The Arabian Travel Market (ATM), an annual travel trade show considered by many to be a barometer for the MENA region’s tourism sector, is back with its 26th edition scheduled to take place from April 28 to May 1, 2019, at the Dubai World Trade Center.
ATM 2019 is expected to highlight cutting-edge technology and innovation.
The event is projected to attract more than 30,000 visitors and overall attendance is expected to cross 40,000. The travel and tourism extravaganza will host more than 2,500 exhibiting companies, including 100 new exhibitors and 150 country pavilions.
Reed Travel Exhibitions (RTE), which organizes ATM under the World Travel Market (WTM) banner, will also launch the Arabian Travel Week this year. This will include four co-located events including ATM 2019, ILTM Arabia, and “CONNECT Middle East, India, and Africa 2019” – a new route development forum. As a special addition this year, RTE will also host a one-day “ATM Holiday Shopper” event on Saturday, April 27. More than 30 travel and hospitality exhibitors from both regional and international destinations will offer attractive travel and tourism discounts for people attending the show.
AMEinfo spoke exclusively to Claude Blanc, Portfolio Director of World Travel Market, about trends in the travel and tourism sector, digital disruptions, innovative technologies and more.
Q: Talk to us about Arabian Travel Market 2019. What are the main attractions at ATM 2019?
Mr. Claude Blanc: First of all, we are expecting over 30,000 visitors. There are a couple of new things, but the new thing this year is the new umbrella of Arabian Travel Week.
ATM has always been a B2B event and we wanted to give it a wider audience. So, we decided to add a consumer element with the “Holiday Shopper” day. The day before the ATM, there will be in a separate hall, the first “ATM Holiday Shopper” dedicated to the consumer of the region with very attractive travel deals. We are asking our partners to make it really incredible. We are partnering with hotel chains, online travel agencies; we have airlines coming as well. It would be a flash sales kind of opportunity.
People will pay to come – a little amount of money – but they may find very attractive travel deals.
“Connect Middle East, India, Africa” will be launched this year as the first edition. There is great development and it starts with airlines routes. So, we bring professionals from the airlines, from the airports, from the aviation industry to try and build the routes of the future.
Q: Experts are pointing to translation chatbots as positive incorporation of technology, but they are also advising caution on “over-automation” that seeks to replace customer interaction with intelligent bots. What are your comments on the issue?
Mr. Blanc: This is really an issue. We are almost close to a “technical burnout”. There is a kind of renewal from the travelers’ perspective for authentic real-life experiences. And this is up to the travel players to find the happy balance between technology and the human touch.
It's all about people; our industry is all about people. So, we need to make the traveler experience seamless, frictionless – and there is still a lot of friction along the journey.
People are looking for authentic experiences and for good collaborative experiences with people in the destination. This kind of research for authenticity is definitely a major trend. The other trend is linked to wellness. Wellness is a major request for travelers along with food, which is a human experience as well. You could have some waiter as a robot, but we are not yet able to see a robot as a chef of a restaurant. Food is still a kind of human science. That's why we are adjusting the meter. We encourage technology, but at the same time, we want to increase the quality of human touch at every stage of the traveler journey.
It's a challenging experience. Of course, robots could be seen as a threat because they could replace people; they could suppress some jobs. But on the other hand, it could also create some new jobs because we need to implement some intelligence into the robot; we need to maintain it; we need to increase its skills. It will be a progressive shift.
Q: There are a number of mobile applications coming up in the market that are attempting to integrate itinerary management, air and hotel bookings, currency conversions, local weather reports, budget calculations and more. How are such new technologies affecting hospitality, trade and travel?
Mr. Blanc: The whole customer experience journey is impacted by new technology. Of course, we have artificial intelligence, but then we go from robotics – which will massively impact our industry – to all what you mentioned in the mobile app matchmaking tools. For instance, there will be innovation in terms of our own matchmaking tools; our app will be much more effective. Apart from this, we have hotel rooms that are changing and we have a forum about “hotel rooms of the future”.
Because we would like to announce and launch “Travel Forward” softly, we would like to have a startup contest. Maybe, it will not appear this year but we would like to prepare it definitely for next year. It was very successful in Travel Forward London. We selected 20 startups and it covered the whole spectrum of travel innovation and this is where the future is. We would like to encourage students and the new generation the millennials to join the travel industry with great innovation.
It is part of our job to encourage innovation and to integrate innovation and technology within our business. We need to work on that because our trade traditional tradeshow model does not exist anymore. So, we are incredibly focused on the digital scene and on integrating technology at every level.
