5 years ago

Pitching apples against oranges in travel innovation produces the wrong type of fruit salad

NB: This is a guest article by Rod Cuthbert, founder and chairman emeritus at Viator, and CEO at Rome2rio.

I have a few years of experience of the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit under my belt – a couple as an on-stage critic and during its most recent outing as CEO of one of the competitors.

I confess a great fondness for the Summit – it has quickly become the must attend day of the wider conference, and I know many agree it has become a more compelling and entertaining spectacle than the venerable Center Stage talk-fest that follows.

This year’s TIS was certainly the best of all – entrants appear to have been selected against stricter guidelines, presenters were coached to a higher standard, the critics were excellent (yes, even better than last year!) and there seemed to be fine tuning of the format from top to bottom.

As a result the event was slicker, more entertaining and more relevant than ever before.

So what’s the problem?

But it occurs to me that PhoCusWright now need to consider a fundamental change: one that addresses the somewhat jarring spectacle of entrants competing in categories that effectively lump apples in with oranges.

Here’s an example of what I mean: in this year’s Established Company category, TagMan, the eventual winner, competed head-on with Amadeus, which scored the Runner Up prize.

Amadeus is 100% focused on the travel industry, and demonstrated a novel approach to airfare display that uses retailing techniques to deliver highly relevant results in rapid time.

TagMan showed a very smart piece of technology that has a myriad of applications in industries beyond travel: it seems like great technology, but to say that it is somehow “better” than Amadeus is really an answer to a question that should not have been asked.

Simply put, if TagMan is an award winning apple, Amadeus should have been an award winning orange. But the Summit’s category guidelines see apples and oranges judged alongside each other. That’s a little like asking “What’s the best fruit?”

It’s just not the right question.

Companies focused entirely on travel should compete against each other, not against entrants whose focus is across multiple verticals.

That’s unfair on travel-specific entrants, who pay for their spot in a travel event and end up taking on all-comers, and also the judges, who can’t be expected to seriously evaluate entrants from non-travel sectors.

Is there a remedy?

One suggestion I’ve heard is to bar non-travel entrants altogether. It is, after all, a “Travel Innovation Summit” and not a “Technology Innovation Summit”.

That makes sense to me, although I do enjoy seeing innovators like Tourwrist (the overall winner of the event) on stage, and it would be a shame to lose that opportunity.

Perhaps a re-alignment along product lines, with categories like “Search, Discovery and Inspiration”, “Technology and Tools”, “Bookings and Payments”, and “Crossover Innovations” for cross-vertical entrants.

No doubt Tnooz readers will have their own ideas on whether a change is needed, and what categories might work in place of the status quo.

Any change will be a tough call, but the organisers have proven themselves adaptable, and I’m guessing they already have this issue on their radar.

The Travel Innovation Summit continues to gain deserved momentum, and provides the entire travel industry with a valuable, day-long opportunity to look into the future.

Having attained this success for the event, it’s perhaps a good time for the organisers to re-examine the founding principles to see if they still hold true.

My guess is that with some subtle tweaks the Summit will emerge stronger, more entertaining, perhaps more focused and certainly more equitable.

NB: This is a guest article by Rod Cuthbert, founder and chairman Emeritus at Viator, and CEO at Rome2rio. The latter was winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2012 Travel Innovation Summit.

NB2: Apples and oranges image via Shutterstock.

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A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of his employer, tnooz, its writers, or partners.



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  1. Heddi Cundle

    I absolutely agree! I presented last year at the Summit and one competing company failed to disclose that within 2 weeks of presenting, they were re-launching as a non-travel business – a full pivot. They also stated they were under 18 months old yet they were actually 3 year’s in business so competed in the wrong category. Put this together and it’s not a pretty picture in promoting travel innovation – by industry or competing criteria. The Summit is amazing but it needs tightening up because it’s not a cheap event to attend or compete in. So it needs to be fair.

  2. Psycho

    I agree with the need to divide “helpful tools for travel companies” vs. “online travel companies”. And I would like to see more of helpful tools on the stage, in fact.
    I guess, there also may be need to divide corporate travel vs. consumer travel.
    And different judges needed to judge different categories too (as well as critics circle).
    Hope, organizers will think about it.

    By the way, Rome2rio pitch was awesome – it made me think that this is a must have tool for any OTA (and I hope that we will come to using your API too).

    Frankly speaking I liked Gogobot CEO talk where he remembered that he was 2nd from the end in jury’s rates and spoke about the need of proof by the customers – not by the judges. Guess, it’s what everyone should think about.

  3. Tyler

    If we’re talking about a level playing field, let’s not forget that each of the TIS competitors paid PhoCusWright $12,000 to get on stage for a few minutes. That’s a huge sum for a seed-funded start-up, and it’s a rounding error for a company like Amadeus. I hope everyone feels like they got their money’s worth.

    • Marianna Koos

      Tyler, I so agree with you. At these prices anyone can put up a show, but who is really innovating? Probably the ones that cannot afford to attend due to the high costs of PhoCusWright

  4. Glenn Gruber


    I like the idea. It’s akin to the Oscars where you categories for best actor, director, visual effects, etc. so that you can highlight the best in each discipline. I imagine the challenge is having enough entrants from the different categories so crafting the right buckets is the trick.

    I think this still leaves room to have the start up prize via General Catalyst/DEMO or any other VC that wants to put up the money that can go across categories.

    I always thought the “established company” category sounded a little dumb. I get the idea of trying to separate those with oodles of resources to throw at problems versus smaller ones, but the fact that TagMan and Amadeus compete in that category, shows that labels still don’t solve the level-playing-field issue….though clearly David can always beat Goliath.

  5. Alex Bainbridge

    I still wonder whether there is a desire by the conference (and other conferences too) to put the emphasis on “innovation that can be demonstrated today” vs the drier “industry changing if they can execute that vision over the next 2 years”.

    There are some industry changing startups that have never pitched at PCW. Mainly because they are working at deep data layers and exposing “their hand” too early can cause more problems than the very real advantages of short term limelight.

    There are some innovations pitched at PCW that will never be more than a little ripple on the existing industry.

    Somehow I would love any categorisation (hypothetical as this discussion is) to take this into account.

    • Paul Durrant

      Great article Rod.

      100% agree with Alex’s comments. It is always good to share ideas at these events, but it would be great to see what is there today vs tomorrow. Maybe it could be plotted against the Gartner’s Hype Cycle or something similar. That way buyers and suppliers can create a dialogue about the future direction of various travel technologies.


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