ITB Berlin opens today for the first time in four years.
This occasion is significant because ITB Berlin was the first major travel industry event to cancel in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of those meaningful moments where each of us remember where we were when we found out that there would be no ITB.
Event after event was canceled in 2020, and while some events came back in 2021 and more in 2022, ITB was unfortunately positioned at the wrong time in the calendar as winter COVID peaks forced the ITB team to shift the event from physical to virtual.
So here we are convening on cold and wet Berlin, four full years after the last ITB Berlin opened its doors. Quite a bit has changed since March 2019. The travel industry has been to the Brink and Back, and there has been some seismic shifts and challenges that have evolved across the industry during this time span.
We covered some of the biggest during the Phocuswright/WiT Bridge Series: The great talent crunch emerged in 2020, as many of our industry colleagues opted to, or were forced to, leave the industry in search of a more stable profession. Product took center stage, and product managers and entrepreneurs launched products to both address pandemic-created problems and also meet changing traveler behavior patterns.
We discussed on stage at The Phocuswright Conference in November how quickly the digitization of the industry accelerated and the companies that moved first were able to steal share and gain scale.
Events also have changed quite significantly since the last ITB Berlin. The trend of hybrid events, blending the physical audience with the virtual audience, appeared poised to take off in 2020 and 2021. Event-tech companies and event producers that moved first were poised to position themselves at the front of the line to take advantage of this emerging trend.
The technology was developed and enhanced to facilitate the hybrid experience, and hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital was thrown at companies innovating and acquiring in this space.
However, once event attendees felt safe to attend events again, event producers have backed away from full hybrid events, and event-tech companies have been forced to pivot.
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The biggest reason for this shift is smart event producers have played to a fundamental characteristic of human beings: Humans are inherently social creatures. They crave physical connection, and when this was taken away during lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, there was a sense of emptiness that emerged.
This emptiness could only be filled by face-to-face human interaction.
Savvy event producers have doubled down on providing networking opportunities to bring together individuals who share common interests. Small topical roundtable-style group discussions today are more meaningful than ever.
This has always been a hallmark of Phocuswright Conferences, and others, including ITB Berlin, are offering many more opportunities for bringing together industry colleagues to network around important industry topics.
So where does that leave virtual and hybrid event platforms? From the hybrid perspective, we are keeping a close eye on technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality and will experiment how to supplement (not replace!) the physical experience with a virtual experience. Meta is betting, to the tune of $20 billion per year in investment, that the metaverse will offer opportunities to improve the way we interact virtually, and this will have implications for industry events.
From the virtual perspectives, we believe that virtual platforms can be an excellent means to scale certain aspects of learning, expanding networks and building community. We are launching our second cohort of the Travel Tech Executive Fellowship at the end of March, building off an extremely successful first cohort that took place in the fall of 2022.
For cohort one, we brought together nearly 100 startup founders and rising stars from across the industry to connect, learn from our industry’s best and brightest, and to build a community of future leaders who will shape the trajectory of our industry moving forward. We produced nearly 75 hours of content over the course of 10 weeks, which featured industry icons such as Sam Shank, founder of HotelTonight, Stephanie Linnartz, former president of Marriott and current president and CEO of Under Armour, and Carl Shepherd, former co-founder of HomeAway, which was acquired by Expedia for $3.9 billion.
While virtual is an excellent means to scale connection and content, we also are producing in-person meetups of the Travel Tech Executive Fellowship and Travel Tech Leaders community at Phocuswright Conferences and other industry events. Face-to-face connections remain critical to reinforce the power of networks and community.
The founder of Phocuswright, Philip Wolf, who we miss dearly, was famous for coining the phrase, “the buzz is palpable!” and I can confidently say that that phrase rings true this year at ITB Berlin 2023. The halls are full and business discussions are plentiful. I look forward to seeing many of you at future Phocuswright Conferences, The Travel Tech Executive Fellowship and other industry events where we can celebrate the culture of connection that we so missed during the dark years of 2020 and 2021.
Make plans now to join us at Phocuswright Europe in Barcelona in June. Early bird pricing ends March 17.