By Rod Harris and Nigel Collett with Jeff DeChambeau
The world is not only changing, but changing more quickly than ever. Many global forces and trends will reshape entire industries and economies in the years to come. This paper focuses on five such forces, “shockwaves” that we believe will have a transformative impact on the travel and hospitality sector: global climate change, transforming demographics, macroeconomic pressures, escalating energy costs, and disruptive technology.
Alone, each of these shockwaves is powerful enough to disrupt the competitive balance of the industry. Taken together, the travel and hospitality sector as we know it could be radically different in a matter of decades.
With these trends reshaping the industry so quickly and drastically, there’s a danger that tourism and hospitality providers and their customers could be left with their heads spinning. To respond effectively, organizations will need to anticipate the future and plan appropriate responses.
Our perspective is that being forewarned is being forearmed. We believe that the best way to prepare for the future is to focus on collecting better information and integrating it into critical decision making. Investments in information technology that provide immediate access to relevant information will be critical for effective decision-making. Further, we believe that not only surviving the shockwaves but thriving in their wake can be assured if industry providers collaborate on a shared digital platform. By reducing costs, increasing effectiveness, and improving customer satisfaction, travel and hospitality players can work together to create and share long-term competitive advantage.
In his 1970 book Future Shock, futurist Alvin Toffler argued that the future would be more challenging a time than people typically imagined. Specifically, the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” would leave individuals unable to cope with accelerating technological and social forces. 1 Indeed by the middle of the 20th century, the world was changing more quickly than it ever had before. The hit ‘60s-era TV show Mad Men captured this thought elegantly with one character eulogizing the death of another: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.”2
But compared to the speed at which technology and society will be changing today, bookending a life with a barn and skyscraper seems relatively tame. With faster, more extreme examples being written every day, the challenge is for people, organizations, and industries to cope with the rapid pace of change. While Toffler’s argument applies to technological progress, it broadly addresses the difficulty that humans have in dealing with tremendous change—of any type—that happens quickly.
We believe that the world will be beset in the future by a number of macro forces that are going to bring about transformational change very quickly. These changes, or shockwaves—the presence of global climate change, widespread demographic shifts, harsher macroeconomic realities, escalating energy costs, and the transformational effect of disruptive technology—are each reshaping the world in their own way very quickly. While each shockwave is individually leaving its mark on the social, environmental, and economic landscape, when taken together, they portend a near-future that’s very different from today.
Our five shockwaves are not an exhaustive list, but they are particularly disruptive to the travel and hospitality industry. The aim of this investigation is to map out the scope of these shockwaves and learn how they can be managed.
To help make sense of the business implications of the changing world, we invoke the classic of competitive strategy: Michael Porter’s five forces. These shockwaves will reshape the competitive landscape of the travel and hospitality industry, and players will find themselves impacted in different ways—ways that can be considered in terms of Porter’s forces:
As the shockwaves apply competitive pressures to the industry, advantage will go to those players who know how to respond and make the best out of their competitive position: the challenge is to stay fit. We recognize that we’ve painted a complex situation—but the world is entering a period of transformational change that demands careful planning. The five shockwaves we’ve identified can’t be controlled or influenced, but they can be predicted, accounted for, and even leveraged for competitive advantage. We believe that being forewarned is being forearmed. By paying close attention to these trends as they develop and making some smart decisions now, travel marketers can start to build the type of business infrastructure that will keep them relevant and viable. After all, with disruption comes opportunity.
- Competitive rivalry between players. As the five forces reshape the industry, travel and hospitality marketers will find themselves competing with more numerous and widely-varied competitors. In response, we expect that marketers will look to differentiation and personalization to retain customers and grow profits.
- Bargaining power of customers. Customers will also be affected by the looming changes. Some will find themselves better off while others will be disadvantaged. Marketers will need to understand the buying-context of their customer segments and adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly. Across the board, digital alternatives provide an abundance of information as well as searching and filtering tools, empowering customers to make better-informed decisions.
- Bargaining power of suppliers. Countering the changing bargaining power of customers is the reality that globally attractive tourism events like an Olympics or World Fair puts incumbent suppliers in a very strong position. Suppliers will have many alternatives, like raising prices, packaging experiences in mandatory bundles, or requiring commitments for post-event purchasing through “costs of participation.”
- Threat of new entrants. As the shockwaves carve a new competitive landscape, the global market will change geographically: new destinations will find themselves on the map, and incumbents will have to respond to retain their customers. Destinations in emerging economies could be especially aggressive competitors as each tourist dollar they win makes a much bigger an impact.
