‘Are you ready for the future’ is the question driving this year’s convention, with the small matter of Britain’s changing relationship with the EU to complicate matters. Ian Taylor reports
The Brexit vote in June promises the biggest upheaval in UK politics and for business in decades. Yet so far, it has been business as usual, only with a new prime minister and a floppy-haired foreign secretary.
Indeed, the EU referendum result has proved more benign than anyone predicted, following an initial plunge in the pound. It may yet prove the calm before the storm, as Westminster and Brussels play out a phoney war while Theresa May ponders when to pull the Article 50 trigger.
Astutely, Abta has chosen not to tear up its convention programme to engage in an endless series of ‘what if’ scenarios, and instead placed discussion of Britain’s relations with Europe and the implications for travel at the heart of a first day examining all aspects of the future.
Geoff Meade, the Press Association’s editor in Brussels through most of the period of Britain’s EU membership, will lead off the Brexit debate by examining the politics involved, before being joined by a panel of industry experts. Expect to hear the priorities for travel identified along with the latest on Abta’s Brexit action plan.
But ahead of that, Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer will consider the value of some past convention predictions before handing over to keynote speaker and analyst of societal and cultural trends, Thimon de Jong.
Tanzer says: “To manage a business, you need to understand what is happening on the big stage. The convention is about what is coming down the line. So Thimon will talk about broad cultural trends, and then we’ll bring this to bear on travel.”
The rest of the day will consider everything from the changing consumer and future travellers to the shifting centre of aviation and the coming revolution in robotics.
Thomas Cook retail and customer experience director Kathryn Darbandi will join de Jong and fellow presenters Champa Magesh, UK managing director of Amadeus, and Silver Travel Advisor managing director Debbie Marshall to reflect on the customer of the future.
Tom Chatfield, an expert on digital culture and gaming, will open the afternoon session by considering, among other things, how to engage with a generation brought up on gaming.
However, the day’s most memorable speaker may be one of the last. Mario, a robot deployed by the Ghent Marriott Hotel in Belgium, will address the convention along with hotel general manager Roger Langhout and Travelzoo Europe president Richard Singer. Look out for Mario catchphrases – “we hope you have a great stay” and “welcome to the event” – and for new research from Travelzoo on how robotics and artificial intelligence will affect the trade.
Singer will also share the results of research on consumer attitudes to robots which, he argues, will soon “go from being a marketing gimmick to playing a much bigger part” in the industry.
And if Singer stumbles over his autocue, Mario can read it for him.
Enjoy the debate, but bear in mind Mark Tanzer’s opening remarks on past predictions. Ahead of the convention, he noted: “We thought the internet would be a broad platform. Now we see it increasingly monopolised by the big search engines. We thought social media would be something we would communicate through. Not many foresaw it would set the pace on communications.”
Or to paraphrase Eric Morecambe: we may hear all the right predictions, but not necessarily in the right order.