A disrupter by any other name | Travel Research Online


A disrupter by any other name

I attend and speak at dozens of events each year, both inside and outside of the travel industry. One of the benefits is that I learn the latest jargon, corporate speak, or marketing buzzwords making the rounds.

One ominous sounding word has surfaced at nearly every event I’ve attended lately. In some cases, it was the primary topic for more than one speaker at the same conference! Apparently, the buzzword of the year is: disrupters.

Disrupters are people, companies, products, or services that are shaking things up in (supposedly) unexpected but fundamental ways. When well-established norms are threatened, some people get scared while some get excited.

Business gurus refer to Tesla as a disrupter. After all, they have quickly proven that yes, people will pay good money for an electric car. That is, if it’s a really nice, fast, innovative, and luxurious one. The automobile establishment, battery makers, and even home energy providers are scrambling to catch up and fundamentally retool.

Apple shook up the cellular industry with the original iPhone. While still enormously successful, they are no longer perceived as a disrupter. This illustrates a critical point: once things are disrupted, the bringers of change often become the new establishment until the next disruption comes along.

In travel, the disrupters whipping everyone into a frenzy include companies like airbnb, Uber, VRBO and more. Once dismissed as fads, each has seen massive growth and acceptance from both leisure and corporate travel-seekers.

For the most part, these companies have burst onto the travel scene paying no commission. Each operates through simple apps, with attractive pricing, and revenue opportunities paid to ordinary people. Even with the predictable quirks and irritations, they aren’t going away. They are growing and there will be more like them very soon.

Some cities or countries have tried to regulate, tax, control, or eliminate them. Some have embraced and welcomed them. Travel associations, franchises, and consortia have lobbied against them, and travel consultants have tried to convince their clients to avoid them.

In the end, travelers have responded with rapidly rising patronage to them. At the same time, many people within the industry use them personally, thus validating that there may be a place for such alternatives after all.

I chose to write about travel disrupters not to join the fray of fear, but to offer a different perspective. I have seen many disruptions during my 37 years in the industry. Each was met with dire predictions. Each changed the established way of doing things. Eventually each became the norm creating revenue opportunities for forward-thinking pros.

Here are a few travel disrupters, along with the frightened objections of the day:

  • Toll-Free Numbers (1967) – “Now that suppliers are getting toll-free 1-800 phone numbers, it’s just a matter of time before our customers realize they can call them direct to book and it won’t cost a nickel!”
  • Standard Ticket Stock (1972) – “The airlines always gave us their own, branded tickets. These generic tickets work with any airline! Like no-name groceries or off-brand clothing, this will destroy our image!”
  • GDS (1976) “Clients will no longer see us as professionals if we get information from a machine instead of personal experience. Let the airlines keep their computers, there’s no need for them here.” 
  • Credit Cards (1977) – “Telling agencies to promote the use of credit cards is misguided. One of our most competitive advantages is offering 30 to 90 days on accounts receivable. It would be madness to end that!”
  • Commission (1931) – “We’ve never accepted supplier commission before. It’s always been 100% consulting fees! Who would ever trust a so-called consultant, if they were paid by a supplier within a system that encourages higher prices? Preposterous!”

Fax machines, voice mail, rebating, paid dining on cruise ships, NCFs, baggage fees, the Internet, mobile technology, apps, and thousands more: disrupters are not new. Things change. Some people cannot or will not adapt. Others look for opportunities to leverage the disruption on behalf of their clients and sail along with them into the future.

Am I troubled by things like airbnb or Uber? Yes! And no. I’m worried for those who are scared and struggling, but there are already travel consultants making it all work to their advantage.

History has proven that telling customers not to do something they want to do rarely results in increased revenue or loyalty. Helping them understand when it may, or may not make sense, and offering compelling and attractive alternatives is far more effective.

We aren’t likely to force airbnb or VRBO out of business or make them pay a fair commission. We’re also unlikely to convince millions of fans to stop using them. We might convince those fans to pay an expert to navigate the maze of options on their behalf, including disrupters and traditional offerings that could be even better. Sound crazy? Not to those already doing it.

Disruption is never easy, but there is one disruption of our own that has always prevailed over even the most seductive idea of the moment. It is the disruption of genuine human compassion and understanding. Now might be a good time to polish it up a bit.

Nolan Burris is an author, former travel agent, failed musician and self-professed techno-geek. He’s also a popular international speaker both inside and outside of the travel industry.  He is the founder and chief Visioneer of Future Proof Travel Solutions (futureprooftravel.com) based in Vancouver, Canada.  Nolan’s believes that if can change the way business works, you’ll change the world. His goal is to spread the message of integrity and ethics in a techno-driven world.

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