38 – Phocuswright 2019 Special Edition

by | December 4, 2019

In this special edition episode of the Suite Spot, we discuss the recent 2019 Phocuswright Conference in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Host Ryan Embree is joined by VP of Product & Technology, Jason Lee, and Customer Success & Operations Manager, Edwin Pomales, to discuss key takeaways from the event. Listen as Jason and Edwin share their perspective on the conference’s theme “Are We There Yet” and the relationship between technology and the hospitality industry.

They also describe some of their favorite hospitality startups which competed at the conference. This episode is a great resource for hoteliers looking to see what technological advances and innovations are on the horizon for industry in 2020 and beyond.

Episode Transcript
Our podcast is produced as an audio resource. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human editing and may contain errors. Before republishing quotes, we ask that you reference the audio.

Ryan Embree: Welcome to Suite Spot, where hoteliers check-in and we check out what’s trending in hotel marketing. I’m your host, Ryan Embree. We’re here with another episode today, a very special edition. As you know, at Travel Media Group we are at the forefront of the industry and love to attend all of the conferences and events that surround the hotel and hospitality industry. We have been attending the Phocuswright conference now for many years. So we always like to do kind of a recap of some of what we learned, some of what we saw, what we think is on the horizon. So with me today is Jason Lee, our Vice president of Product Development and Technology and Edwin Pomales, who is our Client Success and Operations Manager, both who attended the Phocuswright conference in early November. So they are with me today to kind of talk about the Phocuswright conference, some of your key takeaways. Edwin, this is actually your first time going to the conference. For our listeners who might not have heard of Phocuswright before or who have never attended this conference, can you give us some of your input from a first-time attendee?

Edwin Pomales: Absolutely. I think Phocuswright is a hospitality-focused technology-focused conference where every segment of travel is represented from flight to transportation to hospitality and hotels. Being a first time visitor to the conference was great insight into the consumer focus that every branch and every segment of hospitality is trying to figure out and really try to cater to. So it was a great experience.

Ryan Embree: So it’s a unique intersection, like you were saying, you know, you’ve got your OTAs there, you also have your hotel brands there, even sites like TripAdvisor are all attending, so it’s very, very interesting to get everyone’s input, but it’s all kind of centered around that technology aspect of the industry, which as we know is very important and quickly changing. So Jason, that kind of swings it over to you. You know, you’re an experienced veteran, who has gone to the Phocuswright conference for many years now. Can you give us maybe the difference from this year’s Phocuswright in comparison to years past?

Jason Lee: This year the theme or the kind of main title was “Are We There Yet” kind of a pun on like a kid in the back of a car asking if we’re yet. But in this case, it’s, is the hospitality technology side of things there yet, in terms of creating connected travel? And so you heard a lot of different companies talking about the connected traveler. And so basically like Edwin said, the conference represents all these various aspects of travel, but I think the infrastructure that holds all that stuff together is funky. And so sometimes the connected traveler gets, they get like maybe halfway there in terms of flight and hotel, but the rest of it is kind of funky. And so, it’s a lot of the OTAs we’re talking about this, a lot of the other technology partners going into brands all talking about pretty much the same thing is, how do you create kind of a start to finish connected trip for a traveler? And so I think there was a lot of talk about that, I think in years past there has been a lot more maybe unbridled optimism around the hospitality industry this year. A little more guarded in terms of flattened occupancy, heightened supply. Definitely a lot of talk this year over last year about Google and Google’s role in travel. I think there was way more talked about probably this year than any years past about Google specifically and Google’s impact on the traveler. Some of the other interesting things to me were short term rental – a lot of talk on short term rental. A lot of talk about the OTAs entrance to short term rental and how that is expanding. And then also maybe way more than other years in the past, Asia talking about Asian travel. Talking about these things called super apps where there are emerging Asian markets where smartphones are basically, you know, five years old you had maybe, you know, 12-13% smartphone adoption in certain markets and now you’re at 95 – 96% smartphone adoption. And so they have super apps – so they have these apps where there’s travel, where there’s payment, where there’s like an Uber kind of a deal, where there’s streaming music, they’re showing media, like everything in these giant apps in places like Malaysia. So I think there’s like basically just a lot of all of that this year.

