Meet the 17 changemakers shaping the future of the travel industry

  • 2020 has upended the travel industry and challenged travel professionals to reexamine how their companies operate.
  • Business Insider has identified 17 travel professionals who are shaping the future of the travel industry.
  • We define a changemaker as someone who has anticipated changing traveler needs and has either pivoted their business or created a new one to adapt to the new normal.
  • Our inaugural list of travel changemakers includes top executives at Delta, Airbnb, and Tripadvisor, as well as small business owners and startup founders.
  • Do you know a travel changemaker? Please email [email protected] and [email protected] with tips.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

2020 has fundamentally upended the travel industry.

Between the pandemic, which brought international travel to a standstill earlier this year, and questions of racial justice brought to the forefront by the Black Lives Matter movement, the events of this year have challenged travel professionals to reexamine how their companies operate.

Even as countries begin to ease border restrictions and destinations reopen their doors to travelers, hotel occupancies remain at year-over-year lows. Travel giants have furloughed or laid off hundreds of thousands of employees to adjust to financial realities.

But with every fundamental shift comes innovation. Based on nominations and our own research, we have identified 17 changemakers who are shaping the future of the travel industry, either by pivoting their business, creating a brand new one, or anticipating changing traveler needs.

From executives at multinational companies to startup founders, meet the people on Business Insider's inaugural list of travel changemakers.

Charlotte Powell, Head of Global Hosting for Airbnb

Initiative: Airbnb Online Experiences

When Catherine Powell joined Airbnb in January as head of Airbnb Experiences, the program touted 50,000 host-led tours, classes, and other offerings across 1,000 countries. Two months later, the pandemic hit the United States.

In late March, Airbnb paused the program for the health and safety of hosts and guests, but Powell was undeterred. On April 9, her team rolled out Airbnb Online Experiences, a new platform allowing hosts to connect with travelers virtually.

Six months after program launch, Airbnb now offers upwards of 700 online experiences, which earned hosts over $2 million from launch through July. Airbnb reported that within that time period, the hosts of "Sangria and Secrets with Drag Queens" ($31 per person for 90 minutes) made $350,000 alone.

"Since launching, we've continued to find ways to empower communities deeply impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns," Powell told Business Insider. "Online Experiences are providing vital economic opportunities for Olympian and Paralympian athletes, chefs, and Broadway artists."

Powell, who was appointed Head of Global Hosting in July to oversee a unified hosting organization across Homes and Experiences, has continued to expand the program's offerings. In the last week of September, Airbnb launched "Field Trips," a collection of 75 online extracurricular experiences designed for parents and children. The collection includes experiences hosted by shark scientists and astronomers, among other experts, and range in cost from $7 to $100 per hour.

In the coming weeks and months, Powell says she will focus on building out tools for hosts to rebuild their businesses.

"For me, listening has been incredibly important. I have spent a lot of time listening to our guests and our hosts to really understand the needs and desires on both sides," she told Business Insider.

Caitlin Zaino von During, CEO and Cofounder of Porter & Sail; Deepak Shrivastava, Co-Founder and CFO/COO at Porter & Sail

Initiative: Hotel Credits by Porter & Sail

In 2014, Caitlin Zaino and Deepak Shirvastava launched Porter & Sail, a digital concierge app that partners with luxury hotels to offer hotel guests services such as keyless entry and early check-in. 

When the pandemic hit and hotel occupancies dropped to record lows, their business turned on its head.

"Contracts were canceled and our revenue was fully wiped out within a week. We did not know how we would survive," Zaino von During told Business Insider.

Over a period of 24 hours, their team of seven pulled together a new business model. On March 17, they launched "Hotel Credits," an ecommerce system that allows travelers to purchase hotel stays at a discount. Credits can be redeemed up to two years out from the purchase date.

Hotel Credits started out with three hotels and has grown to a collection of 150 independent hotels across five continents and over 20 countries. The program has driven over half a million dollars worth of redeemable room nights for hotels since launch, according to analytics reviewed by Business Insider. "In the earliest days, we were the only source of cash flow for some of our hotel clients," Zaino von During said.

In the beginning, Porter & Sail didn't take commissions from Hotel Credits, but as the team has developed its product and hotels have reopened, they have converted to a commission-based structure. Porter & Sail is developing a feature that will allow purchase credits that aren't specific to one hotel, but can be used for any hotel or on their site.

