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Coloring outside the lines at the Australia Tourism Summit

Mar 17, 2017
by Bruce Northam
Contributing Writer



Long ago, in my backpacking days, I hitchhiked across Australia. One of those evenings, a quintessential Outback man (twice my age) hitching in the other direction reminded me, “Don’t spend time; enjoy it.” Australians seem to have invented keeping it real.

The fifth annual Australia Tourism Summit, hosted by Tourism Australia and supported by Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines, transformed the Pasadena, Calif., Langham Hotel into the “Future of Travel.” Attended by 290 key players and media from North America, the daylong conference (Feb. 28, 2017) was bracketed by activities the previous night and morning after. It provided attendees with cutting-edge travel industry news about buyer behavior and gave ample time for travel agents, tour operators and travel media to mingle as well as focus on what’s next.

The summit featured an all-star cast of North American travel-industry leaders and keynotes, all aware that selling travel really means selling enlightenment, and discussing everything from managing ROPO (research online, purchase offline) to “Botox Urbanism.”

The event menu was inspired by Australian-born Chef Luke Mangan. Thanks to culinary innovators like Mangan, Australia has come a long way from being a fish-and-chips country to one that now leads the world as a culinary capital. Luke’s motto: Take 19 restaurants, add five cruise ships, 700 staff, thicken with one airline and one train, fold in four books, season with 19 head chefs and plate up in five countries. Serve while hot.

Understanding that Mangan is also a world traveler, I asked about his packing habits. “Pack simple, cook simple,” he nodded. I skipped trivia questions about gluten phobias and airline ovens and swung right into an inquiry on which country has the best food work ethic. Answer: “Japan…” Mangan added, “It’s about precision and balancing flavors.”

Jane Whitehead, vice president, The Americas, for Tourism Australia, got this party started by noting that international visitation was up 11 percent in 2016, with the U.S. percentage up 16 points. That U.S. increase comes off of six years of continuous growth for the U.S. market—it seems that tourism summits like this are contributing to these upsurges while also promoting both the rural and urban indigenous Australian experience. The U.S. is Australia’s fourth largest market; North America now enjoys 118 weekly nonstop flights there.

In Robert Thomson’s (CEO, News Corp.) presentation on navigating with practical intelligence, he quoted Hillbilly Elegy to help the audience better understand Donald Trump’s presidential win; thus terms like mythical panic and concocted reality flew about. Thomson underlined that this tourism industry audience was very much also in the empathy business—one where they must authenticate authenticity. And p.s., advertising is about affinity. One upside to Trump’s impact on world tourism, Thomson testified, is that Americans visiting Australia will now be regarded as one-on-one relief agents of the “incomprehension.”

Next up, Boeing’s Wendy Sowers assured the audience of at least three things: airplanes last 25 years (sometimes making it difficult for new planes to come online), annual global air travel dollar growth consistently outdoes annual global economic growth and there’s now nonstop service from Dallas to Sydney.

Chip Conley, strategic advisor for Airbnb, can be credited for breaking new ground in the conference while covering his topic, “How to Surf a Disruption.” With a legacy of working in the hotel business and now advising a competitor to that industry, Conley claimed “cognitive dissonance” and then noted that Airbnb Australia is booming since Aussie’s vacate their homes to travel (a lot) and need help financing their journeys. Conley explained that while the hotel business has come a long way from boarding houses, Airbnb is, after all, home sharing—a gut-level version of a boutique hotel. The most interesting factoid I garnered at this conference (about the selling of space in private homes to strangers) is Airbnb’s customer feedback ratio holding at an astounding 75 percent, something that traditional hotels can only dream of.

Tyler Brule, of Wallpaper and Monocle fame, warmed up the audience by sharing that he’s made 25 visits to Australia in 25 years. Long ago, Brule perceived that “Aussie’s are truly out there (traveling) and then returning home to remix their international experience into inspiring local design.” Brule also urged Australia to remain tactile and not cave into “botox urbanism” (glass-and-steel-robot buildings replacing landscapes with charm, i.e, New York’s Soho). The concepts of “Exposing your laugh lines (character)” and “Restoring rather than renovating” were also suggested by Brule.

In an unofficial gathering near the Langham Hotel, former journalist and Tourism Australia’s PR manager for North America Julie Earle-Levine, who is based in New York, welcomed North America (in a classic Aussie accent) to Australia with this: “G’day mates. There has never been a better time to visit Australia. Yes, we’re all about bucket list, but we are also about forever. Our visitors come back time and time again for the country’s incredible nature, coastal and aquatic offerings and genuinely warm and welcoming locals.”

The conference also waved large to a re-emerging theme, Great Walks of Australia, via a new “funding for international awareness.” The upstart Australian back-to-basics walking holidays campaign is about experiential travel: don’t see, do Australia! And in that same vein, National Geographic’s Costa Christ, a calming eco-warrior who understands that most of the world’s natural landscape gems would already be dead without tourism, patiently illustrated how eco-tourism saves earth’s living tapestries. “How do we get travel right?” Christ asked, and then offered the answer, “By generating revenue for conservation.”

The media-focused next morning finale was CBS Travel editor Peter Greenberg’s intimate roundtable briefing/discussion with the 25 journalists in attendance on the unintended consequences in this age of global disruptions, like travel bans. Greenberg, after lamenting that the auto manufacturers are in deep trouble since Uber-fueled millennials simply don’t care about buying cars, celebrated the global buyer’s market for all things travel, namely flights, cruises and safaris. Greenberg’s simply-put suggestion on how a public relations firm can get ahead of the travel supply glut? “By presenting, not selling.”

Bruce Northam is the author of THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS—this 135-country quest for life lessons doesn’t just push the envelope, it shreds it. Check out his alternative keynote on AmericanDetour.com and follow him on Facebook.

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