I spent much of last week attending the annual PhoCusWright Conference as a media reporter. This is the meet-up for travel tech companies, the established ones like Priceline, Kayak, and TripAdvisor that are household names, but also lots of new start-ups hoping to get to that level. Some make it, many fail, but each is hoping to be a place you stop when you’re booking travel.
Anyway, what did I learn? First of all, there are a lot of really smart people out there, with lots of venture money in their pockets, working on really smart solutions to your problems. See my take on the new ones that were doing something interesting and useful here: Travel technology that will make your life easier. (For the record, the finalists were several of my picks, as was the winner, SilverRail.)
Here are a few other takes from fellow attendees BootsnAll, Wendy Perrin, RockCheetah (love that name) Robert Cole, and others blogging for USA Today Travel.
The buzz was all about social media, mobile applications, and the combination of the two. After a while I was starting to think nobody looks at print media or even content websites anymore—until I walked into the real world and visited hotels, coffee shops, and bookstores. Geekthink can be very misleading, as we saw in the dot-com bubble crash. (I was there. I lost money. It sucked.)
Then there’s the rest of the world. Some attendees from other countries, especially in Latin America, seemed perplexed by all that hype about smart phones and always-on streaming data. As one attendee from South America told me, “I own an iPhone because it’s my business to own one, but I can’t name one friend or relative who wants to spend that much on the purchase and data plan.” This came from a well-connected guy who probably earns more than I do in a year and has plenty of powerful friends. Living in Mexico though, I know he’s right.
I’m not quite sold on either hypes—social or mobile. I’m not sure I want to hear about where all my friends stayed on every vacation, I’m not sure I want to go through some process like Match.com just to meet someone for a drink, and I don’t really want to broadcast where I am in real time as I go about trying to unwind. Time will tell if I’m just old.
It was interesting to see the the importance of creative thinking, customer service focus, and innovation that constantly came up while listening to executives from the likes of Expedia, TripAdvisor, Zillow, Groupon, LuxuryLink, and Kayak. Then that was contrasted with the stodgy, conservative, and customer-distanced panel comments from the executives of three U.S. airlines. To call the panels “night and day” would be understating it. The latter came across as insulated, protectionist, defensive, and focused on one thing: maximizing revenue. If I hadn’t been so perturbed, I would have fallen asleep while they were talking. Their idea of innovation is finding something new they can charge you for.
There were some big newsy things (Google buying a company called ITA that sends companies most of their flight data, American Airlines trying to charge passengers different prices than what Orbitz is showing), but for us consumers it came down to one thing. In the future, it will keep getting easier to book travel online, whether that’s rail tickets, a car and driver, flights, or a vacation involving 7 of your Facebook friends. Stay tuned!