This week I am at the Adventure Travel World Summit taking place in Aviemore, Scotland.
Around 600 delegates from 52 countries and not a single travel startup and only a few travel tech companies attending. Branded fleeces are the order of the day.
Normally at conferences I have something in common with other delegates. This one I am not quite so sure.
From the first night I realised that I wasn't quite on the right wavelength when I was speaking with a couple of Inuit delegates.
Our conversation seemed to be missing a level of shared understanding, so I changed tack.
What did they think of the UK? Did they watch BBC World? No they didn't. Ah - so what did they think of the UK before they came? They said they had watched a video of Mr Bean. What further preparation could they possibly need?
So far the focus of the presentations have been on sustainable travel. I know there are web-focussed themes later in the week but it seems that web takes a serious second place to the green/sustainable travel debate.
But isn't sustainable travel a given, at least within the delegates attending the conference?
One topic that doesn't seem to be coming up at all is web distribution. Go to a hotelier conference and this is a top debate, normally around third party websites and how to deal with them.
This conference, if talking about the web at all, is about the suppliers own website and direct marketing. Remember that adventure travel is dominated by direct consumer to supplier bookings rather than distributed bookings (like for hotels/flights and other commodity products), so perhaps this is not a surprise.
We had a mention of the Amadeus 2020 report at forward-looking session on Tuesday. Discussion mentioned the concept of an airline selling a safari package. It was seen as a joke.
It is not a joke. Online travel agencies are looking at the high transaction value, adventure travel sector and wondering how to get a part of it. Orbitz is in this already with its Away.com and Adventure Finder channels.
The question for the sustainable travel camp is what are they going to do about these OTA manouveres. It is the elephant in the room.
With hotels the OTAs have gone down the aggregation route. The leading OTAs list 50,000 + hotels, including great and terrible properties. NB: Don't remind me of the awful hotel I booked in London via Expedia where there wasn't even hot/cold water in the room.
The onus is on the consumer to choose their hotel and the OTAs rely on reviews to keep consumers away from bad choices.
The alternative to aggregation is curation. This is where a human is involved in ensuring that only reasonable quality product is featured on a certain website. Curation is a specialist skill and requires years of experience to get right. It is not possible to curate by algorithm.
So now the OTAs are chasing adventure travel product. Who are they going to work with? I think they will work with who they can, based on systematic integration - ie. they will choose 500 tour operators who have a well defined XML API.
It would be nice if the OTAs selected suppliers based on sustainable travel principles, but this just won't happen. They will work with who they can technically work with and who will offer the best commercial terms, and then forget the rest. Similar to how they currently feature poor hotels, they will include tours with unaudited sustainable travel credentials.
So, tour operators and those here at the conference, if you really want to push sustainable travel then the elephants we need to be talking about are those in the room - not those customers can hire from locals.
The OTAs are coming. They will take any product that is available systematically.
Therefore the goal should be to get all sustainable travel tour operators onto these distribution platforms. Make it so that there is so much sustainable travel product available via XML API that the OTAs don't need to consider working with non sustainable adventure travel businesses. Make it an obvious business move for the OTAs to make.
Can the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) be core to delivering that vision? Possibly. But first we need to move on from the sustainable travel debate (a given) and move onto the next phase.
To do that the focus on conferences such as this needs to change. The time frame we are looking at isn't 100 years but ten, maybe less.
The downside of backpacker travel in Asia can teach destinations great number of lessons. What has happened to the hotel sector can teach the adventure travel sector lessons, too.
The desired outcome should be that OTAs curate sustainable adventure travel businesses rather than aggregate everyone and force companies to compete on price. Right?