"If we wanted to continue to survive, we had to build for what we knew was true right now," Zaino von During told Business Insider with regard to Porter & Sail's business pivot. "We also knew we had to invent the future of travel in order to own it."

Beth Santos, CEO and Founder of Wanderful; Karisma Shackelford, Director of Wanderful Creators

Initiative: Wanderful's "Moving Forward: An Anti-Racism Townhall for the Travel Industry" series

Over the past 11 years, Beth Santos has grown Wanderful from a blog dedicated to helping women travel safely into a global community that hosts events for over 45,000 female travelers, travel influencers, and travel professionals worldwide.

In this time, Santos has seen the industry become more inclusive of women, but she still considers it far from perfect. "Many of these experiences still focus very heavily on the experience of white women, disregarding our many intersectionalities of race, age, body type, sexual orientation, and beyond," she said.

When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the spring, Santos sat down with Karisma Shackelford, the founder of Color Me World, who works part-time developing programming for Wanderful content creators. The two brainstormed ways to discuss the movement with their members at a time when much the industry remained silent.

Within weeks, they launched Moving Forward: An Anti-Racism Townhall for the Travel Industry. The three-part virtual series created a platform for Black creators, allies, and brands to discuss actionable steps to foster anti-racism in the travel industry. Over 200 members and industry representatives attended the first session.

Santos and Shackelford have planned two additional town halls for October 17th and early 2021. They have also launched an anti-racism reading club and a new sub-community for members called BIPOC Women of Wanderful. Next year, the company plans to launch a global hosting network so women and gender-diverse people have safe and trusted spaces to stay in when they travel.

"This awakening and empowering time that we are in is demanding change, and those that don't change will find themselves going out of business like Blockbuster did back in 2010," Shackelford told Business Insider.

"Wanderful has always been at the forefront of discussing topics that others often felt was too challenging to address. This is one of the reasons why I have always loved this community, and Beth, the courageous and badass woman who leads it," Shackelford said. "Society has habitually silenced women and people of color, and Wanderful has always given a voice to the disempowered."

Yannis Moati, CEO & Founder of Hotels by Day

Initiative: HotelsByDay

Booking a hotel room by the hour once had seedy connotations. But nowadays, as travelers seek increased flexibility and safe, affordable staycations, the concept is becoming more popular.

Enter: HotelsByDay, a booking platform for day-use hotel rooms.

Yannis Moati founded HotelsByDay in 2015, launching initially in four cities: New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. HotelsByDay now partners with hotels and allows users to reserve blocks of hours, with three-hour block minimums. And while Moati, a 20-year hospitality industry veteran who currently serves as the company's CEO, wasn't the first to come up with the idea — Day Use Hotels, for one, launched in 2010 in Paris — nor the last, HotelsByDay remains among the most prominent booking services of its kind, largely thanks to its quick booking platform.

"Hoteliers understand that 'business as usual' is over and we'll never get back to it," Moati told Business Insider. "The future of hospitality resides in unlocking flexibility in the otherwise rigid legacy business model."

During the pandemic, Moati's company has helped hoteliers maximize the revenue potential of what they call "dayroom inventory" — the combination of unsold rooms from the night before and early check outs the day following. Moati told Business Insider that HotelsByDay initially offered just one service (dayrooms), and now is able to offer customers the option to book working lounges, meeting rooms, coworking desks, day-use pool passes, and day-use parking passes.

Moati told Business Insider that HotelsByDay, recently nominated for the Travel & Hospitality Awards' Technology & Innovation category, has seen an increase in new hotel partner sign-ups by over 400% since the coronavirus unmoored the hospitality industry earlier this year.

Kanika Soni, Chief Commercial Officer at Tripadvisor; Lindsay Nelson, Chief Experience and Brand Officer at Tripadvisor

Initiative: Tripadvisor "Safe Travels" search tools

After weeks of lockdown measures, destinations in Europe and the US began lifting measures in May and June as coronavirus rates fell. Though domestic tourism became an option, travelers were faced with the overwhelming task of sorting through varying health and safety guidelines.

To help travelers sift through a sea of information, Lindsay Nelson and Kanika Soni launched Tripadvisor's "Travel Safe" suite of tools on June 24. The first initiative of its kind among competitors, the Travel Safe toolkit included the ability for businesses to display health and safety measures on their pages, a filter for travelers to look up participating businesses, and a Q&A function that allows travelers and businesses to connect directly through Tripadvisor.

