Why the Travel Industry Should Be Excited About The Phocuswright Conference

Why the Travel Industry Should Be Excited About The Phocuswright Conference

The rise of artificial intelligence, changes in digital travel and travel agency efficiency are top draws

By: Mindy Poder
<p>Google’s Oliver Heckmann is one of several travel industry innovators presenting at The Phocuswright Conference this year. // © 2016...

Google’s Oliver Heckmann is one of several travel industry innovators presenting at The Phocuswright Conference this year. // © 2016 Phocuswright

Feature image (above): The Phocuswright Conference returns to J.W. Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live this Nov. 14-17. // © 2016 Phocuswright

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The Phocuswright Conference

Whether or not you recognize Phocuswright by name, chances are you owe at least some of your knowledge about travel technology and innovation to the company. Dedicated to researching travel, tourism and hospitality market trends, Phocuswright also puts on a series of events, including its annual U.S.-based The Phocuswright Conference. This year’s conference will take place Nov. 14-17 in Los Angeles at J.W. Marriott Los Angeles L.A. Live and plans to attract more than 1,700 senior executives, media, investors and startups from around the world.

The 2016 conference theme is “Funnel Revolution,” which will guide conversations throughout the conference. Phocuswright’s research team believes that the sales funnels for online travel is in turmoil and that change is brewing — particularly when it comes to personalization and utilizing new marketing and engagement tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality.

“Changes in the conventional digital sales funnel will have enormous implications across the industry,” said Douglas Quinby, vice president of research for Phocuswright. “Customer acquisition costs continue to rise in search, and more and more travelers spend time on smartphones and in apps. The challenges to acquiring and engaging customers have never been greater — or changing at a faster pace.”

Don’t Miss These Sessions and Speakers
This year’s roster of visionary speakers includes Chip Conley, head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb, and Oliver Heckmann, vice president of product and engineering for travel and shopping at Google. 

Following Conley’s session on Tuesday, Nov. 15, will be a keynote from the commercial head of Lufthansa, Jens Bischof.

“[Bischof] will lay out his airline’s vision for distribution, then engage in a lively debate with leadership from Sabre and American Express,” Quinby said. “We also assemble the original founders of online travel’s biggest brands (Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com and Orbitz) for a sweeping discussion of the state of digital travel today and where it’s headed. And that’s just Tuesday.”

Throughout the conference are several particularly interesting sessions and speakers for travel agents wondering how the travel industry will evolve — and where they fit in.  

“AI platforms will be of particular interest to travel agents,” said Tahnee Perry, vice president of marketing for the Travel Group, which includes Phocuswright and TravelAge West. “They will always need that personal touch which the travel advisor provides. Advisors want to be involved in that — they don’t want to be left behind.” 

On Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 11:05 a.m., John Morhous, chief strategy officer for Flight Centre Travel Group Limited, will present on its business travel chat-bot. The chat-bot allows for booking and updating trips through a combination of self-booking and travel agent assistance. 

Agents will also not want to miss an executive interview with Paul English, CEO of Lola. Lola, an app, blends travel agent assistance with AI in the name of travel agent efficiency.

“AI will increasingly be harnessed to enable all companies to manage routine service requests more efficiently,” Quinby said. “Just like technology has made flight or hotel search far more efficient, AI will transform customer service and help make travel agents far more efficient and able to spend far more time better serving customers. It’s still in its early days, but this is one of the most promising applications. Why do we still have to pick up a phone and wait on hold at most hotels just to order some extra pillows?”

For those curious about bots, AI, machine learning and all the rest, don’t miss “Sector Spotlight: The Rise of the Machines,” at 12:05 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17. The session will focus on what the travel industry should do with these innovative tools and will feature speakers Kathleen McMahon, vice president and general manager of SoundHound Inc., and Raj Singh, CEO of Go Moment, Inc., as well as panelists from Skyscanner, Intercontinental Hotels Group and MindMeld. 

Agents interested in itinerary management will also want to hear Julia Douglas, CEO of Axus Travel App, on Nov. 15 at 9:25 a.m.

Return attendees will notice some differences at the conference this year, including an expansion of the Travel Innovation Summit. A new collection of innovation products called the Phocuswright Innovation Platform includes conference features, a university program and networking and consulting opportunities. 

This year, Phocuswright’s new charity partners are MercyCorps and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which will present on Nov. 17 about the global refugee crisis and how the travel industry and many other private companies are playing a supporting role in humanitarian relief.