December 6, 2021

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The travel folks

From fighting to reopen to leading the way in tech innovation, Asia travel puts its best foot forward

13 min read

From fighting to reopen to leading the way in tech innovation, Asia travel puts its best foot forward
26/10/2021,
by Yeoh Siew Hoon,
in Destination Marketing,
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WIT Thoughts

Key takeaways from WiT Experience Singapore 2021

IT’S been a tradition of past WiTs that a group of us would escape to a remote location or island somewhere to mark the end of yet another event. Over the years, we’ve been to Siem Reap, Bali, Phuket, Samui, Penang, Kuching with Nikoi and Cempedak the most frequent and recent excursions. 

But well, we know what Covid has done to traditions and so this year, I found myself on Palawan beach, Sentosa, watching my two dogs have the time of their lives. At 8am on a Saturday, we had the designated beach zone to ourselves, apart from a stray peacock or two.

Petcation at Capella Singapore: Yet another new tradition borne out of Covid.

We’ve all had to adapt to new traditions this pandemic and some are easier to bear than others. This year’s petcation at Capella was definitely easy to bear – I have now seen the future, and it has to be a villa with a pool by the sea, with several dogs for company. 

This year’s WiT Experience Singapore was also a new tradition – a full-on hybrid conference with 250 physical delegates and a virtual audience, and more than 70 physical and virtual speakers – with more than 900 autocues. 

That’s the behind-the-scenes speak to ensure everything happens and plays as they should to ensure a smooth experience both virtually and physically, particularly for when the LED panels should come down to “house” the virtual speakers and I had to make sure they didn’t hit me on my head on their way down.

Pete Comeau (centre) and Frederic Lalonde, Hopper: The LED panels were a talking point of the event, with several speakers jesting about it.

The first time the purpose-built LED panel came down to “beam” our first speaker Pete Comeau, my Phocuswright comrade-in-arm, I heard a guffaw in the audience. This was the first time a travel industry conference had been held in the Grand Sands Ballroom at Marina Bay Sands, repurposed for hybrid, and for the audience, it was a glimpse into the future of events. 

“These things are cool.” “Nice to hang out with you,” quipped one speaker. “Wow, it looks like I’m really having a panel discussion,” jested Eric Gnock Fah, COO and co-founder of Klook when he appeared virtually on the panel.

Eric Gnock Fah, Klook (right), couldn’t help but quip that he was literally on a panel discussion with John Owen, CEO, Go City.

It was certainly good to see our travel compatriots in humorous spirits and the energy and enthusiasm of the physical attendees was palpable – for the industry in Singapore, it was the first time in 20 months we’d been able to get together physically and for a business that’s always prided itself in being a people’s business, the enforced separation and isolation has been hard. 

Imagine then what it must be like for our customers. You could say that for the first time, the travel industry and its customers, travellers, are in simpatico. Yes, companies always say they are customer-centric – well, now, there is no excuse. Our yearning is their yearning, and if we want to understand who the endemic traveller is, well, maybe we just need to look in the mirror.

Let me look in the mirror and summarise the key takeaways from WiT Experience Singapore 2021.

Answering the WiT Challenge to “how do we get outta here” – from left, Timothy O’Neil-Dunne, Johnny Thorsen, Ross Veitch and Dan Lynn.

• Anger and disappointment at the failure of institutions – how do we get outta here?

Beneath the humour and optimism, two qualities that have made travel so resilient, there is a genuine feeling of anger and disappointment that 20 months on, even though some doors are slowly creaking open, Asia Pacific travel remains largely stuck and who knows for how much longer as different governments pursue their own agendas.

Ross Veitch, CEO and co-founder of Wego, called this period “stressful” and a “colossal failure” by industry associations to collaborate and act. Timothy O’Neil-Dunne of T2 Impact said it took the industry 39 days to get its security act together after 911 but with Covid, there is as yet no collective solution and it remains a confusing mess for travellers. 

