After 20 Years I am Still Looking for Innovation in the Travel Industry

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June 11, 2015
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After 20 Years I am Still Looking for Innovation in the Travel Industry

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2015 marked the 20th anniversary of Travel Tech Consulting, Inc. I founded the company with the tag line “Demystifying Emerging Technologies for the Global Travel Industry“, committed to understanding emerging technology and how it impacts global travel practices. I and my associates have worked on projects in all sectors of the industry. This includes airlines, hoteliers, online travel companies, traditional and emerging distribution platforms, TMCs, theme parks, tour operators, technology firms of all types as well as supporting the General Services Administration as a direct government contractor. We have worked on projects across the globe in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Over the last 20 years I have also worked with many startups. I have been associated with Phocuswright since 2002 writing articles for their Innovation Edition, managing research projects under their brand and for the past six years, helping Bob Offutt manage the Travel Innovation Summit. It is from this perspective I wanted to clearly state my frustration with the lack of innovation in the travel industry!

I have lived and worked in the Silicon Valley (which now extends to the entire Bay Area) for 30 years.  I witnessed the birth of the Web while I was at Sun Microsystems, a true technology innovator that promoted open systems, “the network is the computer” and invented the Java programming language. The Valley has birthed major innovation from Apple, Google and Facebook to name just a few, but no similar technology driven innovation has emerged from the Valley to change the travel industry.

But Norm you say, the travel sector has the two biggest disruptors in any industry here in the Bay Area, Airbnb and Uber.  Though I admire both these companies, I would argue that their core disruption is a business model enabled by technology, not a true technology driven disruption.

Between local events and the Travel Innovation Summit I have reviewed over 150 start-up pitches this year alone, but few offer true innovation, including many who have made it to the stage at Phocuswright, much to my chagrin. I believe the problem is deeply embedded in the culture of the travel industry.  The majority of startups pitch peripheral solutions. The number of pitches I have seen that solve the “travel planning process” or “aggregate the tours and activities space” is absurd. Who is changing the very infrastructure that powers the travel process?  In every sector suppliers bemoan the cost of distribution and want a more intimate relationship with their customers, while the major TMCs, OTAs and GDS continue to dominate the customer relationships. Mobile has transformed the user access to information throughout the journey, but how that information is delivered has not radically changed  from the 1960s based technology that continues to be at the heart of much of the travel ecosystems.

The disconnect was most apparent to me when I attended a local Travel Startup Meetup a few weeks ago.  Again there was a vast number of young entrepreneurs anxious to revolutionize the same peripheral areas I mentioned earlier.  One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Max Izmaylov co-founder and CEO of Roomstorm. Interestingly enough it was not about his company, but his frustration on how the travel industry has not embraced an open collaborative software environment which allows the wisdom of the many to build the next disruptive technology.  The success of this approach is obvious by just observing how many Fortune 500 company data centers use the open source Linux OS. Another example is Bitcoin and the underlying Blockchain technology which continues to revolutionize the financial sector worldwide. Yes, there are travel hackathons, many sponsored by industry heavyweights, but this only taps individual entrepreneurs and provides access to the existing travel transaction platforms. We need collaborative efforts that tap into the brightest minds here in the Valley and beyond to truly transform the very heart of our industry.

For 2016, I am determined to work with Silicon Valley incubators and entrepreneurs to explore ways to apply truly disruptive technology to our industry. This will include meetups and events here the Bay Area as well as other efforts. Stay tuned for more information or please contact me if you would like to contribute to this effort.