- Threat of substitutes. Even with new players in the market, customers may feel pressured to choose less-expensive nearby vacations in lieu of the usual suspects. If a customer can have a delightful experience an hour from their door, that experience could easily take the place of one several air connections away.
Weather systems are tremendously complex. Many elements impact the experience and safety of surfers: ocean surface pressure, wave locations and properties, wind forecasts, temperatures, even the presence of sharks. To stay safe, find the best waves and manage this complexity, a surfer needs to find and combine many types of information—above and beyond technical knowledge and experience required to ride the waves.
Surfing as a metaphor
The bits of information need to be not only reconciled with one another, but also reliable and high-quality. Fortunately, many surfing information management dashboards exist. They synthesize data from all the complex systems that track the perfect waves, and provide enthusiasts and professionals with the information they need to pick the right time and place to surf safely. Ultimately, the surfer needs to know how to read the waves—both at the beach and through these data systems—if they want to enjoy a successful day on the water.
Like surfing, the tourism industry is also a complex, multivariate system. In fact, the tourism industry is so complex that weather—our example of complexity—is just one of many factors that travel marketers and service providers need to take into account. As technology and information management are powerful tools for surfing, we suggest that it’s also a powerful antidote to the systemic complexity that travel and hospitality marketers and customers are already working to overcome.
The five shockwaves
Scientific consensus is that man-made global climate change is real and here to stay. The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) minces no words: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.”3 While different parts of the planet are affected at different rates and in different ways, the world is getting warmer (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Global and continental temperature change. Source: IPCC.
One of the most pronounced consequences of climate change could be the increase in sea-level caused by melting ice caps. The IPCC estimates that water levels will rise by 7 to 23 inches by the year 2100, with some estimates placing the highest rise at almost 32 inches. 4 The greatest impact of rising water levels will be along the coasts, which is exactly where populations tend to be most dense.5,6
Climate change also negatively impacts wildlife. Virtually all animals have migratory patterns and specific reproductive and dietary needs that can be disturbed by sustained changes in temperature. In turn the habitats themselves are affected.7 In tropical areas, coral reefs, the beautiful cornerstone of the aquatic biome, are being injured by rising water temperatures.8 Destinations known for their rich wildlife may find themselves in trouble as iconic animals migrate to more hospitable climates.
It’s not just broad warming that makes up the bulk of climate change, local weather patterns are becoming more disruptive and harder to predict. Extreme weather patterns vary between droughts that cause farming crises and monsoons that often times disrupt millions at a time.9
These environmental changes reshape the competitive tourism landscape. As global temperatures continue to rise, some destinations may become too warm, while others warm up enough to be viable destinations. As water levels rise, coastal destinations may find themselves responding to flooding, while higher altitude destinations become safer and drier. Different parts of the world may find that their prime seasons also change, becoming shorter, or shifting to another part of the year. Shorter seasons do however apply a new scarcity on vacations that will impact revenue streams. By the same token, longer, warmer seasons could drastically increase capacity, warming could allow for more profitable attraction.
Many of the consequences of climate change are going to be difficult to predict, but will likely impose scarcities or costs on tourism destinations. Travel marketers will need to be able to plan for contingencies, react quickly, and do what they can to always make the best out of a given situation.
Everyone’s getting older. The first batch of baby boomers has begun to retire, and many more are close behind. In the United States the number of retirees is projected to grow from 39 million today to 89 million by 2050.10 Worldwide, people aged 65 and older will triple by 2050 to over 1.53 billion.11 Not just out of the labour force, this global pool of retirees will have lots of free time—and in many cases an appetite for travel. But in some cases their travel options may be constrained by finances and health.
The widespread availability of credit products thanks to low interest rates has resulted in a largely indebted consumer base.12 While the easy access to mortgage credit and the resulting housing bubble in the U.S. is well known,13 consumers all over the developed world are behaving similarly with other credit products.14
At the same time, many sovereign nations have social security funds that are in rough shape. In the U.S., Medicare and Social Security reserves are expected to be exhausted by the 2020s and 2030s respectively, increasing financial constraints on the growing number of retirees.15
There is likely to be a large number of retired consumers with limited financial means but nearly unlimited free time and flexibility to travel. These tourists will require inexpensive (and likely nearby) destinations and may require vacation financing. Marketers will need to know the needs of potential customers and design financially and logistically viable getaways. Marketing tools like flash sales and group discounts are typically effective at reaching this segment.
Figure 4: Public debt to GDP ratios. Source: The Economist.
