In a fitting consensus for the first Condé Nast Traveler Points of View summit to be held in-person since 2019, travel editors and specialists alike came away with a relieving, reinvigorating declaration: that we are so back. It’s a grand “we,” one that encompasses the travel industry at large—those in attendance in our offices and online as well as everyone in the wider industry is basking in the knowledge that business is booming. But that does not mean it is time to get complacent—there is always work to be done to improve, to implement thoughtful changes that will better not only travelers, but the places they visit.
The day kicked off with a few welcome remarks from Senior Features Editor Rebecca Misner, who danced a happy dance about the ability to convene together onsite before passing the microphone to Global Editorial Director Divia Thani. Thani gave a few hints as to where Condé Nast Traveler will be heading in the future—expect our round-up of Best Places to Go in 2024 soon, as well as a bevy of health and wellness content in the New Year. She also celebrated that our magazine, fittingly for a travel publication, is now up and running as a global network in seven markets—the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, India, China, and the newly-launched Middle East. Without further ado, Thani handed things off to the first of the day’s three panels—what follows is a recap of the conversations between editors and travel specialists that ensued.
The changing face of brand loyalty
The day’s first panel set out to look at brand loyalty, and what that means in 2023. Joining Senior Editor Megan Spurrell were: Brenna Abels, Director of Trade Management at Regent Seven Seas Cruises; Ariana Pernice, VP, Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Visitors & Convention Bureau; Jacque Riley, VP Brand Marketing, Ennismore (responsible for brands such as Hoxton); and Henley Vazquez, co-founder of travel agency Fora.
Spurrell began by looking back at how the pandemic inexorably changed the ways in which we travel. After lockdowns and closed borders, people want epic and unforgettable experiences, enjoyed with the people they haven’t been able to see much of in the recent past, but they also desire calculated risk. “They want to know that the hotel they are making a long journey for is solid, or that the cruise line will have their back if things go belly up,” she said. “They want to know that their travel specialist really knows what they are talking about and can deliver.” In short, it’s not just business travelers racking up and cashing in points—it’s travelers in general knowing what they want and knowing they can get it from a particular brand. When fires erupt, who do you know for sure has a working extinguisher?
This was a worthy group to turn to on this subject, as each in their own way came from a brand with a cultivated a dedicated fanbase. Abels joked that Regent “ruins clients for life” as they have to keep coming back, while Pernice noted a 76% return rate of visitors who come back to Hilton Head Island for at least a week every year. Ennismore, on paper, was doing the opposite with a newly-launched “Disloyalty Program”—really, it’s a rewards program that encourages travelers to try out different brands under the company’s umbrella (if Hoxton is your go-to, get a big discount for trying a 21c Museum Hotel, and so on.)
Vazquez, as a travel specialist, was here to offer a different perspective. When points and rewards come into play, travel specialists find themselves increasingly cut out of one booking, and then another, until they’ve lost the itinerary entirely. She shouted out Virgin as a brand she appreciates for their breadth of offerings, and briefly engaged Riley in a friendly spar about Ennismore’s Disloyalty Program, which is purely consumer-facing and at present has no allotment for specialists to gain commission. Riley contended that the program is geared towards spontaneous travelers who likely wouldn’t use a specialist in the first place.
AI and the future of travel
Next up was Global Digital Director Arati Menon with a panel concerning generative artificial intelligence’s role in the travel industry. To help better understand what we can expect, both now and in the future, Menon sat down with: Strategic Accounts head Katy Elkin of OpenAI (the startup behind ChatGPT, among other things); WIRED’s Executive Editor—News, Meg Marco; JD Shadel, writer and Condé Nast Traveler columnist; and Mei Zhang, founder and chairlady of WildChina.
“When it comes to AI and machine learning, there’s two reactions: mild fear, and wild panic,” began Menon, who admits feeling some trepidation after a recently-aired 60 Minutes segment that declared that, at some point in the future, humans would become only the second-most intelligent beings on the planet. But, she went on, would it add some comfort or alarm to know that AI has already been influencing our lives for years?
