After pitvoting to virtual in 2020, the 2021 Skift Global Forum was, for the first time, in a hybrid event format – a topic we will be exploring in our upcoming webinar alongside event tech host SpotMe.
Holding an in-person event was a victory in itself when so much uncertainty remains, and the Delta variant is causing events across the United States to scrap in-person plans. Onsite attendees expressed their delight at meeting face-to-face. There was no indication that the vaccination requirement and mask mandate did anything to deter participation. On the contrary, everything indicates that these measures were welcomed by all involved.
The event took place at the iconic TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK airport with a more exclusive audience than in previous years, very much on trend with our research that suggests events will be smaller and hybrid in the future, at least in the short-term.
The online audience could access a high-quality stream of all sessions. Video feeds of speakers who could not join in person, who were often interviewed by moderators on stage, were shown on large screens to the in-person audience. AV partner Legend Productions expertly managed the complex array of video feeds involved.
Profile-based matchmaking was available to the online audience for networking opportunities. While attendees enjoyed the experience, it was clear that the audience of travel executives preferred in-person interaction.
Onstage there was plenty of content relevant to event professionals. Every speaker was positive in their outlook for the travel industry, but they disagreed on how the future plays out.
Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta painted a rosy picture of the future of business travel, sharing that business transient demand has already recovered to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Nassetta also estimated that business travel demand would eclipse 2019 levels in three years.
Marriott CEO Anthony Capuano was not as bullish as his Hilton counterpart, although he did offer a positive outlook. Instead, Capuano focused on the company’s sustainability plans, discussing their goal to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050 by following the criteria and recommendations of the Science Based Targets initiative.
Accor CEO Sebastien Bazin was also keen to talk about eco-alignment, particularly how the company has joined the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.
Sustainability was a recurring theme throughout the forum, with Google also discussing details of its new climate-focused initiatives. Skift senior research analyst Seth Borko also offered a reality check by highlighting the significant challenges in making the travel industry more sustainable while driving business growth.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky claimed a new golden age of travel is here, where travelers blend leisure with remote working, resulting in longer trips and a blurring of the line between travel and living.
Parag Khanna, founder, and managing partner of FutureMap, offered a more detailed view of a global workforce of location-independent people and how this seismic shift will affect all sectors.
Social issues were also part of the relevant discussions at the forum with Naledi Khabo, the CEO of the Africa Tourism Association, and Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation, highlighting tourism leakage, “local washing,” and the lack of diversity among decision-makers as significant challenges.
The forum was also an opportunity to highlight the travel industry’s challenges around inclusion through deaf traveler and blogger Marlene Valle. She offered multiple suggestions on how businesses can work with and include the deaf community in developing products and services.
Destination Marketing Organizations were equally part of the conversation. The announcement that the United States will reopen to fully vaccinated international air travelers from November was a surprise to the organizations that have been in a holding pattern but have done their best to stay relevant. They are now actioning new strategies as important international routes recover.
MCR Hotels CEO Tyler Morse, the owner of the host TWA Hotel, put forward an airline-inspired unbundling approach to hotel products and services. He made a case for the à la carte pricing practiced at the property, something Morse believes would raise revenues for the hotel industry struggling to come out of the pandemic. This approach could also apply to virtual and in-person events but is not commonplace.
Although aimed at travel executives, the 2021 Skift Global Forum provided event professionals with many fascinating predictions and key learnings from the stage and from behind the scenes. Whether hybrid events will be the norm in the future is yet to be confirmed, but we can and should perfect our skills as event professionals by learning from events like this.