This isn’t to say that travel and hospitality as an industry will find itself geographically restrained in a race to the lowest price. There is going to be a high degree of polarity in the marketplace: while many consumers will be debt- and pension-constrained, there will also be many high-end customers in good health—ready, willing, and able to travel extensively. Many of these high-end customers will come from the Western world, but not all. Travellers from the newly-minted upper classes of Asia are also likely to visit iconic, established destinations.
Aging populations also have increased needs for both elective and non-elective medical procedures. As burdens increase on local healthcare systems and wait times grow, many Western patients are turning to healthcare tourism to access high quality inexpensive medical expertise in developing nations. For many consumers, the cost of a flight ticket to South America plus the procedure is cheaper than having it done at home, with a shorter waiting time and cheaper prescription drugs. This trend is likely to continue.16 Travel marketers can take advantage of this by designing medical tourism vacations, and by changing the way they find and advertise to customers.
In all, marketers will need to be able to target and segment these customers and design packages that appeal to their interests and means. Advantage will be given to the marketers that have the best understanding of their customers.
Marching upwards hand in hand with consumer debt, government debt is also on the rise. Countries everywhere are burdened by massive public debt—the worst being Japan, with obligations that measure some 225% of GDP. But other highly-industrialized nations are also in trying times: Greece at 144%, Iceland and 123%, Ireland at 94%, France at 83%, the U.K. at 76.5% and the U.S at 58.9%. Traditional tourism destinations for Westerners are doing better, but are still constrained: Costa Rica, Mexico, Thailand and the U.A.E. are in the low 40s.17 Across the board, these levels are on the rise.18
Higher debt levels mean that a higher percentage of tax revenue will go to servicing and paying down debt instead of covering other programs. Marketers may have to contend with the gap in public services caused as governments move spending to social and health needs and away from destination marketing. Given their debt to GDP ratios, these decreases in marketing spend by developed nations may give emerging markets a stronger international voice if they decide that their money could be better-spent on aggressively soliciting visitors.
Notwithstanding decreased government support, travel marketers everywhere will have to contend with more competition. The consumer internet has levelled the playing field for travel marketers in every corner of the world. Consider planning a trip from a customer’s point of view: if they’re prepared to sit on a plane for up to ten hours, they have many destination options. This means that many destinations will compete for the same pool of visitors. Customers have always had different levels of comfort with certain types of destinations; they now have a tremendous amount of choice to pick exactly the vacation they desire.
There will be much less tolerance for waste in advertising dollars, and greater emphasis on tracking real return on investment metrics. Marketers are going to need to be very smart about how they compete on the global stage. It will be crucial to understand customer interests very specifically, and to design packages that differentiate destinations based on more than price and attractions, but on customer experience and personalization—likely requiring cooperation between complementary service vendors and bundled pricing.
Rising energy costs could seriously impact travel. As the worldwide consumption of petroleum grows, production is struggling to keep up. At a certain point (known as Peak Oil) petroleum will be being extracted from the earth as quickly as possible—a rate that won’t be sufficient to meet the world’s fuel needs.19 Because travel is a luxury activity, when fuel becomes scarce other functions in the economy will monopolize the available supply. Fuel-based travel will become prohibitively expensive for many.
There’s a growing investment in green and electrical energy, but the latest innovations haven’t yet expanded to consumer-facing air and sea travel. This means that air and sea travel costs are at the whim of fuel costs, which are rising.20 Since flying dominates travel to distant places and its cost is tied to fuel, lower-end consumers could be squeezed out of their ability to reach far-away destinations. These customers will instead favour destinations accessible by land either by electric car or train, limiting the distances these customers can travel.
Neighbouring states will be in an especially good position, especially when already joined by rail, like with the European Union. This reality will mean that marketers will want to target based on the location of their home and nearby destinations. Marketers will have to find ways to manage the constrained market access of lower-income consumers.
On the other hand, high-end travel is less likely to be affected. Moreover, travel by air will signal to marketers the sunny financial disposition of their customers. In fact remote destinations will find themselves in competition with one another for high-end customers. These destinations will be pushed to differentiate and scale up to meet customer expectations. As with less well-heeled customers, there will be a need for marketers to understand what kind of travel and hospitality experience is within the means of the consumer, and design one accordingly.
Finally, there may also be a selective pressure against extremely remote destinations. Despite its collection of downsides, petroleum is a portable energy source. Resorts and destinations far enough off the beaten that they require their own generators will have much higher operating costs, requiring either an investment in alternative energy, a move towards a higher-end clientele, or both.
