31 Oct

Mark Tanzer addresses ABTA Travel Convention delegates in Turkiye

Those of you who are veterans of The Travel Convention will know that these days together are a chance to connect with each other, to disconnect from the hourly torrent of e-mails, and to take a more detached view of where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.

The opportunity to do that, and to be in a location as attractive as Bodrum, is not only precious, but essential. I was reading an article in last week’s Economist about management burnout – 68% of managers said they had experienced burnout in the past year, in case you’re wondering! Up from 43% the year before – and they quoted Microsoft research showing that managers now have three times as many Teams meetings as in 2020, which is not only time consuming but very inefficient! 

Making time to think and to create is becoming one of the most important, and rare, skills in the workplace. One of the recent hot books in the US is by an American computer scientist called Cal Newport. It’s called Deep Work and its subtitle is Rules for Success in a Distracted World. His proposition is quite simple and intuitive – good work comes from long stretches of uninterrupted concentration and reflection. 

This is easier said than done. We’ll be hearing later on today from Oliver Burkeman who will, I hope, give us some guidance as how to reach that promised land.

Taking the long view, then – what is the story so far? Over the past fifteen years or so the travel industry has been through an evolution so profound that it amounts to a revolution. We were there at the early days of the internet, heralding limitless choice. 

We were there in 2007 holding our first iPhone, perhaps not realising that that small device and social media would change the world for ever.  We’ve seen the emergence of the ‘influencer’ phenomenon - we’ve had a number at previous Travel Conventions – which was, with hindsight, the inevitable result of combining limitless choice, the customer need for guidance and the power of social media. And over these years we’ve seen the world of travel expand as customers seek new destinations and new experiences.  But over the past three and a half years the pace of change has increased dramatically. The term ‘paradgim shift’ is one of those clichés which trip off the tongue easily, but I do think we are at the threshold of a new era. 

Three factors in particular are impacting the travel industry – COVID, or, to be more precise, the changes in work patterns that COVID created, the arrival of Generative AI, and intensified concern about climate change. 

We’ve talked a lot about COVID in the past, and it’s been very gratifying to see the continuing strong recovery of the travel industry this year, reinforced by ABTA’s Holiday Habits research indicating that 64% of people intend to take an overseas holiday next year, in spite of the cost of living squeeze. 

But the long term effects of COVID are still being felt in the world of work. It turbo-charged the move to flexible working patterns within and between jobs. When you decouple individuals from their physical base, you also loosen all of the personal affiliations, and the workforce as a consequence becomes more mobile and migratory. And travel, post the trauma of COVID, has had an uphill battle to bring new talent into our industry.

To this has been added the transformative potential of AI. The most recent research indicates that 70% of managers are now using Generative AI at work, and that has happened within 18 months. We’ll be talking quite a lot about AI over the next two days, but to kick off I quote Sam Altman, the boss of OpenAI, who has said that ‘the cost of intelligence is going to be on a path towards near zero.’

For many years we have seen the cost of information trending towards near-zero, and now we have the cost of intelligence heading the same way. Microsoft’s research says that 80% of managers are happy to use AI for analytical work, and 75% for creative work. So, if we’re not going to need analytical and creative skills, what are the skills that we’ll need in future?

The theme of this year’s Convention is ‘Unleashing new potential’, and I think that the travel industry is well positioned to do that in future, for two reasons: firstly, the changes I’ve mentioned have put an increased emphasis on social, or soft skills – understanding and helping individual human beings. (Stanford Business School now has a course called ‘Touch Feely’, which is almost but not quite as popular as its ‘Paths to Power’ course!)

This has been a trend for several years now, and analysis of job advertisements has shown increased demand for social skills as against, say, financial skills. But COVID and AI are accelerating this trend, and we’re going to have to think very differently about how we attract and develop talent in the future. 

Travel is a sector that has social skills at its core throughout the supply chain, and we need to communicate more effectively the opportunities that we can give people starting out on their careers.

I was listening to an American social scientist on the radio the other day, and she was saying that the main determinant for success in careers will no longer be ‘passion’ but ‘adaptability’, because the thing you’re passionate about as a teenager will either no longer exist when you come to the world of work, or will have changed radically. 

Again, I can hardly think of an industry that is so practised at adapting to change and to managing short term disruptions as ours. You have only to look at the tremendous effort that ABTA members put in this summer to deal with the air traffic control meltdown and wildfires to see that responsiveness to change is one of our industry’s central values.

I know from speaking to many ABTA members, large and small, that the biggest challenge they face is attracting talent. I believe that ABTA and our members need to be more proactive in broadcasting travel’s employment potential. 

And the package is powerful – underlying customer demand is strong, and we can offer a real opportunity to develop the skills that will be at a premium in the future.

The third change factor that I mentioned after COVID and AI is climate change, and we’re all aware of the increasing threat that this poses to the planet, and to the travel industry in particular. 

This year’s record temperatures in popular tourist destinations from southern Spain to the Alps are making many re-assess their future investment strategy.

The UK Government’s commitment to a net-zero carbon future is irreversible, and every part of the travel economy has a role to play. Aviation inevitably features heavily in the debate as even though it is reducing emissions, its percentage of overall carbon emission is likely to rise. 

Travel is a sector of sectors, and many different components need to work together to reduce the aviation carbon footprint. Much good work is already under way and ABTA is part of the Sustainable Aviation coalition driving the development of sustainable aviation fuels. 

But the Government also has a crucial role to play in the drive to net zero. Done wrongly through clumsy legislation or taxation and the risk is that the industry will be severely damaged and that holidays will become increasingly unaffordable. 

Done sensibly with investment support for the growth in sustainable aviation fuels and the modernisation of UK airspace, we shall achieve our shared objective.

At ABTA we strongly believe that tourism is a force for good, and that we need to balance negative impacts with the huge social benefits it bestows on people travelling and the destinations they travel to. The industry is committed to a net zero future and will get there by working with and not against the Government.

The path the industry is on over the next decade will not be easy. The challenges we face are set against a background of international conflict and economic stagnation. 

The horrific images from the Middle East and from the Ukraine are a reminder of how fragile the world order is, and we fervently hope for a resolution that will bring peace to both regions. 

But I do believe that travel can make its own contribution to a better world by broadening people’s minds. Writing in 400 AD. St. Augustine said that ‘Travel is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’. 

The potential for us to build the industry of the future is there, and we need to grasp it. I wish you all an enjoyable and thought-provoking Convention.