In recent years, finding innovation in travel has seemed like a hunt for an ancient Arctic narwhal - it exists, but a great adventure is required to discover where.
Beyond the endlessly familiar tropes of trip planning and social travel, there were some engaging technologies, services and themes presented at Phocuswright's annual Travel Innovation Summit.
But ponder these questions:
- What exactly is the definition of innovation?
- Is it doing something no one else is doing?
- Iterating a product in a fresh way?
- Or is it merely pushing inevitable evolutions faster and packaging them more quickly than others?
This question is a perennial one, especially in the travel space where "innovation" and "innovative" (and a fair sprinkling of "game-changing" and "disruptive") are thrown around loosely.
To frame the discussion, consider this video created from a script by Fast Company columnist David Brier. The best innovations involve connecting the dots, a useful framework to consider just how innovative a particular concept is.
So here are some of the more well-connected dots from the Travel Innovation Summit.
Business travel: compliance and ease of booking
Hands down, the company that most impressed the judges was KDS as they showcased their "KDS Neo" software for booking point-to-point corporate travel. In a rare moment of silence, the judges had nothing to say after the presentation, and CEO Dean Forbes walked off stage with time still on the clock.
The company bills Neo as "the most significant innovation in travel booking in the last ten years. It’s a giant step toward a world where travel booking is so simple that it isn't even considered to be a significant activity by the travellers themselves."
Hubris aside, the audience tended to agree with the judges that this was indeed a well-rounded and useful product - the trade floor was buzzing about KDS Neo.
The connection here is to make point-to-point booking seamless and simple for business travelers.
By bringing a smart interface to the corporate travel product, the company is clearly positioned to take advantage of the rapidly-maturing consumerization of business IT.
Business travelers are also more quickly serviced, and are kept travel policy compliant as the service can deliver and book only those legs that match policy criteria.
And the best part for the mobile traveler is that the booking tool is optimized for mobile devices.
This is clearly something that can change the way that managed travel can be implemented, vastly reducing much of the appearance of "managed" and offering up more flexible, mobile solutions that unburdens managed travel.
Collaborative travel tools
Group travel continues to be of interest to travel entrepreneurs, which has led to an increased focus in collaboration tools
While this area has a limited use case at the surface, there was plenty of interest by both judges and attendees.
This highlights just how much pain there can be in the group travel planning experience - even if it is not the way that the majority travels.
Sports outings, family trips, bachelor parties, family reunions, weddings - there are many life events that come to pass involving groups, and the startups are lining up to facilitate the booking process.
In fact, GBTA pegged group business travel at over $100 million in 2012 - a significant number that doesn't include the larger leisure market. And group travel is estimated to grow an additional 3.3% over this past year and into the next.
Flight With Friends (TLabs here) focuses completely on searching, discussing and booking flights - with friends.
On the hotel side, Groupize impressed the judges with their well-rounded attempt to become a "hospitality company focused on the group travel sector."
Groupize not only allows groups to plan stays, but also provides custom solutions to hotels looking to capture more group bookings. This includes a white labeled product specifically tailored to the property, allowing them to have a streamlined way to take group booking requests.
The interesting thing about Groupize is that it's connecting hotels to groups - rather than just groups to hotels. This might seem like a meaningless distinction, but by focusing on tools for hotels, the company is able to integrate themselves into the hotel's group booking workflow which builds a defensible advantage against any competitors.
This defensible advantage means that the company has truly carved out a niche for themselves, solved a real problem and connected two willing parties both seeking a better solution.
Full-featured offline travel guides
Alongside repeat presenter MyGola, who announced an attractive wholesale redesign of their trip planning and booking engine, the only other presenting startup related to non-niche, full-featured trip planning was the promising WhatNow Travel.
WhatNow is a travel app living at the confluence of two problems: excessive roaming charges while traveling and downloadable smartphone city guides that update according to location.
By downloading content locally, the app is able to offer content without a WiFi or cellular connection. This is a key differentiator, as many travel apps become extremely limited when users are faced with the cost of roaming charges when traveling abroad.
By eliminating the worry of roaming, this app allows for some serious usage that could indeed impact usage of traditional travel guides, which had been maintaining a modicum of popularity given the cost of roaming, and the challenge of always finding a WiFi signal.