Since launch, over 100,000 businesses have opted into the Travel Safe program, and hundreds of thousands of travelers use its suite of tools per month, according to Tripadvisor analytics reviewed by Business Insider. The company also reported that click-through rates to hotel and business detail pages have increased 16% since the program's launch.

Looking ahead, Nelson and Soni plan to expand the rollout of the Travel Safe program to more businesses and to integrate it with the Tripadvisor mobile app.

Both Nelson and Soni told Business Insider that being flexible and embracing the unknown has helped them succeed as leaders during this time. "Break the rules. Evaluate your company and brand's strengths and truly unique assets, and explore ways to create new revenue streams," Nelson told Business Insider.

How you communicate with your team goes a long way, Soni told Business Insider. "I love the phrase 'bounded optimism' — something I've always been guided by," she said. "Every day I strive to show up for my team with calm and compassion, acknowledging the uncertainty while attempting to reframe a difficult situation as a learning experience and a chance for innovation and positive change."

Joel Holland, Owner of Harvest Hosts

Initiative: Harvest Hosts

The Harvest Hosts membership program, which costs $80 a year, allows RVers to stay overnight for free at over 1,600 farms, wineries, breweries, distilleries, golf courses, museums, and other small businesses all over North America.

"Our mission is to help people live happier lives by getting off the couch and onto the open road, while also supporting small businesses that are the backbone of our country," owner and CEO Joel Holland told Business Insider of his company, which currently has 15 employees.

Holland reports that business crashed 80% when the virus outbreak initially gripped the US in March. But rather than scaling back the business, Holland boosted ad spending on Facebook. According to screenshots shared with Business Insider, Harvest Hosts' total Facebook ad spending topped $1.25 million between March 1 and September 30.

Holland's bet on a surge of interest in RV travel proved to be a smart one. New membership bottomed out on April 3, Holland told Business Insider, when Harvest Hosts logged only 18 new members. But membership reached an all-time high on August 26, when 1,336 new members signed on.

Holland believes that the burst of RV interest won't dissipate even after the pandemic is controlled. "We believe road-based travel will continue to be the predominant form of travel through at least 2021," he told Business Insider.

Pat Miller and Tom Brussow, Cofounders of The HUB Social Network

Initiative: The HUB Social Network

When travel came to a standstill in the spring, veteran travel agent Tom Brussow looked around for resources on how to advise clients in a world of travel restrictions. He didn't find what he was looking for.

In August, Brussow partnered with Pat Miller, a broadcast journalist turned small business consultant, and launched The HUB, an off-Facebook social network. Through The HUB, members gain access to a social dashboard where they can interact with each other via a public feed or direct message and access daily and weekly programming broadcasts.

Miller is currently hosting a weekly "Path to Prosperity" brainstorming series focusing on rebuilding consumer confidence and leveraging promotional sales. The HUB team is also piloting a "Destination Community" feature where destination representatives answer questions for agents. Costa Rica's community feature has already been built, with Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Las Vegas, Hawaii, and the Lomas Travel Group scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020.

"The travel industry will return but to get to that point, agents and suppliers will have to communicate and build their businesses back together," Brussow told Business Insider.

Right now, membership consists of two-thirds travel agents and one-third suppliers, Miller told Business Insider. Brussow and Miller aim to grow their membership to 1,000 by the end of 2020. Membership costs $19.99 per month.

"The pent-up public desire to travel is immense and as soon as the public opinion and health conditions warrant it, the travel industry will explode. The smart agents and suppliers are the professionals that are expanding their network, obsessively staying connected to their customers and improving their baseline capacity for doing business," Brussow said.

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta

Initiative: The Delta Airlines CareStandard and Global Cleanliness division

Air travel has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in hospitality amid the pandemic. Many companies were forced to drastically reduce service, lay off employees en masse, or shutter entirely. Airlines that stayed in business needed to figure out a way to win back the trust of air travelers. Few have done this as effectively as Delta Airlines, and that's largely thanks to the leadership of Ed Bastian.