In the WiT Challenge, Veitch, O’Neil-Dunne, Johnny Thorsen of Spotnana and Dan Lynn of ZUZU Hospitality presented a plan to get “us outta here”. 

In summary, this is their recommendation.

What:

  1. No country level bans, rare exceptions for new variants of concern
  2. No quarantine
  3. No in-trip testing
  4. Testing as needed upon arrival
  5. No specific flights/ accommodation

Who:

  1. Vaccinated visitors
  2. Use a common and broad definition of vaccinated
  3. Exception for minors
  4. Citizens = Residents = Visitors
  5. Consistently communicated

How: 

  1. Simple proof of vaccination
  2. Testing upon arrival
  3. Liability on the airlines
  4. Transparency of statistics
  5. Costs of testing included in the ticket price

(For full presentation, download here)

There was no crying over spilt milk but a fighting spirit and a desire to get on with it. When asked which aspect of his job he would like to do more of, Campbell Wilson, CEO of Scoot said, “What I’d like to do less of is endless scenario planning.”

Niraan de Silva, VNLIFE (left) and Jongyoon Kim, Yanolja, sharing their perspectives on travel tech and customisation.
  • No turning back the tide on tech – the next level in customer service

While travel has largely stood still, the world has moved on. Consumer behaviour has undergone a seismic shift in almost every aspect of life. Digital is the default and this is evident in the rise of new players borne out of tech.  

Yanolja and VNLIFE, whose CEOs spoke at the event, are evidence of the new tech plays unique to Asia – the former came out of a travel superapp in South Korea and the other out of a fintech and payments ecosystem in Vietnam. These players know no silos and tech is the horizontal foundation on which they build verticals.

When asked what lesson he had learnt from VNLIFE’s foray into travel, Niraan de Silva, CEO, said that travel was largely about relationships and customer service and not as heavy-tech as payments. It was interesting then to link his comment to that of Jongyoon Kim, CEO of Yanolja, who said the most exciting tech innovation in travel is customisation – using data and machine learning to deliver customisation to digital consumers. 

So it stands to reason that if you can use tech to customise as much and as deep as possible, then you can deliver on that Holy Grail of customer service. 

That space is clearly what Trip.com Group is working on. When asked which three things it was working to improve on, chairman James Liang cited its international flight product, its app and customer service. “We are very generous in investing personnel and technology in providing the most responsive and high quality service to our customers, so that needs to be replicated to international markets.” 

Mary Li’s new startup, The Atlas, will address customisation in flight search.

Startups which spoke at WiT such as Spotnana, which is building the first open, API-based travel ecosystem to offer micro-services for corporates; The Atlas, the low cost and domestic flight business being built by flight veteran Mary Li; and Reiwa, the new Japanese outbound travel service which wants to disrupt tour packaging, built by Relux founder Takaya Shinozuka, are all playing in the customisation space. 

They will blend high tech and high touch in the services they offer. Watch out for disruption in the next 12-24 months.

  • Revenge everything, including tech innovation

As the world opens up, we will see revenge everything – from travel to investments, event attendance and tech innovation. 

The key is to respond to that pent-up demand not by dropping prices but by inspiring and offering premium experiences packed with value. Buying by price is rational behaviour but right now, the consumer is largely irrational and smart marketers will stoke that demand with inspiring campaigns, observed Trip.com’s Liang. 

But much patience is needed within Asia for full recovery. When asked when he thought China would open up for outbound travel, Liang ventured “three to six months”. The opening of destinations in Asia, Pacific he said, would put pressure on China to relax restrictions but the reality is, businesses should continue to brace themselves for a lean first half of 2022. 

However, the sentiment is that while Asia may be slower in opening up, it will more than catch up in every aspect once things get into swing. Pent-up demand is unleashed faster in the region, than anywhere else, and recovery takes a shorter time than in other markets, according to those who track data, from Google to Skyscanner to Trip.com. 

Asia will also lead in tech innovation which explains why companies such as Hopper is keen to expand into the region, given its mobile-first and app strategy. 