The app also downloads a set itinerary, so travelers can be guided according to a preset agenda. It also has an extremely clever "Radar" mode which allows travelers to deviate from their set itinerary.
By working with location data providers such as Yelp and Foursquare, the app can also show different things to do related to location that were not on the original itinerary. Once the traveler has experienced these items, they can even use the app to find point-to-point directions to get back on track with the saved itinerary.
This simulation of a live experience, even without wifi or cellular, is an incredible feature, one that must be standard across travel apps if they are truly going to maintain their utility in the face of escalating roaming charges. The company calls this "smarter mobile travel" and the audience agreed - this was a very popular concept.
It's also a utility for those travelers staying in non-traditional accommodations like Airbnb. Without a concierge, these travelers are relying on their hosts and their own research to fuel their trip itinerary.
By offering up a native, adaptable travel guide, WhatNow Travel has definitely carved out a special niche that threatens other mobile travel guides on the market by connecting the traveler's need for location-specific information that doesn't break the bank.
Flipping the script by empowering travelers
This is one of the most refreshing narratives to come out of this crop of TIS presenters: the focus on empowering travelers to make better decisions through technology.
There were several startups with varying takes on what this means - at its root, the idea is to allow travelers to participate more in the marketing of travel, as well as offering them new ways to interact with travel marketing and destination/business selection.
TravelShark is proposing a new way to consider hospitality reviews. Called "the essence," the idea here is to eliminate the arbitrary star or number rating in favor of a comprehensive overview of the most used expressions by reviewers of a particular place.
This gives more specific characteristics to the place, and eliminates much of the gray that surrounds star or numerical ratings - just what constitutes a four star establishment? Is a four star rating from the backpacker the same as a four star rating from a luxury traveler?
Most likely not, but the most common words used to describe a place generally offer up a more comprehensive picture of what to expect from that place.
BevvyUp was also popular with the judges, especially given the fresh take on using customers' social interactions to drive topline revenues.
Dubbed "Social Revenue Optimization," this company promises to layer a social collaboration and sentiment intelligence layer onto current conversations with customers.
The idea is to allow businesses to listen to customers' emotions surrounding the business, and be able to act accordingly.
Users can shop with friends and family while tying their emotions to various products, which allows businesses to listen to customers and deliver the products they are most into at the right time.
While the judges pointed out that there may be more clear use cases in retail, this was an intriguing concept that attempts to bridge the disconnect between sentiment and actual purchasing behavior - something that could ben very interesting in travel.
Other notables included Concur's voice-driven booking for in-policy travel - a slick reminder of the beauty brought by a dedicated feature of a full-scale B2B travel product - and Sabre's real-time merchandising that allows brands to target specific demographics of traveler within the travel agent workflow.
These sorts of interactive, real-time targeting solutions are certainly where travel needs to be, and the big players are doing their part to bring us there.
Thankfully, it seems that the travel industry has shaken off the unfruitful obsession with travel inspiration and social trip planning - there's just not enough of that to go around, and part of the fun of travel planning is actually in the process itself.
So it's vital that all travel startups - and established companies - remember that the wonder of travel lies somewhat in the process of planning said travel.
If we allow algorithms to decide even where we go on vacation, then an element of the human experience - actually forging one's own destiny - is diminished.
This has the peril of reducing travel only to its logistical nuts and bolts - a misguided mistake that could derail the entire industry.
The connections between the travel dots are being made more regularly, and this can be seen in a renewed vigor of travel startups attempting to solve real problems.
There's also some cross-industry startups patching up some gaping holes in travel, from travel advertising (these guys as well) to accessible wifi, plenty of startups are looking to improve travel with their services and solutions.
As the industry continues to push towards new innovations, let's remember that it is our collective responsibility to pursue new opportunities that connect disparate dots to build a new model for travel.
This is a process of continuous innovation, a new normal that must be applauded and vigorously pursued.
Those who propose expending resources on already-done concepts that don't solve true travel problems must be encouraged to double down and relentlessly pursue truly necessary and innovative solutions.
NB: Light bulb image via Shutterstock