I am writing this on the way home from Mexico City after 4 intense days of conversation about travel at the Virtuoso Symposium, a gathering of “thought leaders” in travel that occurs in a different city each year around this time.
I am bound by a confidentiality agreement to not reveal what was said at the symposium, but a discussion today at lunch among a group of old friend who decided to skip the afternoons official activities reminded me for the first time in years of a memo that I wrote for the travel industry almost 13 years ago. I found it in my laptop and read the third paragraph out loud. It was remarkable how closely it foreshadowed the issues that continue to be hot topics in the industry today.
I’m concerned that it will be too much “inside baseball” for non-travel industry people. I’ll post the first part. If you seem to find it interesting I’ll post more of it.
Change, Travel, Technology, and Magic, July 10, 1997
“It will be 20 years ago October 1998, that Costa Rica Expeditions began its life with an intense, guided group travel experience, the first descent of the Reventazon River from the Powerhouse to the Caribbean Sea. Everyone who participated in the trip, including the Reventazon, was profoundly changed by the experience—and the change was just starting.
Since that time, the changes for the travel industry, for Costa Rica and for Costa Rica Expeditions have been even more profound. They have been literally incredible. Had someone told us then, few of us would have believed what things would be like now. Even more important, there is every reason to believe that the changes in travel that occurred over the past 20 years will seem insignificant compared to what is going to happen over the next 5 or10. Everybody I know in the travel industry is now actively thinking about what form the change will take and how to react to it.
All of us, outbound tour operators, travel agents, and even inbound tour operators are intermediaries in an age where advances in technology, most manifest in the Internet and the World Wide Web, have called into question the very nature of intermediation. Moreover, the “owners” of the new technology have targeted our industry as one of the main proving grounds for Internet commerce. We know that throughout history, when intermediaries are no longer perceived to adding value, they change or disappear. So the question becomes quite simple: Will specialized high value added travel intermediaries adapt, survive and prosper over the next decade; or will we be replaced by what evolves from the Expedias and Travelocitys.
Fortunately I have figured out the answer: Some will survive and prosper and some will not. Not only that, we even know which ones will survive, those who provide to their clients perceived added value that cannot be provided more efficiently by the mega cyber-intermediaries. Doing this will almost surely involve using the new technologies, and, in many cases, using the mega travel sites themselves as distribution channels, and/or being used by them as paid suppliers of specialized information.
Highly professional, knowledgeable, creative tour operators still do quite well marketing Costa Rica. There is, however, every indication that in the near future what it means to be highly professional, knowledgeable, and creative will be very different than it is today.
So I ask myself almost 20 years after that first trip down the Reventazon River, “What is that added value that is most likely to enable us to compete as intermediaries?” What do we, as a specialized segment of the travel industry, need to do so that we can continue to distinguish our services from services that appear similar, and can be sold at a much cheaper price via mega web travel sites?
At the moment, we do not need to do a hell of a lot. To see how the digital competition was doing, I checked out Costa Rica on two sites, Expedia and Travelocity.”
After recounting my search for information about Costa Rica on what are still two of the major travel web sites I wrote:
“The criteria for excellence in our profession have changed from knowing the product to inventing the most profound and valuable benefits that travel can provide; from knowing the market to knowing the individual client; from knowing what the individual client wants; to knowing what the individual client should want.”
Some 2500 words later I finished by saying:
“There is, however, one thing about which I am reasonably sure: If we keep trying to sell trips instead of “magic” we are going to be working for Bill Gates or looking for another line of work.”
If you let me know that you are interested in reading the rest I’ll publish the sections that I left out in future posts. If some parts interest you and others do not let me know too.