Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks Company, looks at the demise of OTAs and DMCs in the face of technological advances.
Jesus, the virtual ink from the title isn’t dry yet as my mind swirls into gender-neutral territory searching for a replacement to the term middleman. After a fast and furious visit to cyberland, the best alternative is probably the word intermediary. Sadly, it’s weak as English tea and as saggy as an ageing, punched out, a heavyweight boxer in the waning seconds of the final round. One thing for sure is death, in this case, is DOA (for those unfamiliar with noir, that’s dead on arrival).
As usual, I have digressed at an early stage. Is it too late for a comeback or have you moved onto browsing those all too funny endless stream of cat photos? Cats are hard to beat on IG or YouTube, but let’s give it a whirl anyway.
Covid-19 has taken an unimaginable toll on the global travel business. One of the most in-your-face examples is the endless line of rapidly closing travel agencies and keeping the theme going, hitting terrifying high-speeds onto a narrow thin runway into a head-on collision are the collapsing DMCs (destination management companies). Boom! In both cases, the goose, the golden egg, and even the entire house have been entirely blown away. Obliterated. Nada.
Last Thursday (sorry if this is too specific), I was noodling on LinkedIn and dodging pesky job seekers and personal wealth managers and came upon a news feed about the tragic closing of the STA Travel in the U.K. My eyes came to rest on the heart-wrenching commentary of 500 job losses and nostalgic posts over how student travel was intertwined with personal life journeys and emotional outbursts over how tourism could never recover from the impending lack of human interaction. OMG. Doomsday hit home, humanity was totalled and there was still another 48 hours to go before the weekend.
At this point let me make it clear I am not, or at least do not believe I am a cold-hearted b•••••d, though my first two wives might say otherwise. But for those of you who know me, I do like to cut to the chase, and so I threw in a post essentially saying that Covid-19 was just an accelerator of trends that were coming anyway and the brick and mortar travel agents and DMCs were essentially deer in the headlights of technology.
To my credit, I did offer up that the pandemic was an opportunity to reinvent and innovate, but by this time the angry flood of counter-posts started rolling in about the heartlessness of business, the immorality of job losses and the total disintegration of travel as it had lost its inherent human touch.
This is of course b******s, and I should know as my fat human fingers type away at the groaning MacBook and reach out every so often for the double-shot Americano. Reality bites and while I firmly believe we need to pay homage to our roots and history, we also need to evolve. This includes moving on from living in caves, having an average life expectancy in our early 20’s and being chased by prehistoric dinosaurs.
Where I live, in Thailand, tourism was changed forever by a book in 1975 from Lonely Planet named Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. It became the DYI handbook for generations of a global nomads in the years that followed. As the once mysterious regions of Asia, from Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar methodically opened and developed, more editions followed as did greater numbers of travellers.
Tropical islands moved through tourism cycles from backpackers, to group tours, onto the advent of pish-posh luxury pool villas and splintering into even more niches. The East slowly edged towards the West and the veil was lifted to the roaring sound, high above the jet engines of low-cost airline carriers. As AirAsia aptly coined in its slogan ‘now everyone can travel’. They did. They came, they saw and still more came. Until now.
Today, Lonely Planet has been nearly downsized out of existence. Books? Who needs books when you have a smartphone and TripAdvisor? It’s not unlike the downfall of Tower Records to Amazon and then into the age of downloads. In some cases, companies evolved or reinvented, but in most the doomed voyage has taken down employees just like the sinking of the Titanic and the iceberg of Covid-19, laying just beneath the surface, lurking until the nightmare became real.
In many ways I’m a romantic, and the older I get can wax poetically about the past. Though if I take time and look at what is being retold, I realise our memories are half-truths only, with much of what really happened filtered out and left behind, forgotten, deep inside the life bin. While it’s not to the extent of fake news, let’s just say the lines are grey.
Truthfully looking back at the human era of Lonely Planet travel, despite its hipster overtone, was the fact that you could be deep within one of Asia’s emerging country-scapes, carrying a dog-eared copy of your worn-down guidebook, walk into some local hole-in-the-wall eatery and come face to face with yourself. Scattered at other tables were other versions of the nomadic persona, each clutching the telltale tome with near-religious fervour. Bottom line is we traveled where someone wanted us to go, or discovered what we were destined to in the pages of our instruction manual.
So, my question to Luddites everywhere: is TripAdvisor any different? To be succinct, it is, because of the technology that wraps around the world that has made the world even smaller. We no longer use just a single guidebook, but the voices in our head are written words by humans – many, many humans. Yes, some are ignorant, stupid, and annoying but yet, there is the human touch in all that we do and express. We’ve traded our single hard copy guidebook for a smartphone. That is the only real change.
As for travel agents, DMCs and the rest, my only form of condolence can best be summed up as ‘thank you for your service’. You got us this far up the river but now we have to get out of the boat and walk alone. Yes, in the classic film Apocalypse Now the captain said never get out of the boat, but damn it’s time to sink or swim. Humanity adjusts in time to changing conditions, just like those cave dwellers who now live in a condo and microwave up a tasty vegan dinner.