Bastian, a 22-year veteran of the travel industry, assumed his role as Delta's CEO in 2016. This year, Bastian implemented a series of safety measures to keep customers and Delta employees safe. The result, the Delta CareStandard, is informed by healthcare and disinfection expertise from CVS Health, Mayo Clinic, Emory Healthcare, Quest Diagnostics and Reckitt Benckiser Group/Lysol. The more than 100 safety measures implemented as part of the CareStandard include blocking off middle seats and limiting capacity on flights, mask requirements both onboard and at the gate, an overhaul of cleaning procedures (including a 44-point cleanliness checklist ahead of every flight), and back-to-front boarding in order to support social distancing.

Bastian's team has currently been tasked with deploying technologies to keep surfaces and the air onboard clean, and with developing a clean audit program to ensure safety measures are being upheld consistently.

Bastian says that customer satisfaction has never been higher. "Delta's Net Promoter Score (NPS) — the measurement used to determine how likely customers are to recommend Delta — has been setting records since March 2020 and saw a new record high in August 2020," he told Business Insider.

Now predicting a three-year recovery period — and acknowledging that Delta will need to become a smaller airline in 2021 than it was in 2019 — Bastian says that recovery will depend on customers feeling comfortable traveling. And for that reason, the airline will continue to invest in its long-term commitment to clean.

Marilyn Markham, Director of Product Strategy at American Express Global Business Travel; James Griffin, Director of Risk, Compliance and Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) at American Express Global Business Travel; and Cedric Lamielle, Senior Director of Travel Product Engineering at American Express Global Business Travel

Initiative: American Express Global Business Travel Travel Vitals™

When the coronavirus pandemic brought the travel industry to a halt this winter, corporate travelers had to figure out a way to navigate international trips in the safest way possible. 

American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) stepped up its offerings as a result.

GBT is a travel management solutions and services company working with corporations and employees to coordinate corporate travel. Its 18,000 travel professionals across over 140 countries are tasked with managing $35 billion of business travel annually, according to company literature. In response to the pandemic, GBT launched Travel Vitals™, a "travel briefing platform" that serves as a one-stop resource for all of the travel restrictions and relevant information business travelers need to know before embarking on a trip.

"I went back to basics to understand the new needs and expectations [travelers] have of travel agencies," Marilyn Markham, GBT's Director of Product Strategy, told Business Insider. "I found the greatest need was for accurate information to help them decide whether it is safe and practical to travel in this climate and how to prepare adequately."

According to James Griffin, GBT's director of Risk, Compliance and Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG), Travel Vitals™ grew out of the company's internal COVID-19 Response Team, which tracked coronavirus rates globally as the outbreak began to take hold. "We quickly realized the value of making that information available externally in a single, easily accessible location and began posting it daily to the GBT website," Griffin told Business Insider.

While this tool was created specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, GBT realizes its utility for business travelers in the future. Per Cedric Lamielle, the senior director of travel product engineering for GBT, part of the company's innovation will be to make the platform a standard tool for travelers seeking information about visa requirements, travel advisories, and specific geographical areas' risks.

Sarah Dusek and Jacob Dusek, Cofounders of Under Canvas

Initiative: Under Canvas

Under Canvas was founded in 2009 by Sarah and Jacob Dusek, making it one of the first major glamping — high-end, glamorous camping — companies. Under Canvas has glamping sites near a number of national parks and other landmarks, including Acadia National Park, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Mount Rushmore. 

While Under Canvas was founded over a decade before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the team has worked to make outdoor travel an even safer and more appealing option. This includes a number of operational enhancements made in an effort to boost customer confidence, from streamlined check-in/out processes and rigorous sanitation of shared spaces to mandatory staff masking, limited and socially distanced dine-in seating, and an array of on-the-go food and retail options for visitors.

Today, Sarah, who was Under Canvas' original CEO and currently serves on its board of directors, reports that the company has over 500 employees and nine locations. Like other outdoor travel-focused businesses, Under Canvas has seen a surge of interest as travelers increasingly opt for more socially distancing-friendly vacations.

"I believe the future of travel will be outside for the foreseeable future. The need to be out in nature has never been more acute, to do that safely, with ease and comfort has never been more necessary," Sarah told Business Insider.

Under Canvas is focusing on expanding its offerings while remaining focused on sustainability. Its current environmentally conscious initiatives include low-flow toilets, auto-turn off faucets, and pull-chain showers at all camps, and the use of solar power wherever possible.

A Joshua Tree location is among those new outposts coming soon, as Under Canvas continues it expansion.

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