Are You Sure? HEDNA Global Distribution Conference January 29-31, Austin

“Are you sure?” echoed throughout the just-concluded HEDNA conference in Austin, Texas. 324 attendees participated in a fast-paced agenda developed by Conference Co-chairs Sebastien Leitner of CloudBeds and Clive Wood of SnapShot, under the leadership of association President Sarah Fults, VP distribution for MGM Resorts International.
In the opening session, “Insights on Innovation in Technology,” Harper Reed, head of commerce for Braintree, a PayPal Company, challenged conventional thinking about the online presentation and purchase process, in the hope of achieving a more friction-free buying experience. Reed suggested that in reality some traditional steps in e-commerce processes impede rather than enhance those processes. His most notable example of a standard, often unnecessary step in a purchase process, one that often leads to what he termed friction and prompts purchase cancellation, is the ubiquitous question, “Are you sure?”
In an equally thought-provoking presentation, Head Economist and VP Data Science at HomeAway Justin Rau described his view of the marketplace position of the vacation rental sector and its relationship with hotels. Rau suggested that vacation rental and hotels serve different (although sometimes overlapping) client groups, with vacation rental typically serving groups of three or more, and who are typically staying a longer duration than hotel guests, ultimately infrequently competing with one another. Since the great recession, he suggested demand has grown consistently, generally satisfying all in the market. Impact of growth in “alternate accommodation” has been felt only in times of high demand or compression, when more alternate accommodation locations are brought short term in the market – such as a Super Bowl – not lowering occupancy but restraining room rates.
Left unanswered was the question. While we play well now in the upcycle, how will the relationship look in the next down turn?
Dr. Peter Stone of the University of Texas at Austin presented, “Artificial Intelligence and Travel in 2030.” Beginning his remarks with an explanation of how machines learn, he painted a picture of a workplace in which machines will not only complete mundane tasks but will interface frequently with humans, steadily improving their completion of those tasks and interactions as they repeat them.
HEDNA’s aim to craft a thought-provoking agenda clearly succeeded when Melissa Flood of Marriott International and Rajeev Kaul of Accenture Technology introduced the audience to the World Economic Forum-led initiative in which their companies and some 20 others are working to offer travelers the opportunity to create a secure digital identity that will speed border crossing (and ease flight purchases, aircraft boarding, hotel room reservations and other travel services). With an additional 500 million border crossings expected annually by 2030, this opt-in plan aims to prevent the overwhelming of the current traveler identification verification processes.
IHG’s Director of Distribution Strategy Greater China Will Shao led an informative discussion titled, “The Evolution of the Chinese Traveler.” Not only did it remind conference attendees of the substantial number of projected outbound travelers from China in the next five years, it identified the tools they prefer for both travel planning and travel payment. In particular, he made the dominance in travel and more broadly, of social media channel WeChat clear to the audience. 
The conference program included presentations and discussions in two special interest tracks – distribution and payments. The former included discussion of the developments in revenue management technologies advances in CRS functionality, while the payment track included discussion of the still perplexing but fast approaching General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the European Union mandated responsibilities of all who house personal data, when the regulation takes effect in May 2018.
HEDNA’s North American conference program included both an innovation showcase – Innov8 – and a hackathon. During Innov8, eight vendors vied for judges’ and audience recognition as the most innovative vendor as they described their companies’ services. In the hackathon, millennials in three teams brought fresh perspectives to longstanding hotel industry challenges. Innov8 competition winners included – Hopper as the judges’ pick, and One Night as the audience favorite.
A one-on-one conversation between citizenM Hotels founder Michael Levie and Cloudbeds founder Adam Harris closed the formal conference program. Levie described the process of developing the disruptive citizenM concept with its accent on vibrant communal spaces in the properties and empowerment of hotel staff to deal quickly and effectively with their guests.
The evening’s climax was the announcement of IHG’s Nancy Little as HEDNA’s 2018 Award of Excellence recipient.
John Burns is the president of Hospitality Technology Consulting. He can be reached at (480) 661-6797 or