Chatting in Seattle about harnessing Big Data, defining disruption and evolving distributionNews / DistributionBy Nick Vivion | October 2, 2013Share This article was originally published on This week marked the second annual Travel & Technology Conference in Seattle, Washington, where a slew of travel industry insiders from across competencies came together to explore some of the more salient issues facing travel today: Big Data, disruption and distribution.The panelists included representatives from Concur, Google, RoomKey, Thayer Ventures, Hipmunk, Travelport, Expedia, and many others, which interacted colorfully with a room full of both investors and travel professionals.The agenda, which lives here, broke up the discussion into Big Data, Distribution, and Investors/Pundits.Big DataThis was one of the most controversial of the panels, given the industry's continued struggle to truly understand Big Data across silos. The main issues addressed here were a) what data to collect, and b) what to do with it once it's been collected.Jami Timmons from nSight repeatedly mentioned her mantra: collect and save it all. With storage costs plummeting, it's more affordable than ever to store every piece of data from a particular workflow, and therefore businesses should just track and keep whatever they can.This then allows for future problems to be addressed with an already-robust dataset, rather than having to wait many months to allow for a new dataset to be collected that can then be analyzed within the frame of a newly identified problem.One of the areas not directly addressed was the idea that Big Data should be used to support business problems identified through traditional means.For example, a company should identify problems via normal channels, and be sensitive to road blocks that may be surmounted by analysis of available data. However, if a company is blindly collecting data without attempting to implement a workflow that encourages the surfacing of data-hungry problems, they are not actually setting themselves up for success in the space.This issue can be particularly acute in travel, as best practices for companies take time to develop - and also take significant resources and buy-ins across organic silos in management structures. Regardless, as Mike Blake from Commune Hotels pointed out, the motivating concept should be that effective use of Big Data makes an operation more efficient. So how can an individual business begin using their data resources to achieve that goal?The ability to understand data also becomes more complicated when considering structured versus unstructured data. This becomes a huge issue, as service providers are pushed by clients to deliver standardized datasets that make sense of data generally without structure. Don Hay, of marketing firm Digital Alchemy, sees this as an indicator that we have adequate "infrastructure but not maturity."Basically, the clients see the data coming in, and understand the opportunity to do something with it, but are not yet at the next stage of being able to internally harness the meaning of the data.As a vendor, Mike Schmitt from Clairvoyix, tells this to clients: "There are non-traditional ways to analyze large data sets, but first we need to deal with the incoming structured data and then normalize that into a single database. And only then can we move into unstructured incoming data streams. We need to act on the data we have first before adding new data."One panelist likened the current state of the Big Data component of the industry to teenage sex: everyone's talking about it, only a few are doing it, and those few aren't doing it well.This is a very accurate portrayal of the awkward adolescence that Big Data is experiencing: it's very self-aware, and everyone knows that the opportunity is there. The question is how best to develop it for each individual business case - and then be sure that it can developed in a way that plays well with others and interfaces with other business units that might seek to use it down the line.So the conversations around Big Data continue. Unstructured versus structured data streams, and the cross-organizational standardization of data are two areas that remain sticking points to wholesale acceleration of Big Data's impact on all levels of travel.Defining disruption, and the disruption of privacyAnother discussion that came out of Big Data was the concept of defining disruption. What exactly is disruption, and how does it apply to the travel space? Is it simply defined as a technology that displaces a main player, or is incremental disruption significant enough?John Davis, CEO of RoomKey, highlighted the enormous growth their company has experienced in the last 18 months.With their "pop-under," retail-style model that allows hotels to maintain a direct distribution channel even if they've missed the sale, they've been able to truly change the way hotels consider their own direct channel marketing.So is this considered a disruption, or simply an evolution of the hotel revenue management model? There were no clear answers here, but the idea of defining what's considered disruption - a much ballyhooed word verging on jargon - is a smart one.As a follow-on from the conversation on Big Data, the issue of privacy also bubbled up - one that could be reframed as a concept of disruption.Thayer Ventures' Chris Hemmeter boldly stated that "privacy was dead," and that we had reached a point of no return where younger Millenials just simply do not value privacy as a real thing anymore.Effectively technology has disrupting the social tenet of privacy, which has significant implications for the travel industry - especially when considering biometrics, TouchID, Google Glass and other wearables disrupting any remaining attachments to privacy.This is a key discussion in the context of travel: what is the ability of technological solutions to disrupt not just other technologies or traditional players, but entrenched social mores?Opportunities in distributionDistribution continues to be a hot topic, with the common refrain of "the OTAs are dead, long live the OTAs" dominating much of the discussion related to new players up against incumbents.On this particular panel, the questions were less related to the role of OTAs, and more the role of all travel players to distribute inventory in ways that maximize user experience to deliver "what they want when they want how they want."Talk of responsive design, targeting the appropriate mobile audience with the right application, and using technologies to bring consumers directly to brand.com websites were all shared by many panelists. Dwayne Long, of Travelport, was especially emphatic about leveraging mobile with relevant choice to most effectively deliver the "what I want when I want it" value proposition to travelers.How to capture direct bookings continues to be of intense interest, with some suggesting a more controlled access to inventory in distribution agreements as a near-term potential, especially as hotels invest significantly in their direct channels.One final note on opportunities in disruption was related to innovation that occurs as market fragmentation increases. With barriers to entry basically non-existent, the availability of many competing apps means that anyone can really come in and force their own opportunity: HotelTonight being a prime example often pointed to throughout the afternoon.The truth about hospitalityOne of the points that this reporter made during the final panel of the afternoon was that we as an industry must never forget the "hospitality" in our name.If Big Data delivers a sea of cold, data hungry monsters, the industry will suffer and people will push back against the feeling of just being an optimized series of transactions sitting in some database.Each problem addressed by technology must be done in a human-first manner, with a sincere and thorough understanding of the human component of the transaction. Using data to deliver a better experience is laudable - especially if it can be humanized.Travel is a people business and this must not be lost sight of in these discussions of Big Data, disruption and new opportunities in distribution.Many on the panel supported this view - and also pointed out that the true opportunity here is to balance technology with humanity, and strive to develop technology solutions that enhance the front-lines ability for hospitality workers to get their jobs done well - and ideally allow them more time to interact and develop a personal relationship with the guest standing in front of them.NB:Seattle keyboard image via Shutterstock.