Ryan Embree: I want to get your opinion on something, Jason, because you’ve been, you know, in the industry for a long time and kind of seen these ebbs and flows when it comes to maybe occupancy or ADR rising or you know, obviously we saw the recession. Do you think when it comes to a technology standpoint that when something like that happens, that encourages the industry to maybe look for more ways that they can partner with technology? Or do you think they pull back the reins of saying, “You know, we need to kind of stick to basics and, you know, get through this,” versus maybe trying to go out to those technologies and try to try to spur that?

Jason Lee: Yeah, I think definitely, you know, whenever somebody backs against the wall, you know, stuff happens and I think there’s cool ingenuity that happens and it opens it wide open for disruption. I think that, I think where we’re headed, especially I think because of these Asian markets becoming more mature and there’s more of a middle-class in these markets, there’s just a lot of travelers that are on the verge and so of worldwide travel. But I think specifically the United States, I think we’re going to start seeing a lot of travel from China. So I think, I think the industry itself is probably not in the state – I mean we’re nowhere into the shape like we were going like 2008 – 2009, you know, like where it’s just a free fall. There’s no way we’re like that at this point. I really believe strongly that we, that supply is definitely inching up there, but I think travelers are, you know, there’s definitely way more people traveling and I think travel is healthy. That all being said, I think the entrance to – things like Airbnb are really interesting places in hospitality because they are, they basically disrupt because they’re outside of channel. So something like VRBO, which Booking.com is just really trying to change to VRBO. So, and I guess we’ll just go with VRBO, it’s fine, but they have this huge campaign to stop saying VRBO – but going to VRBO – them you know, them buying into VRBO. I still think, you know, Airbnb outside of that normal supply chain is a really interesting place. The fact that they bought HotelsTonight and there was lots of discussion about that as well, but the thought, the fact that they bought hotels tonight and then putting them into a place, so basically saying to HotelsTonight, “Hey, we’re going to leverage all of these Airbnb users into a hotel space” is a very interesting thought because now you’re outside the GDS, you’re outside of the OTA, you’re really outside of the normal distribution of travel. And I think that kind of thing is really open. You know, we’re, you know – there’s a company called Sonder – that we’ve actually been talking about here in our office a lot that was also talked about a lot in that market or at Phocuswright? And they’re entering the market in this really interesting space where they’re sort of short term rental and there’s sort of a hotel. So it’s this kind of bridge of hospitality in short term rental, where you get experience, you know, you get the experience of maybe being in an apartment, but maybe not in someone else’s apartment. So managed short term rental and there’s other companies that are entering that space. So there are some really interesting things that are happening. And I mean, I have to believe that at some point the high cost of acquisition of a customer, of a guest is going to start to hit home with these bigger brands and so as you start to see an Airbnb have none of that, so there’s no cost coming through to them as they acquire customers. I think as you start to see some of these other things happen, brands that maybe enter the market, you know, maybe OTA agnostic or GDS agnostic. I think there’s a likelihood of that happening where basically you’re bucking this like 1980s technology that runs travel.

Ryan Embree: I think it’s interesting how users and consumers are going to kind of view something like vacation rentals inside of an OTA like Expedia or Booking.com I know personally, you know, I was recently just researching a hotel for Las Vegas and it was very overwhelming because they had added in their inventory all the vacation rentals. It was nice to probably have the peace of mind to have so many options, but it was also very overwhelming as well. So I think it’ll be interesting to see, because I’m sure there are maybe some users out there that are so familiar with Expedia that they feel more comfortable maybe booking on Expedia than going to an Airbnb knowing that they have that backing behind it.

Edwin Pomales: Yeah, there was some conversation in regards to when you talk about being overwhelmed. I think it was American Express that said, “92% of travelers are feeling overwhelmed by the number of options that are out there.” So the other conversation in regards to these revenue bundles, when you’re talking about using Airbnb, but looking for hotels and some of these brands that have trusted names, being able to kind of stretch a little bit and offer more to the consumer, just to offer a better experience for them. But that is a struggle there, right? If you’re used to going to Airbnb just for short term vacations and you start to have hotels there, there is a little bit of a disconnect, you know, when you visit those sites and see new options there.