Frederic Lalonde, CEO and founder, noted he had many lessons to learn from the region in how super apps have emerged and travel platforms have embraced fintech and payments as part of their ecosystem. For Hopper, non-travel products account for 70% of its revenues and it has launched Hopper Cloud to sell these products and services to other travel companies. He believes that Hopper could become the leading global travel super app, even in the US, due to its skew towards younger travellers. 

Johnny Thorsen, vice president, strategy and partnerships, Spotnana, who travelled from Copenhagen to Singapore for WiT said there was an appetite for tech innovation in Asia that outmatched that of more matured markets. 

  • The counter-trend to Covid and tech is human-ness

The massive swing towards digital during Covid will result in a swing back to people wanting to be with other people again. Covid has caused much isolation and loneliness in the world and travel is in the best position to help people heal.

That was the common sentiment expressed by speakers such as Nate Blecharczyk, co-founder, Airbnb who said that Airbnb’s focus on the recovery from the pandemic is focusing on “community and connection”. 

“People will want to have the connection with other people that they have been missing. They will be looking for meaningful experiences.”

Bertrand Saillet, managing director of FCM Travel Asia said, “The world is a sadder place without travel and we need to help our customers connect.”

Loh Lik Peng: Businesses that do not start embracing sustainability in their practices will be in trouble three to five years from now.
  • Time to walk sustainability, not just talk

Sentosa Development Corporation’s CEO Thien Kwee Eng, in her interview, said sustainability must now be considered as mainstream as HR and governance within an organisation. Speaking on behalf of small businesses such as restaurants and boutique hotels, Loh Lik Peng, CEO of Unlisted Collection said that businesses that did not have sustainability embedded within their practices would be in trouble three to five years from now. “It’s here to stay,” he said. 

The fact that Thrust Carbon, a carbon intelligence startup providing a single platform for emission calculations, behavior change and carbon offsetting, won both the People’s Choice and the judges’ vote for WiT Startup of the Year, speaks volumes of where the sentiment is today.

What’s driving the industry down this road is a convergence of government agendas and consumer pressure. 

A Booking.com report showed that:
• 83% of global travellers think sustainable travel is vital, with 61% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future

• Almost half (49%) still believe that in 2021, there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available, with 53% admitting they get annoyed if somewhere they are staying stops them from being sustainable, for example by not providing recycling facilities

• While three out of four accommodation providers say they have implemented at least some kind of sustainability practices at their property, only one-third actively communicate about their efforts proactively to potential guests.

So the time has come for the industry to not only walk the talk but also talk about it more so that consumers can make better informed choices. From the conversations at WiT, every sector is pursuing it and has set some goal or another – from airlines to tourism boards, cruise companies, hospitality and OTAs. 

Numfhon Boonyawat, TAT deputy governor for policy and planning, explaining the destination’s BCG model of tourism.

Destinations are embracing it – the Thai government is embracing the BCG (Bio Circular Green) tourism model and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has partnered with the Thailand Organic Consumer Association to support its organic tourism platform to help travellers connect with dining choices that buy from organic farmers. 

Numfhon Boonyawat, TAT deputy governor for policy and planning, said, “The platform that TOCA has built makes it very tangible – it connects consumers with restaurants and hotels, and farmers, and consumers earn Earth points when dining at these places. TAT’s role is to generate consumer demand, their role is to build supply and the tech platform that underpins it.”

Angie Stephen, vice president, Asia Pacific, Royal Caribbean on how the cruise line is reviewing its supply chain for more sustainable food practices.

When asked how Royal Caribbean was addressing sustainability, Angie Stephen, vice president, Asia Pacific, said, “Cruising is regarded as part of the shipping industry, and we are at 0.5% emissions while shipping is at 3%. We know it is an important story to share. In 2016, we partnered with WWF to reduce our carbon emissions by 35% by 2020, which we did. We have said we would reduce another 25% by 2025 and the cruise industry has set zero by 2030, so we are on the way.”

