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Sheep, wolves and rabbits in the headlights


Each conference, which played host to a different travel vertical, had a different sort of energy, each a different story to tell. Let me share my experience of each.

First stop is BTN Innovate in New York where the target audience is around 175 of the world’s biggest travel buyers. Now, this might sound a bit bonkers – and it won’t be the first time that’s been said about me – but here there is a really different sort of energy. These guys have clearly been eating their super foods.

Buyers appear ready to try different recipes for success; they are open for innovation. What they want is help out of the swamp they are operating in; a landscape without any real standards, multiple data sources and the increasingly powerful gatekeepers of data that are engaging their employees. Yes I’m talking Google, Apple, Uber, Facebook and Airbnb…but more on that next time.

What’s clear at BTN Innovate (good news for us here at Roadmap) is that the real momentum – a living, breathing energy as I see it – is coming from travel buyers, the people we want to help.

A week later, I’m at another BTN conference, The Beat Live. Here the whole travel value chain – the ‘travel establishment’ – is present. We’re talking TMCs, business travel associations, airlines, hotels, and a handful of travel buyers. While I’m up on stage, a thought crosses my mind – ‘I hope these guys don’t steal our sandwiches’. They look hungry, and sort of scared too. I’m empathetic. Their world is changing pace at an unprecedented rate and keeping up is tough.

If super foods are driving energy levels at BTN Innovate, then here at Beat Live it’s more of a staple diet. Things are a little sluggish.

The talk of the two days is, of course, innovation and the future. Jeff Katz, the founder of Orbitz, tells us to beware the gatekeepers (those big players mentioned earlier). Meanwhile German airline Lufthansa, which is bravely going where no airline has gone before, sees Juergen Siebenrock, its VP of the Americas, face some pretty tough questioning. You’ve got to hand it to him; his ability to retain his cool is impressive to say the least.

There is food for thought aplenty in Washington. My view is that here in the world of travel distribution, innovation is moving sideways not forward. There seems to be a desire, even if it’s subconscious, to maintain the status quo. One of the problems, it seems, is that nobody knows who to turn to for help or how to distinguish the wolf from the sheep.

Leaving the whole gamut of the US business travel industry behind me I head back to Europe. Next stop is the CAPA World Aviation Summit in Helsinki where the airlines have landed. After two days, I start to wonder if any will ever take off again. Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration but aside from LCC’s like Ryanair, the most profitable airline (and one which doesn’t depend on Google because it operates as a media/PR company), the airlines seem caught in the headlights.

The big talk, of course, is IATA’s New Distribution Capability. But I do have to wonder if they are missing the point. If you ask me, any new distribution capability will be Google, Facebook, Apple, Uber or, for that matter, whoever owns the consumer. This is the new distribution reality and these are the actors that stand to win.

Fortunately we end the month-long conference trail on a high note and pumped up with energy. What we witnessed at BTN Innovate was confirmed last week at the ACTE Global conference in Paris. Buyers are challenging the establishment to speed up innovation. We want sexy consumer-led stuff and we want it yesterday!

So, in conclusion, all four conferences show that the industry knows it has to innovate. But it seems it’s still in the contemplation phase.

So let me leave you with a thought to contemplate: if what you see before you is not a road map out of the mire, but rather a road kill then maybe NOW is the time to change course.