Ryan Embree: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how they kind of bridge that there between it.

Jason Lee: Well I will say we had the CEO of Booking.com spoke and it was like one of the more interesting conversations that happened on stage. But one of the things that really struck me that was very funny on the short term rental side is that he made this big point of talking about locations. So obviously in the past, locations have meant hotels, hotel locations, but because they have short term rentals, he made this point and he like did it and like painstaking detail where he’s like, “So a place that has three short term rentals are three locations, even if it’s the same address. If it’s two at the same address, two locations.” Like he went into this big thing to talk about the fact that Airbnb talks about their spaces as individual locations and that’s how they’re saying they have more than anyone else. And so he’s like saying, “No, we have more than they do because based on these locations.” I just thought it was funny. Just the level of insecurity around it, like you’re Booking.com I mean what do you care? Anyway.

Ryan Embree: For those who don’t know, for our listeners that have never heard of Phocuswright before or have never attended, one of the cooler sessions is giving hospitality startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas and concepts to industry partners. What were some of the interesting ideas that were brought up during this year’s Phocuswright? And which one was your favorite?

Edwin Pomales: There was a couple of interesting ones. There was a Pack N Go, where the company is actually preplanning trips based on a survey that a guest would fill out. So you wouldn’t have to pick the location or any of the accommodations, all that would be taken care of you based upon a survey that you would fill out – that was interesting. My favorite though was probably Beachy. I really liked it cause it was definitely fixing a need. So the idea here was kind of a resort management system where you’re able to rent out beach things such as kayaks, beach chairs, or umbrellas from an app. Rather than going down – the presenter there talked about having to run down to the beach bright and early in the morning to put your towel onto a beach chair just to reserve it. And I thought it was something that was really looking at a need of somebody that’s traveling, so that’s why it was one of my favorites.

Jason Lee: Yeah, I agree. I think Beachy was really cool. And then they also combined a food and beverage aspect to that too, so it’s like you would know where the guest is based on this spacial technology that they had. So you’d be like, the guest wanted to like, you know, get drinks or whatever you would – the server would know exactly where they were at and would be able to charge them, who they were, and if they were staying at the hotel, that kind of stuff.

Ryan Embree: I think it goes all back to that kind of connection of the trip. So you know, implementing things like that at a resort or property, I think takes it to the next level. And this is where this industry is trying to get to. And I think where we run into those barriers is that there’s just so many hotels, there are so many aspects to someone’s stay that it’s not easily implemented. Plus it’s changing so often, you know, we use analogy of, you know, when hotels really went all-in on iPod docks for their radios and now you kind of look at that and that might’ve been great a decade ago, but now your phone’s not kinda connecting there and it’s kind of looks antiquated. So that’s why I think hoteliers are so and the industry is just kind of pulls back a little bit in investing so much when there’s just so much constant change around the corner. So that’s why a conference like this is really, really great to kind of show you what’s on the forefront and that kind of leads me into my next, and last question. Was there anything on the horizon that you think is really going to be a technology game-changer for the industry or maybe even a disruptor that you saw from this conference?