Marco, who has been reporting on the subject for much of her career thus far, said, “What feels like an explosion of AI is actually an explosion in awareness of AI. We’ve already been living with it for a long time.” Shadel added that our past ignorance regarding AI’s ubiquitousness stems from the fact that it had heretofore been operating largely behind the scenes. Dynamic pricing for air travel? Calculated and determined by artificial intelligence. Do Airbnb recommendations catch your eye? That’s AI pulling from your browsing history. “Personalization” is a big buzzword these days, and it’s made possible by AI.
Now that AI sits plainly in front of our faces, now that it has become a toy for us all to play with, it’s easy to feel alarmed or overwhelmed, but Elkin emphasized—whether you believe her or not—that bots such as ChatGPT are only intended to make our lives easier, to cut out the busywork. One reason that it fell into travel functions like trip planning so easily is that it can comb data and do the irritating work near-instantaneously. Starting from the theoretical square one of asking, “Where is a nice place to visit this year?” a user can develop an itinerary for that ideal location. An exciting, science fiction-style development all are looking forward to is the prospect of simultaneous translation, wherein travelers and locals will be able to communicate in different languages with AI’s assistance.
That’s not to say AI is by any means ready to call itself a travel specialist, something that Elkin was the first to admit. While Zhang reported putting the bot’s skills to the test with the prompt, “If I enjoy visiting the Aman in Bali, what property should I stay at on an upcoming trip to Tasmania?” and getting a spot-on recommendation, she as an expert on travel to China wiped the floor with it on the subject of Beijing. All four panelists agreed that the reason travel specialists have prevailed for so long and will continue to do so is the human connection, the authenticity of their recommendations, their ability to scout things on the ground and to read their clients' tastes face-to-face. AI can send you to the best-reviewed (and, likely, most crowded restaurant in your city, but it will never eat there itself.)
Responsible travel in the time of crisis
Condé Nast Traveler Executive Editor Erin Florio closed out the day by moderating a timely panel regarding travel to areas affected by some form of crisis. Included on the panel were Chris Allison, VP, The Americas, Tourism Australia; Alix Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications, Center for Responsible Travel (CREST); Sherry Duong, Executive Director, Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, The Hawaiian Islands; and Harsha L’Acqua, Founder of Saira Hospitality.
Florio began by remarking that, among other things, the pandemic changed the way people approach travel and brought about a new understanding of flexibility. The de-permeation of the industry functioned as a reset during which hospitality workers could reassess their priorities and the ways in which the work could benefit the surrounding community. Travel, when done responsibly, can always be part of a solution during times of crisis.
When asked to define “responsible travel,” L’Acqua said, “It’s about being aware of your footprint, being mindful of and empowering the communities that you visit. But the responsibility, in my mind, is now falling more and more onto the hotels.” She added that brands have the power to facilitate easy, positive engagement between visitors and local communities and highlighted her concept of social credit cards: room service-style menus left in hotel rooms which guests can use to donate time and/or money a la carte. “I really don’t care who takes the idea and uses it,” she said. “I just want people to do it.” Collins noted that travelers eager to volunteer or donate would do well to demonstrate their interest and ask after volunteering initiatives—an act that could encourage hotels to help develop infrastructure with the community.
Such an approach would be in step with a larger shift away from the extractive tourism model, in which tourists go to a destination only to take things away, towards a mutually beneficial system that prepares any destination for crisis. Travel, Collins noted, is a power tool for soft diplomacy and education. Australia and Maui have each suffered natural disasters which propelled scenes from their respective crises to the world stage, although each speak of the aftermath differently.
Allison, who acknowledged Australia was the subject of intense international coverage as a result of bushfires burning in parts of the country, was surprised to see the catastrophization of the situation by American press considering they are a natural and normal part of Australia’s ecosystem. Collins chimed in to flag the danger of subscribing to a single narrative. Coverage of crisis that paints a dramatic picture in broad strokes can negatively impact a destination and its recovery, especially when tourism dollars would be beneficial. What Allison would rather have seen was tourists continuing to come and eager to help, whether that be with money or with time.
Maui’s situation is different: The wildfires on the island were devastating, and the community remains raw. Duong said, “It’s going to take a long time for the people of Maui to heal from what’s happened.” But the only travelers that should stay away, in her mind, are the ones who aren’t going to come with good intentions—spending money at locally-owned restaurants and shops, volunteering time, respecting the beauty. Only Lahaina is truly off limits. In closing, she said, “Maui needs visitors to come back. Tell everybody!”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler