I tend not to talk about other companies in these kind of forums, but Google has to be a company that you look at and you really confront the market power that they have and try to understand how can I differentiate from it.”

It goes further than that, though. Companies need to consider how to engage and partner the internet search giant and its mightiness to coexist.

“Find the ways of partnering where you can combine your spend with really thoughtful ways to be in an ecosystem together because I can assure Google is going to be focused on the regulatory scrutiny they’re going to be getting, and they want to think about how to make partners really valuable,” Goldberg said.

“Complex” business travel difficult for TMCs

Paul Abbott, CEO for American Express Global Business Travel, touched on the many complexities travel management companies are have to deal with.

Abbott addressed the challenges while in conversation with Charuta Fadnis, senior vice president of research and product strategy for Phocuswright on Center Stage. 

“In life you have to start from where you are, and the starting point in the travel ecosystem – it’s very large, it’s very complex and it’s very fragmented,” he said. “Managed travel is even more complex, that is just a fact. Retail travel is much simpler than managed travel.”

With that in mind, Abbott said, Amex could have created a direct connection in one country with one airline to “declare victory.”

But it won’t – for a number of reasons. “That’s not a responsible thing to do, that’s not what our customers expect from us. We’re solving real problems for real customers at scale on a global basis,” Abbott said.

GenAI: A future of personalization in travel?

As generative artificial intelligence becomes more popular with travelers, Paul English, who co-founded Kayak, is envisioning a new, personalized future. 

English, who also founded GetHuman, Lola and Deets, said that he believes the technology will enable a future of user-focused travel – in turn, altering the very nature of “research” and “purchase” travel sites.

English gave a tangible example: Last year, he visited Peru with his 28-year-old son. 

“(We were) trying to decide what hotel to stay at. And I was just in Kayak – I sent him a link,” English said. “And he said, ‘Kayak is for old people.’”

Instead, English explained, his son had been using TikTok to find a place to stay – which English identified as a “research” site as opposed to a “purchase” site. 

“I think AI can bring those two things together,” he said. “And I think AI can personalize research sites.”

So as opposed to looking at reviews that may be generic or from very specific groups of travelers that might not fit one’s own needs, AI will be able to provide an itinerary specific to the user.

“I’m convinced that that’s the future,” English said, noting that combination of research and purchase is exactly what he’s trying to do with his company, Deets. In a separate session on Wednesday with Kayak CEO and fellow co-founder Steve Hafner he quipped that his new venture could be a “Kayak killer.”

“Whether Deets will be the leader or not, I can’t say. But I’m convinced that personalization is one of the first big benefits that AI will bring to travel.”

Promoting diversity in travel leadership

One of the livelier sessions of the week came Monday during a program dedicated to diversity in leadership.

Research by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and others has consistently shown that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. 

During the session, participants discussed issues in small groups and heard from a panel of experts about how to further diversity, equity and inclusion principles at their companies. Some takeaways from the panelists:

Melissa Maher, CEO and founder of Pinnacle Enterprises Group spoke about why it’s crucial to have support from the top of the company.

“The top person has to be an advocate and a believer. … I think this is vitally important … that diversity and inclusion should be a business function and should report to the CEO. When I was promoted to chief inclusion officer, I was part of human resources team and what happened – not intentionally – was that diversity and inclusion was not seen as a business initiative. And the minute I started reporting to the CEO, and he had a much bigger voice in the programs and what we were doing, then it got connected to part of the business and not a side initiative.

Jessica Patel, senior vice president at TripArc, spoke to how a company’s mission can impact diversity in a meaningful way.

“Even beyond diversity, if you’re really clear about who you are and your mission, then you’re attracting the talent that’s attracted to the mission, right? If you’re loud and proud about something that’s meaningful, purposeful, you’re going to attract talent that feels aligned to it.”

Stuart Greif, the executive vice president of strategy and innovation at Forbes Travel, said convincing company leaders to champion DEI principles isn’t just about telling them it’s the socially responsible thing to do — but also showing them the impact DEI can have on the company’s broader goals.

“The shocking thing to me is if I ask any one of your company CEOs and said, ‘Hey, there’s something that there’s hard data, and it’s going to drive better revenue, better profit, better client relationships, better employee morale at the same time – would you do it to drive your business?’ And they would say, ‘Heck, yeah,’ right? But I think sometimes couching it in a diversity context or frame is a disservice, because the reality is high-performing teams that are more diverse have better outcomes and hold on to people.”

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