The title of this piece could easily have been “Simon Demonstrates How We Are Out Of Touch With The New Generation By Inadvertently Being Out Of Touch With The Previous One,” but that would be a little too long and in any case Simon was right.
The Simon in question was Simon Fiquet, the Head of Google’s APAC Travel team, who addressed HICAP in Singapore on the subject of travelers in the digital age. Simon was young, energetic and enthusiastic, and he opened his fast-paced presentation with a few facts to set the scene (58% of Japanese book their travel solely online) and alarm the dinosaurs (this Google Glass thing can do what??!!!!! ), before showing his audience a picture of a man wearing sunglasses.
“A survey in the U.S. asked American teenagers to name their favorite star,” he explained. “So where do you think this guy in the picture came? Top 5? Top 10? Any ideas? What do you all think?”
The delegates shifted uneasily and stared back blankly. A handful seemed to realize that Simon fully expected some audience participation, but couldn’t help him out because they hadn’t the faintest idea who the man in the picture actually was.
Eventually Simon had to tell us. “It’s Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said, “and he came in at number 20!” And if ever an audience was nonplussed, it was that one, exactly then.
The next picture showed a young woman, who was evidently very famous on Planet Simon, but who could have strolled into HICAP without attracting any attention whatsoever.
“This is Katy Perry, and she was ninth!” said Simon gamely, before adding helpfully that she was a singer.
The audience by now had now realized where this was heading. We were all supposed to recognize Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry immediately and feel astonished that they weren’t in the Top 3, while in reality the No. 1 position would be held by someone unknown to us and maybe even to Simon. Sure enough, the favorite stars of American teenagers were a comedy duo called Smosh, who perform solely on YouTube.
The idea that the younger generation has different tastes and ideas is nothing new, but the achievement of success on the scale of Smosh, without a single television appearance, represents a significant shift in communication channels. For this generation, the key to success is to “be perceived as close to the audience,” explained Simon. “This will define a good brand in the future. It’s not enough just to build awareness.”
Audience proximity is Google’s objective through the personalization of searches and their results. Simon noted that five years ago, travelers choosing a hotel room had around 200,000 options while today that figure is 1.6 million – a choice so vast that Google’s algorithms may represent the only efficient means of narrowing the parameters. That presents a new challenge for the hotelier to catch Google’s electronic eye.
Just as Smosh appeared under the radar – as did Katy Perry in certain circles – the Airbnb phenomenon has grown explosively in just seven years to currently offer 800,000 rooms. The five millionth customer was accommodated in January 2012; the ten millionth in June of that year. A panel discussion at HICAP featuring four hotel industry Presidents and CEOs touched upon Airbnb:
“Not a threat, though of course they’re a serious player.”
“There are safety concerns.”
“We’re in holiday cottage rentals and we offer the brand consistency that they can’t.”
“It’s for independent travelers and that’s only a third of our business.”
The panelists then moved on to the need for an expanding portfolio to satisfy the shareholders. “If you don’t have scale**you’re going nowhere. Either you’re having lunch or you’re being lunch for someone else,” stated Carlson Rezidor President, Thorsten Kirschke.
“The cost of distribution for standalone properties is prohibitive,” said Alan Watts, COO of IHG, “so you have to solve that.”
In today’s world, expanding portfolios provide the scale to support distribution under brands representing consistency. In tomorrow’s world, brands will use audience proximity through imaginative distribution channels to support scale and expansion. So the future might be different, or in Thorsten’s terms, the ants might just eat the anteater (if it doesn’t pay attention)..