It is also working on its supply chain. Said Stephen, “We are in talks with Singapore to create a supply chain hub to source products from within Asia. For example, our shrimp is from Vietnam and it’s shipped to Miami which divvies it up. So the shrimp here comes via Miami. We are working with Economic Development Board to change that and use Singapore as a supply hub.”

  • Be the best hybrid version of ourselves

We are already hybrid beings, our powers amplified by mobile supercomputing power which will only get stronger with 5G and faster connectivity. Covid forced us even deeper into hybrid lives – the way we work, meet and play has changed. 

Companies such as Trip.com are introducing “hybrid work trials”. This flexibility in work will create opportunities for the travel industry, said Liang. The notion of remote work will create a new market segment which Travelstart, the Africa-based OTA, is tapping into with its Day 1 new line of business targeted at remote workers looking to live, work and play in Cape Town.

Travel companies will use more AR and VR to inspire travellers while Marina Bay Sands, which launched its Virtual Meeting Place during WiT, is interested in exploring the metaverse. 

Corporate travel and the MICE industry will embrace virtual as part and parcel of their trips and events – using digital to augment the physical. The WiT conference was an example of a hybrid experience, blending physical with digital content for a phygital audience.

• The Great Resignation will be followed by The Great Renewal

Yes, millions of jobs have been lost in travel and many more have left of their own accord to take shelter in other industries. But leaders like John Brown, CEO of Agoda, have confidence travel will attract the best of talent on its rebound.

John Brown: The rebound will be like “the cow jumping over the moon”.

“Travel Tech isn’t experiencing a burning-ship situation, where everybody is jumping off. Travel is gearing up for a rebound like no other,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post, and when I asked what kind of rebound – kangaroo hop or fox trot – he said, “More like the cow jumping over the moon.”

Scoot’s Campbell Wilson said, of “the great resignation”, “It’s happening. I see it everywhere, and not just in aviation or travel businesses. Partly it is the K-shaped recovery where some industries are booming whilst others are suffering.  But I think it’s more a consequence of a general re-evaluation people have done as a result of the pandemic.  

“We’ve not been immume, and people have left us. At the same time, we’ve been able to recruit very good people into the business. Maybe it’s better termed The Great Renewal, not Great Resignation.”

Dr Paul Tambyah: We must be more prepared for the next one.
  • Be prepared for the next one

We may not have wanted to hear it but Dr Paul Tambyah, president-elect of the International Society of Infectious Diseases, said the next flu outbreak could be just two years away. The good things is, the medical world is more prepared – effective vaccines have been produced in record time and supply chains established. 

But the travel industry needs to be better prepared. It needs to funds its own research to support its case with governments so that the default is not to shut down borders, he said. Imagine, he said, that to this day, WHO does not recommend travel restrictions for anyone except those that are infected and yet every government has seen fit to do it differently. 

He cited the US full opening to vaccinated travellers by November 8 as a good model of reopening, saying the world will be watching.

Kei Shibata: Business schools teach you about focus but this pandemic has proven diversification helped many businesses survive it.

Businesses also need to be more pandemic-proof and precious lessons have been learnt in this period. Diversification is critical. Kei Shibata, CEO of Venture Republic, Japan, said business schools teach you about focus but in this period, that had to be unlearnt – what saved his group was its second leg in a travel content business, Trip 101. Hotels across Asia have learnt it doesn’t pay to be too dependent on inbound visitors or any one market. Klook, which avoided “the coffin”, has built domestic businesses across its markets which will stand it well when inbound returns.

“I never believed staycations would work in Singapore,” said O’Neil-Dunne, who stayed at the Marina Bay Sands during his visit to Singapore and saw the high occupancies at the Integrated Resort as well as at Capella. 

Well, this is one period when the words “never say never” have never been more relevant. 

Never did I think I’d ever have to walk the line between physical and virtual at a conference and often, I didn’t even know which speaker was physical or virtual. It felt that real. Welcome to the new reality.

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