Over the years, Condé Nast Traveler’s annual travel summit, Points of View, has convened the industry’s top brass—a mix of destination experts, specialists, and more—to talk through the trends that are driving change across the sector. But this year’s iteration, which took place nearly ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, was a vastly different event, and not only in presentation—for which more than 250 participants tuned in on Zoom, rather than the usual intimate, in-person gathering. It was also imbued with a profound sense of responsibility about how to move forward as an industry after a year unlike any other, keeping an eye toward rebuilding while taking care to carry forward goals like sustainability, which had pushed to the fore before COVID-19 hit.
Lauren DeCarlo, Traveler’s director of strategic projects, kicked things off with a short breakdown of the day’s itinerary, which included three 35-minute panels, each one led by a member of Traveler’s team. They focused on three core, timely topics: How travel benefits communities; traveling in harmony with our planet; and new standards in safety and health. After a short break, there would be a series of intimate breakout discussions interspersed with larger group conversations, meant to tackle some of the most pressing questions of the day. All told, the conference offered a forum for all: a space for industry professionals to reflect and to glean insight from one another, in a year that has prompted far more questions than answers.
The first panel of the day, moderated by U.S. editor Jesse Ashlock, explored the ways that travel serves communities. Together with Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso; Harsha L’Acqua, CEO of Saira Hospitality; chef and author Marcus Samuelsson; and Michelle Woodhull, president of Charming Inns of Charleston and president of the Lowcountry Hospitality Association, the panel discussed the notion of fully sustainable travel—which is attuned not only to the environment, but also to social and economic concerns. Traveler has increasingly prioritized those nuances in its coverage, particularly with the launch of its One in Ten platform this fall, an initiative meant to highlight the 10 percent of people around the world whose livelihoods are connected with the tourism industry.
Conscious travel, for all its emphasis on local consumption and minimal environmental impact, really begins with prioritizing people, L’Acqua said. “Often, we think of local, and we kind of neglect people,” she said. “The idea of entering a community mindfully would serve us well going forward. What can you give to [the locals] before you take their resources, before you bring in tourism and development?” The most powerful thing to give anyone, she said, is education—and brands can help develop a local workforce (a boon to their respective economies) and to engender brand loyalty by offering education and other means of development. Upchurch echoed the sentiment. “It’s the role of our industry to benefit the community through all kinds of opportunities,” he said.
The notion of community, too, has become more flexible over time, now folding in issues of diversity and inclusion. Samuelsson, whose new cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, celebrates the diversity of African American cuisine in the United States, spoke to the need to allow long-suppressed communities to finally tell their stories, and to allow certain narratives—like those in the food industry—to be corrected.
Woodhull, who tuned in from Charleston’s Wentworth Mansion hotel, agreed. “Our city has such a deep history,” she said. “Good, bad, and ugly—and we have to tell it all. And it starts with awareness,” she said. “That’s the phase we’ve been in for the last couple of years. Now we’re putting it into action, like with the opening of the International African American Museum. We have to be truthful—we have to be authentic. From all of that can come this wonderful community and inclusion and experiences for travelers.”
The second panel, “Traveling in Harmony with Our Planet,” dug into how brands are addressing issues that are meaningful to travelers, from environmental impact to overtourism. Moderated by Traveler editor-in-chief Melinda Stevens, the panel included Xenia zu Hohenlohe, founder and managing partner of Considerate Group; Jaisal Singh, founder and chairman of SUJÁN; Alberto Aliberti, president, Atlas Ocean Voyages; and William G. Miles, president and CEO of Hilton Head Island – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
In some ways, this year’s pause in travel has presented a window for brands and destinations alike to enact change, the panelists said. “Destinations like Barcelona and Dubrovnik grew so exponentially with so few restrictions,” zu Hohehlohe said. “I think what this pandemic has allowed everyone to do is to take a step back and actually organize systems. Now people are ready to say, ‘you can come and visit, but we’ll lead it in a different way.’ It’s given some power back to local communities to decide how they want to have this narrative of tourism.”
Aliberti shared how his business is able to mitigate its own impact—not only through means like improved ship design, which slashes fuel consumption, but also by choosing smaller destinations and ports that aren’t already overwhelmed by visitors. “It’s incumbent upon us, when we do reach local destinations, to leave it as it is, or to try to leave it better,” he said. “We want to remove everything we took in, but we also want to leave having interacted with the culture in such a way that we benefit from the experience of sharing.”
The last panel addressed one of the industry’s hot button topics, at least since the beginning of the pandemic: safety and health. The conversation centered around best practices that brands have enacted to keep guests safe and confident, from new sanitation standards to design innovations—all ideas outlined in Traveler’s October issue, which introduced the New Standard. Moderated by Beth Lusko, Head of Sales, Travel, the panel included Ray Bennett, Chief Global Officer, Global Operations at Marriott International; Nigel David, of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC); and Joseph Boschulte, Commissioner U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
“For us, it’s about following the science,” Bennett said. “We have a lot of properties around the world. We needed to get smart on what we were going up against.” Marriott, which launched its global cleanliness council in April, was the first major hotel brand to formulate—and properly message—a coordinated response to the virus, which included reconfiguring lobbies and introducing electrostatic sprayers to disinfect spaces. As of today, he said, 4,000 Marriott hotels have installed kiosks (with anti-microbial labels laid atop the glass) to enable contactless check-in.
Boschulte, too, emphasized the science-first sentiment, noting that, from the beginning, the U.S. Virgin Islands followed the research in order to protect residents, and was strong in its initial safety messaging. “The tone was set back in April,” he said. “Early on, the governor signaled ‘no mask, no service’ to the community.” The U.S. Virgin Islands reopened over the summer but was forced to shut down again for a month after positive results began ticking back up. “We had to put public health first,” he said. “But we learned lessons.”
After the panels, specialists and editors were divided up into smaller, more intimate breakout rooms, where they discussed a host of topical issues, including how best to demonstrate the safety and accessibility of destinations to clients. Some specialists found that sharing videos of themselves traveling and sending them to clients was especially useful—and were navigating above all, how to ethically promote travel in this unusual moment. In many rooms, too, specialists were pleased to be able to see one another and to catch up. The group came together one last time to discuss other pertinent issues, including recommendations for travel insurance companies, before signing off for the day.
The tone of the summit, and of its takeaway, might be best summed up by Samuelsson, who noted that, despite the events of this year, the travel industry has a unique opportunity to effect change—both within and without. “Sometimes when we predict the future it looks very awkward,” he said. “But I do think the reflection happening right now is so important, both on the brand side and on the consumer side. It takes time to reflect. Consumer habits have already changed. We’re not going back to what it looked like in November 2019. It’s important to think about that.”
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