Skift Global Forum: Recap and Key Takeaways

J. Allen Smith, president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

On September 27 and 28, I was fortunate to have been able to attend the Skift Global Forum in New York, a whirlwind of travel luminaries, networking and, of course, food. If you’re not familiar with Skift, it’s the largest travel intelligence platform in the world, providing research, insights and journalism covering the latest in trends, news and innovation. Here are some top-line messages:

Reducing friction is an industrywide goal.

Large industry providers, such as Google and Marriott, have created a wide variety of tools for their customers, but the key will be to bring them all together in one seamless ecosystem. TripAdvisor has grown from a humble hotel review site to a price comparison engine, restaurant guide, and attraction and experience portal. But the question remains: How will they create a user experience that serves the right content or interaction at the right time and in the right channel? TripAdvisor CEO Steve Kaufer asked the question in a slightly different way:“How do we lay the groundwork to delight the traveler for all phases of the trip truly?”

Brand strategy is top of mind for the industry behemoths.

My favorite question for large hotel companies is “Why do you need so many brands?” There is a struggle to clearly differentiate each brand offering in a brand family from each other, let alone from the competition. I was lucky to be able to ask Arne Sorenson, Marriott International president and CEO, about his 30 brands. He admitted that there is duplication in the Marriott portfolio, mainly brought about by the acquisition of Starwood in 2016. He said that he would wait to see how those competitive brands settled out over the next few years before considering consolidation. He also said that geography would drive brand expansion in the foreseeable future; he would consider acquiring brands in Asia to open up key markets.

In contrast, J. Allen Smith, president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, has this answer for potential buyers: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Although the brand would likely be attractive to buyers, it is off the table. “We’re obviously a unique single brand focused exclusively on luxury,” he said. “We’ve remained very true to that, and for the time being I expect we will continue to,” Smith said.

Travel advisors provide value beyond the transaction.

Although travel advisors aren’t for every traveler for every trip, they’re definitely thriving in the niche areas of luxury and specialty travel. Artificial intelligence is doing the transactional element more efficiently, leaving time for the advisor to really get to know the client and provide personalized services. “[Agents] who were like human vending machines have gone away, and the ones [who] focused on providing value have thrived,” said Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. An interesting parallel was drawn between the rise of the personal financial advisor and the travel advisor. Both are headed by a lead who owns the relationship, but who can leverage a wide variety of specialists to create tailored experiences. This ensures that guests always get the vacation of their dreams, cementing the travel advisor’s role in the industry.

Good things come in small packages.


It was really interesting to hear JetBlue President and Chief Operating Officer Joanna Geraghty’s perspective of her boutique airline, which has only 5 percent of the U.S. market. She said when she tells people where she works, the reaction is generally “Oh my God, I love JetBlue … That love and sense of feeling toward a brand, I think, is frankly absent when you think about some of the other airlines in the industry,” she said. Although criticized recently for raising fees for checked bags, she said that when forced to make hard choices, they put the customers’ needs first. “… nobody likes fees,” she said. Fees, however, are necessary, Geraghty explained and added, “We’re going to be competitive in fees, and we’re going to win on product and the service that we offer.” The trade-off was getting to keep what differentiates JetBlue from its bigger competitors: better service, free Wi-Fi and entertainment, more legroom, and unlimited snacks and drinks.

A lot of the innovation in the travel industry is coming from small startups that are reimagining what it is to experience something. The currency of travel has shifted away from Instagram-worthy but trite shots of beautiful beaches toward rarity and uniqueness. This is why Geetika Agrawal, CEO of Vacation with an Artist, started her company, which offers personal lessons from master artists and craftspeople from all corners of the world. “We want to learn directly from the masters that have been shaping our cultures for generations,” she said. “We don’t want to feel commoditized, we want to feel like these experiences are created for us.”

Puerto Rico Tourism Company

The current image of Puerto Rico in many people’s minds is that of an island ravaged by Hurricane Maria, struggling to get back on its feet. But Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company wants to change that. Traditionally, tourism was governed by the territory, which elected a new government every four years and lacked focus. Although the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), was founded in 1970 as a public corporation responsible for stimulating tourism, it just became the lead tourism agency in 2016. “We started to rethink competitiveness,” she said. “We have a white canvas, and we get to build stronger than ever before.” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló also spoke on how tourism can help the island rebuild. “Tourism can be a force for good in Puerto Rico,” he said.

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