Thanks to the internet, distant things and places are now more accessible than ever before. There has also been a major shift in consumer needs and wants toward locally sourced and authentic products that have a story.
The travel industry is not immune to these changes. I’ve observed a number of travel startup companies are challenging the well-established notion of “destination specialists.” These experts might have gone through a training program, or they might have spent some time in the destination to learn more about it. But that doesn’t always mean they are based within the destination full time; often, these experts work with destination-based companies to fulfill the trips. One way this is changing is by the use of technology, which enables direct access to local, destination-based companies and cuts out these intermediaries.
This is the idea behind my company’s luxury travel platform. As its founder, I have had the opportunity to work closely with both sides of the travel equation: On the consumer side, I’ve learned that travelers want authentic experiences planned by local experts; on the supply side, many local, in-destination travel agencies that have conventionally worked with travel agencies (and tour operators) in origin countries to acquire business now want to be on the front end and work directly with the travelers themselves.
Let’s take a closer look:
Consumers want authenticity: Consumers today are very conscious of the decisions they make. They are not just looking for the best products; they also care about what a brand stands for. One way I’ve seen this authenticity in travel advice and experiences grow is by an individual or company based within the destination working directly with the end suppliers.
Tech platforms can enable access and collaboration: Platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, among others, have demonstrated the effectiveness of two-sided, software-as-a-service (SaaS) marketplaces in removing the intermediaries while facilitating connections, communications and transactions between buyers and suppliers. According to an article in TechCrunch, “market networks” — a type of business model that combines online marketplaces, social networks and SaaS workflow — hold promise for the future. Putting things into perspective, imagine collaboration around trips where travelers, in-destination travel experts, hotels, ground transportation providers and tour companies are all at one’s fingertips.
Although the idea of market networks in the travel industry might seem a little far-fetched, platforms that curate and provide access to full-service local travel companies and enable the whole end-to-end process are not. My company provides this type of platform for luxury travel, and I’ve observed there are also companies that do this for tours and activities, as well as tailor-made budget trips.
Impact matters: With no intermediaries involved, consumers work directly with in-destination experts and companies to plan their trips, which can affect the cost and percentage of money that stays in the local destination economies. Additionally, there’s the opportunity to deeply immerse oneself in local communities and make a lasting impact that goes beyond sustainable and responsible travel by contributing money or time toward local initiatives.
How To Partner With In-Destination Experts Successfully
That said, there are some challenges to using in-destination experts that leaders in the space must consider. First, according to Phocuswright, more than 80% of tours and activities are still booked offline. So, there is stiff competition as everyone is trying to partner with top travel agencies and tour operators in major destinations. Additionally, there is a need for educating leaders (and local operators) as to how direct exposure to consumers affects their business.
The best way to work through these challenges is by focusing on a small geographic region based on your current regions of focus. If you don’t already have established relationships, then it might make sense to consider a trade-off between regions with low competition and high search volume trends. Important things to examine while vetting new partners without references from your network are travel industry affiliations, awards and reviews.
In order to establish a competitive edge, travel companies should also employ radical transparency in how they vet their partners, and let the travelers know who is fulfilling their trips.
It’s also worth noting that nearly 90% of consumers would be more loyal to an organization that supports environmental or social issues, according to a 2017 study by Cone Communications on corporate social responsibility. From my perspective, travel is transformative by nature, and travel companies have an opportunity to further initiatives that support sustainable travel practices that lead to a positive impact on the destination economies. For example, you might suggest staying at a boutique facility with exemplary service that hires and trains staff from local villages and follows eco-friendly practices to minimize its carbon footprint.
In this constantly evolving consumer landscape with readily available technology, the market is ripe for disruption, and I believe travel brands that succeed will be the ones that are able to build distinct product offerings and a competitive edge.