Event review: PhoCusWright Europe

George Sell By George Sell
Uploaded 02 June 2014

The event kicked off with a drinks reception at Dublin City Hall, with the delegates' networking observed impartially by statues of Irish historical figures such as Daniel O'Connell and Thomas Drummond.

The main conference was held at the impressive Dublin Convention Centre, and began with an introduction from PhoCusWright managing director Tony D'Astolfo. He explained that Europe is the single biggest travel market in the world and that he had been determined to stage an event here ever since joining the company.

The first morning was taken up with an entertaining and informative Dragon's Den-style presentation from five entrepreneurs with new-to-market travel-related technology products. The eventual winner was  Mobacar, "an intelligent car rental distribution platform enabling companies to offer car rental to their clients", but boutique hoteliers might want to check out one of the other finalists -  SnapShot is a "demand management" tool, which a strong emphasis on education and a move away from traditional revenue management techniques to a more forecast-based approach.

After lunch Vivek Badrinath, deputy chief executive of Accor, shared some interesting thoughts. Badrinath, who joined Accor in March from mobile giant Orange, said that the secret to a successful web presence is detail: "The most successful web players are obsessive of getting the nitty gritty of their customer experience just right," he said.

Sharing a slide of his "nine digital commandments" Badrinath revealed that Accor has translated its site in to 16 different languages, and that an impressive 31 per cent of its room business is booked through the company website.

In keeping with the theme of a good customer experience, Accor has introduced an initiative that allows guests to check in online. Badrinath says this "allows hotel staff to spend more time giving advice and sharing local knowledge, rather than hiding behind a computer screen dealing with credit cards and reference numbers."

A session titled "Lodging Interupted" looked at the burgeoning vacation rental and home stay market, and its  possible implications for the hotel sector.

Olivier Gremillon of Airbnb said: "There is an overlap between Airbnb and hotel guests, but they are generally complementary - in the period where Airbnb was really taking off in Paris, for example, hotel occupancy and rates both went up."

As with the hotel sector, the likes of booking.com cast a long shadow over the sector, particularly in the wake of the recent launch of the OTA's new villas.com site. Ptera Friedmann of Homeaway.com said: "It's great that booking.com is entering the vacation rental market, but we are different. 65 per cent of our inventory is private homes whereas villas.com's is inventory owned by the big property managers.

Luke Bujarski of PhoCusWright gave an overview of the European online travel market, saying that the sector rebounded from recession sooner than expected, reaching pre-recession levels of spending in 2014. He described the European market as the world's most tech savvy, with the highest proportion of consumers booking from smart phones and tablets.

The future of online travel content was then discussed by a heavyweight panel with representation from Facebook, Yahoo!, TripAdvisor and Tourism Ireland. Facebook's Kate Simpson said great content is "the right message to the right people at the right time". She also stressed the importance of mobile content, revealing that all new innovations at Facebook HQ have to presented to Mark Zuckerberg on a smart phone, not a laptop or desktop computer.

Emma Jowett of Yahoo! predicted "a blurring of the boundaries between online advertising and content. Advertising will be contextually relevant to the individual user."

The day finished with Darren Huston, who heads The Priceline Group and Booking.com. If anyone was in any doubt over the massive impact the OTAs, and particularly Booking.com have had, then the numbers Huston threw out would have done the trick.

The company gets 350,000 job applications per year. When it started, 2.5 years ago it was purely a hotel booking site - now more than half of its properties are non-hotel. Huston said that it is inevitable that Booking.com will eventually enter the private home rental sector and encroach on Airbnb territory, but that is not the company's top priority. He also said the company is always open to acquiring other players, even very big ones, so watch this space.

I had to return to London after the first day of the conference but found it an enjoyable and informative experience, and can only imagine PhoCusWright are encouraged by their first European foray. Boutique Hotel News will be back next year.

www.phocuswrighteurope.com

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