Jason Lee: There’s a couple of really interesting things that were, that were presented around group travel that I hadn’t ever considered, that I think are very interesting. One of them is using a technology that would basically – you give the attendees – you give the system a list of attendees and their location. And what it does is it will find a location, for your conference based on the attendee’s location – they’re all individual locations that have the lowest carbon footprint for your event. Meaning that the lowest amount of air travel for the number of people would be at the most optimal place and then you can measure and it also obviously saves you a bunch of money doing it that way. But it also will show you like what the difference in various locations and the carbon footprint that your event would put on. I just thought that was an interesting take on it. It was a really cool, their interface was not super attractive, but the technology that was running it was really, really cool. So I think that that thought, I think responsible travel is something that was brought up quite a bit and I think there is something around that technologies that could be running that, you know, bringing that closer. I think there wasn’t a whole lot of – I mean maybe besides Beachy – there wasn’t a whole lot of on-property technology, lot of like little luggage things and things like that. But I do think that everyone is sort of pressing towards creating frictionless travel and connected travel. Everybody wants that. They want it, they want something where somebody can go in and they can create a trip for themselves without any kind of problem. And they’re talking about everything. Like you create a trip that goes all the way through and you know, where you rent scooters, you, where you have rideshare, you know, where you have like a standup paddle rental, all that stuff. Simple, easy to use. And I think that was kind of, you know, they’ve talked about in years past, but I think this year they’re continuing to kind of hammer on that and a lot of the innovators were kind of headed to that direction. But one thing that I always come away with from these conferences is that one of the things that’s very rarely talked about is just like guest experience. Like, you know, like there’s like low, there’s low technology and there are some newer technologies that are running, you know, bed comfort, cleaning supplies, good linen and like good terry, things that really make a guest stay worth something. And I think I still feel like the nuts and bolts are block and tackle, part of hospitality is still underrepresented in some of this stuff.

Ryan Embree: Well that’s very interesting cause you know, we even heard, you know, at a conference you hear all day talking about this frictionless connected travel. You talk about all these great apps and cool features that a hotel can provide when it comes to amenities or all this stuff. But yet maybe the only way that you can order breakfast is still by hand filling out that card and putting it on the outside of your door. So it’s like there’s such a disparity there and I think sometimes, you know, we have a tendency because that’s what our guests are looking for, right? They’re looking for that new age. You know, I’ve been seeing now on Instagram that robot that now comes to the door and delivers things, you know, that’s, that’s what we would rather see. Then you know, back to the basics of saying I can get somebody there very quickly if you just pick up the phone and call me. They sometimes would rather see that robot there. So I think it’s, it’s super interesting. I think we’re always trying to tweak and get ahead of the curve. Any key takeaways for you, Edwin?

Edwin Pomales: I think for me, I think from the brands to the OTAs with the theme of being, are we there yet? The answer was no, but I thought that determination is definitely there and them getting more creative. So earlier you asked if they were backing into a corner, where I think now they’re trying to figure out how they can be more efficient and we’re talking about, you know, ease of use and being frictionless. I think that that was definitely a theme for me that I saw throughout. But I think the machine learning and AI-wise helping people target was definitely a focus that all brands are already trying to figure out how can we target these guests at the right time and provide everything from inspiration all the way through activities and events. So I feel like that’s the direction that it is moving in. It was exciting to hear about and see, get some ideas about some of the chatbots that were coming out and some of the technology around that. So that’s exciting as far as years to come, but I do agree with Jason in regards to guest satisfaction being something that is not really honed in on as much – post-stay. There’s not really, there wasn’t a lot of conversation about post-stay how to reach out to somebody after they stayed with you or feedback or handling guest feedback. So not a tremendous amount around that subject.

Ryan Embree: And I think, you know, just kinda to wrap up here, we know when we talk about “Are We There Yet.” I think another important thing to think about is sometimes we get thrown things that we don’t even know where we’re headed towards, what you mentioned earlier, Jason, about the responsible travel and people trying to figure out places where that’s not going to create a big carbon footprint that might not have been as big of a priority as two decades ago. So, you know, when you think about that question, are we there yet? Again, things can be thrown in there to kind of change the direction of where we’re headed. So super interesting stuff. I always love doing these episodes after these conferences cause again, it’s where we’re headed. So Jason, Edwin, thank you for all your input in today’s episode. And if you have any questions about the Phocuswright conference, you can visit their website or it can reach out directly to us, as always (407) 984 7455. Thanks again for listening to the Suite Spot and we’ll talk to you next time. To join our loyalty program, be sure to subscribe and give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Suite Spot is produced by Travel Media Group, our editor is Anne Sandoval with cover art by Bary Gordon. I’m your host, Ryan Embree, and we hope you enjoyed your stay.

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