Q: How is user-generated content on social media being used for predictive insights? How do you balance this with increasing cautiousness about personal data?
Mr. Blanc: Once again, this is very challenging. We use social media a lot in our marketing campaigns. We understand that within the decision process for travelers, social media is becoming of key importance. The credibility of the price, in general, is declining and the credibility of digital influencers is growing. We need to find the right balance.
But at the same time, there is a huge level of legislation to protect personal data. The travelers expect some type of customization in terms of service, but they don't want to be controlled totally. More and more you want to be part of the travel experience; it's kind of a co-creation of a trip.
In the past, I could say you trust your travel agent, and then you've bought a full holiday package. But now this is not anymore the case. And even when you buy your whole inclusive package, you want to have outside experiences, to meet with people, to dine with people, and to have real-life experiences.
Once again, I am optimistic by nature, but I think the customer is aware of the risk.
Q: In your opinion, can blockchain technology and cryptocurrency disrupt the huge marketplace of travel and tourism? Will it prove to be a savior to cover certain gaps such as record exchange when it comes to medical and healthcare tourism?
Mr. Blanc: I think blockchain and the virtual currency are really disrupting the travel market. A couple of examples – the payment chain – the Afro, that's an interesting one! It could help a whole continent to have access to a kind of global currency, and to support the development of the countries and the people. This is kind of an interesting thing likely to totally disrupt the whole of Africa, and of course, especially in travel.
You have other application in terms of payment security, which is very important. Digital payment often involves fraud. Yeah, so blockchain is very useful. And the other one where it is very useful is the yield management capability. Of course, the airlines are far ahead of that, but the hospitality business is still catching up. So, I think this is very helpful to make our industry more credible and to make our life better.
Q: The World Tourism Organization recently announced that travelers to the Middle East rose 10 percent to 64 million in 2018. Is this upward trend likely to continue despite fears of a global economic slowdown? What's your outlook for 2019?
Mr. Blanc: Well, all the trends are forecasting a double-digit rise in terms of tourists’ arrival in the Middle East. It doesn't mean that there are no challenges. There are some challenges. But what makes us confident, as ATM, is the level of quality of the travel experience. Value for money is at a high level, which is a positive thing. Then there is a huge level of investment to attract people to the area. We are part of this movement of course – to shed some light on this area. There is a great level of investment in WTM. I have been on the Saudi Arabia boost. There are some huge projects. Saudi Arabia is expecting 30 million visitors by 2030. So, there is a huge plan. There is a huge level of investment likely to attract these people. And the airlines are part of the game as well.
There is this global trend of increase in term of airline passengers. This region is a hub that can attract people from everywhere in the world. There is a great climate; there is the level of quality of people; there is the investment; there is the infrastructure; there are a number of hotels; there are a number of theme parks and a number of new attractions emerging in this part of the world and it's incredible.
Q: Rising fuel costs, fierce competition and geopolitical tensions affecting air routes have seen many airlines including Qatar Airways, Etihad and Oman Air announcing losses in 2018. Will the increased number of passengers be enough to help lift these airlines' yearly projections?
Mr. Blanc: It's a good question. The airlines market is very competitive. Even with low-cost carriers entering the market, they have a chance. I must say that the low-cost model has not been proven sustainable for the long haul. Although once again, in India, you have Indigo, which is a very successful company, and in the other places, you have some great local low-cost companies as well.
I think the demand is so massive for corporate travel, leisure travel and the demographics are so in favor of an international trip boom, that the airline industry has to follow it. They need to find the right positioning in the marketplace. And of course, if they only compete on price, they will not be profitable; they must compete on value.
You have some very successful companies increasing the value to travelers. I used the Virgin Atlantic for myself to come here. This is an example of an airline, which is quite smart to impose its difference in the marketplace. So, it's simply a marketing exercise. You can work on your price, but you can add value on the customer experience.
Q: What are the top regions/destinations for people from the Middle East to travel to in 2019?
Mr. Blanc: Europe remains very attractive. I’ve seen the UK, France, Italy remain very attractive destinations. I’ve been in Brazil and Latin America and I’ve been impressed with the potential of the Latin American market. In Brazil, for instance, they have only 6 million international travelers coming into the country. Maybe it’s a more personal view, but I would bet on the Latin American market. But, also, of course, African countries are investing a lot in their transportation, in their hospitality sectors.