Founder of Phocuswright and one of the most influential people in travel, Philip Wolf shared his wisdom at Criteo’s Travel Connect event in Barcelona about how to survive and thrive in today’s world of infinite options.
What have you learned from 30 years in the travel industry?
Historically, this industry has a very poor track record of spotting behavioral changes, which leaves the door open for disruptors.
In 1991, as the young CEO of a small venture-funded travel agency, I celebrated my company’s first end-to-end online booking. In 1992, three years before the web even existed, I started Phocuswright, a research agency specifically dedicated to analyzing online travel.
Yet, back then, most people were in denial. They thought digital would never work. I once even got kicked out of a meeting with a traditional travel player.
Fast-forward to today: Travel is a $1.4 trillion industry, and half of that is booked online.
What should today’s travel companies do to ensure sustainable growth?
You have to be fabulous at products. Obsess about your customers’ needs, and find the tech that delivers those needs. You must understand that technology is a differentiator, not an enabler.
In order to achieve customer obsession at the scale of a company, it is key that the head of product be one of the most senior people in the company. The product function is the champion of the customer.
What is the best way to differentiate yourself in the travel industry?
To paraphrase Jeff Bezos, you have to be willing to be misunderstood to be successful at innovating. Be willing to get yelled at. And most people aren’t willing to do that. That leaves a door open for companies willing to take that risk.
For example, I’m on the board of a company called Hopper. They’re app-only. No mobile web, no desktop. Most web players would say “we can’t do that”. Yet, Hopper has consistently registered a very large number of app downloads for a significant amount of time, driven mainly by user interest rather than marketing dollars.
Also, you have to be willing to cannibalize your own business. Here’s one exercise: close your eyes and invent a product that will compete with your business. Then launch it before someone else does!
Why is it so critical for travel companies to be able to pivot?
Companies have to pivot because it’s impossible to get everything right from the get-go. I don’t understand why we have such a hard time understanding that. Sometimes you get a nice long run, but eventually, what worked in the past isn’t a very good predictor of future success.
Remember Kodak. It used to be one of the five most recognized brands in the world. Why did they fail after 100 years of making customers happy? They were the ones who invented the digital camera! They went belly-up because the leadership was arrogant and thought they were too big to fail.
What should we remember for 2020?
Strategically correct always beats politically correct. The pain of starting a critical course correction pales in comparison to the cost of not doing it and staying with the status quo. The really bad things supposed to happen when you take these risks rarely materialize.
Want more travel industry insights? Check out Criteo’s Global Green Traveler Study.