While the worldwide internet means global competition for each and every marketer, that’s only the beginning. Because so many marketers are advertising to the same set of global customers, the customer experience online could at times be described as “information overload.” This makes customer attention scarce, especially for advertisements. Only ads that are tailored and targeted will have a chance of being read. Marketers will need to understand the online terms of engagement set by customers if they want to be successful.
At the same time, customers are spending more and more time on social networks where they are growing comfortable having relationships with marketers through branded pages and profiles.21 While traditional marketers are still ill at ease with these digital venues, having a customer Like or Follow a brand at no cost is tremendously valuable. The challenge for marketers is to remain relevant to customers (while not getting their updates suppressed or hidden). The opportunity in social networks to reach customers at a very low cost extends beyond branded profiles: often times customers will advertise the trip they just took by posting pictures of their recent vacation.
Travel reviews have also gone social. Websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp! have built their business models on curating customer-written reviews. Many customers now consult these social services when planning a new trip, trusting reviews written by strangers. Marketers have surprisingly little control over these social review sites: Yelp!, for instance, lets marketers promote one review of their choice to the top of the list. Otherwise, brands on these sites are at the whim of the users. Destinations that provide a better experience will be better represented, and all marketers will want to keep an eye on what their customers are saying.
Finally, there’s disintermediation. Consider travel agents: they’ve been all but replaced by customer self-service portals like Expedia and Orbitz. For companies looking to sell off inventory, plugging customers directly into their booking engine without having to pay margins to travel agents or headcount costs to call centers is nothing but upside—and customers tend to be happier, preferring to select their own accommodations and travel details rather than speak to an inbound call centre CSR.22
Ultimately the rise of consumer technology means coming up with ways for both marketers and customers to cope with the complexity of the market, and create value for both. Marketers need to use this explosion of channels and technology to personalize their relationship with customers, and design tailored offerings. Customers expect to be reached on the medium of their choice, meaning that marketers need to be reach to reach out online, over the phone, and on mobile devices.
The explosion of technology means that much is still up for grabs. New technologies and business models will continue to disrupt incumbents and reshape the playing field. But the advantage will go to the marketer with the best understanding of their customer. Travel marketers should be on a constant lookout for better ways to understand and serve their guests.
The need for fitness
In order to respond to the competitive pressures exerted by other players in the market, a firm needs to be fit—where fitness is the ability to sense changes in the market place and develop and to deploy suitable responses. But what will enable fitness in the face of these shockwaves? Information.
The five shockwaves can’t be controlled, but to a large extent they can be anticipated, predicted to varying degrees, and integrated into planning. Travel and hospitality is ultimately about creating compelling experiences for customers. We believe that the strongest response to these shifts in the competitive landscape is for vendors to differentiate by personalizing their services to specific customer segments. Doing so allows vendors to retool their business to cater to a specific segment better than their competitors—but it’s up to travel marketers themselves to run the numbers to figure out what will be optimal.
By way of example, let’s look at the net impact of consumer debt, rising fuel costs, and technology-enabled customer shockwaves acting together. Because of debt and fuel costs, consumers outside of the high-end may be constrained by both cost of vacation and distance (as intermediated through fuel cost). These customers will accessible online and interested in a getaway. To attract and convert this customer segment, marketers will need to learn how to target customers online who are geographically adjacent. Beyond that first filter, marketers will also need to pick channels that give them access to customers of the right income levels, locations, interests, and online habits—an exercise in targeting that requires a good deal of information and planning.
In travel and hospitality, expiry of inventory is also a serious concern: empty hotel room nights and flights below capacity hurt margins. Some travel marketers have managed this risk by offering last-minute deals to specific customer segments. It’s another win-win scenario, especially for retired customers with flexibility to leave on short notice: customers get a great, low-cost vacation, and vendors are able to distribute their fixed and variable costs over a larger number of customers, improving profitability.
Given the right systems, travel marketers can improve the matching their offers to the needs of their customers. But we believe that in order to collect, manage, and leverage knowledge about customers—a cornerstone of fitness in the future shocked world—firms are going to have to adopt IT systems as an enabler of customer understanding, marketing, and competitive fitness.
The world is changing in the five ways outlined but it’s also changing in another important and often positive way: more data is being created, traded, processed, and mined than ever before. The presence of this massive amount of data allows for the detection and generation of insights about broad trends, market segments, and even specific customers. Business intelligence systems have allowed similar type of data-driven solutions, and have proven themselves able tools at distilling large amounts of information into actionable syntheses. Applied to the shockwaves, measurement, tracking, and analysis can help firms manage their competitive responses carefully:
IT systems as a knowledge and fitness enabler
By combining these information sources together and performing analysis on the results with an analytics dashboard, marketers and travel business decision makers can be prepared as the shockwaves impact the industry.
- Environmental: Climate change data and predictions are widely available through public data sets. NASA, for instance, makes available a considerable collection of predictive and historic models about temperature changes, flooding, and many other climate-related metrics. Real-time satellite information can also be found readily online in standard formats for analysis. By feeding these data sources into a travel and hospitality analytics system, vendors can make contingency plans for their guests when environmental outliers occur. If guests have a concern about negative weather activity solid data in support of minimal likelihood of rain for instance would enable a destination to make weather guarantees at little or no cost.
- Demographic: Technology is allowing the segmentation and understanding of customers—individually and en masse—on an unprecedented scale. Take for example the data aggregator Acxiom which has on average 1,500 pieces of data about 96% of Americans.23 This data is collected through data-sharing agreements with partners, through scraping public records, and credit reporting. But Acxiom’s data pales in comparison to what internet services like Facebook and Google know about customers—in fact Google CEO Eric Schmidt has publicly remarked that the company has a pretty good idea what customers are thinking at a given time.24 It’s possible to gain access to, or at the very least leverage, the tremendous investments that these companies have made to target customers as precisely as possible, making the best of marketing spend. By matching up the targeting options offered by these companies with information about the locations and means of ideal customers, marketers can reach their intended market.
- Economic: Many governments at the federal, regional, and municipal level are embracing open data. While the sizes, scopes, and purposes of the data sets vary a great deal from body to body, they can provide considerable visibility into planned service levels and budget allocations. Travel marketers who know to consult these records can plan their own investments to complement or compensate for changes in public spending, again moving to increase the efficacy of each dollar spent.
- Energy costs: By doing some back-of-the-napkin math comparing fuel prices to distance to destinations, marketers can determine where it’s practical to look for customers. This allows marketers to avoid wasting their scarce marketing resources on locations where they’re unable to find customers.
- Technology: Customer-empowerment is only one side of the technology story. There’s also a corresponding empowerment for companies and marketers. While customers are able to find and share reviews online, marketers are able to collect and analyze those very same reviews in nearly real time, understanding where their products and services excel, and where they’re lacking. Armed with this information, marketers can improve existing services, better-design new ones, and market to customers more effectively.
For all the advantages that a data-driven approach brings to planning and marketing for individual companies, there are far more advantages to be enjoyed by building and sharing a common collaborative platform—even with competitors.
Better, smarter data management systems are making it possible to extract value from large and numerous data sets—so why not integrate everyone’s data and share the benefits? For many complex problems like tracking weather patterns, forecasting fuel prices, and integrating customer data, why not distribute the costs and share the advantages? While it makes sense to integrate booking systems and share data with adjacent, complementary businesses, we believe that the future for the industry is one where geographic stakeholders—competitors and collaborators alike—work together to build a unified technology platform that serves as a shared a shared baseline. Competition is then focused around attracting, delighting, and retaining customers better than anyone else.
Collaboration between stakeholders
By working from connected systems and shared data, stakeholders can move towards synchronized collaboration and work together in real time to delight their customers.
By creating standard, shared customer profiles, businesses of all types can better understand the expectations and needs of their patrons and design compelling, memorable customer experiences.
The next few decades are going to radically reshape the world. To stay relevant and profitable, stakeholders in the travel and hospitality sector need to change the way they find, attract, communicate to, and service their customers. Marketers need to go to where customers are and communicate in language that makes sense no matter their segment. Providers need to be profitable and to measure the ROI of marketing campaigns while continuously adjusting towards optimal success. Only through technology are these customer, business, and marketing goals attainable.
Firms with the best understanding of market direction and with the best underlying technology platforms will be competitively advantaged going forward. Managers within these firms need to be empowered with decision support systems that leverage the information so they can get the best returns while delivering great travel and hospitality experiences to their consumers.
In order to delight customers profitably while weathering the coming shockwaves, we recommend that tourism and hospitality providers partner with one another and with an IT firm to create a shared platform to anticipate and manage the coming complexity. Players should pick a technology partner with a history of success specific in the sector, and adjacent partners with complementary goals. We firmly believe than an industry-wide stakeholder partnership will provide the scale, the sophistication, and the access to information required for long-term competitive advantage and a thriving tourism and hospitality sector.
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