Tomorrow’s Wild, Wild West: Norm Rose Takes on Web 3 In Travel

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By Clara Lucio, Head of Marketing at Trip Ventures

Despite irrefutable synergism, outdated infrastructure, industry culture, and sector politics have complicated technological innovation in travel. The Post-COVID Era changed the landscape and put technology at the forefront of the industry. Yet, we have a long way to go before it takes its rightful, protagonistic place in travel. 

For over twenty years, Norm Rose has specialized in emerging technologies and their business impact in the travel industry. 

Clara Lucio, Head of Marketing at Trip Ventures, spoke to Norm on making Web3 accessible for the travel sector. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photo: Norm Rose

TV: What are some challenges when innovating in the travel tech industry? 

NR: A lot of what we’ve seen as far in innovation in travel has fallen into one of two categories: 

  • Ancillary Innovation: Innovation that supports existing infrastructures. 
  • Disruptive Innovation: Innovation that’s created a new market. This type is most characteristic of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. They’ve gone around the system. 

Both forms of innovation have struggled to incorporate their core technology within the infrastructure of travel’s legacy players. Our sector’s business practices have also made progress difficult. For instance, the tech that would bring unique corporate-specific bundles to airlines has been around for over half a decade. Yet, despite the positive impact it could have on the traveler, airlines haven’t systematically implemented these bundles, thanks to legacy technology.

This lack of follow-through happens all the time in travel. 

TV: Innovation and disruption are difficult for any sector. Is it harder for the travel industry, or is that just the nature of technological progress?

NR: It’s harder for the travel industry. 

Oligopolies rule every aspect of travel distribution. The lack of competition makes innovation difficult. Oligopolies exist in other sectors, but for some reason, we’re slower to adapt to change. We’re more likely to present a barrier to adoption rather than figure out how to implement the technology that can set us up for the future. 

Travel tends to see innovation as a threat. So first, the sector fights it. Then it realizes the new technology has some momentum, so it embraces it on some level, but then slows down its implementation. 

At the start of COVID, airlines wanted to allow customers to buy the middle seat at a discounted price in case they wanted more distance from other passengers and additional protection. Despite the apparent demand, they could not determine how to implement it systematically. 

The systems in place are ancient, brittle, and easily breakable. They cannot meet our current needs or realities. Unfortunately, the resistance to change sometimes is greater than the desire to innovate. 

If you ask the average travel company what their Web3 strategy is, they would say, “what exactly is Web3?” When you ask tech companies about the travel sector, they often have no idea how it works, but they know that the industry is slow to innovate. 

There’s that much of a gap.

TV: Given this massive “gap,” what role do you see Web3 playing in the travel industry? 

NR: When it comes to Web3, there’s a lack of understanding. 

What it means at its heart is lessening the intermediary’s power. As soon as you say that to the travel industry, it’s like, well, let’s put up all the defenses. They’re after me.

And I try to say, no, we’re not after you. We’re just changing your role. You still have a role to play. It will just be different because you haven’t done very well on technology.

TV: Where can Web3 win in travel?

NR: It depends on the area.

Metaverse: There is some value for the travel industry. If you want to book a stay via the twin hotel or plan a meeting at a hotel conference room, you’ll be able to look at the hotel or arrange the meeting room the way you would like. But there is an element of overselling the concept before the hardware has caught up. Are you wearing this heavy oculus or big headset to live in the virtual world? I’m not as keen on the metaverse being somewhere people spend much time in yet. Even when resolved, it is no different from discussing Augmented Reality (AR). 

NFTs: There is conceptually an excellent fit for NFTs in travel. NFTs could act as a way to take a ticket, associate rules with a smart contract with that ticket, and then simplify the refund and exchange process through Blockchain. 

Blockchain: I like to emphasize the more pragmatic aspects of Blockchain. I ask industry players a series of questions: 

  • Do you have any contracts? 
  • How are they measured? 
  • Do you work with either suppliers or intermediaries? 
  • Do you ever have disputes between parties on measuring its success?
  • Is there ever a question on whose data is correct?
  •  Do you have areas of opportunity when it comes to your contracts? 

If any of the questions above apply to you, and they usually do, that’s where Web3 and Decentralization will have power, automation, and influence. Yet, there’s a well-documented bias in AI, so concerns remain. 

TV: AI bias is just one of the areas of concern. There’s ambiguity in this Wild Wild West of Web 3. How would you assess Web 3’s progress in the travel sector? 

NR: The analogy I like to use is the two failed poster children for the.com bust of 2000: Pets.com and Webvan. 

Today, I get all my pet supplies through Chewy. Did anyone not get grocery deliveries during the pandemic? The ideas they formulated back then are a crucial part of our lives today. 

Why did they fail back then? The players didn’t build a proper infrastructure, spending more money advertising than on their foundation. Bezos took the opposite approach, and we know how successful he’s been. 

The same applies to Blockchain technology. Until we have “The Blockchain” of blockchains, we don’t have the internet of tomorrow. There are several competing platforms trying to become level zero. To expect the blockchain tech we have today to solve all our current problems is like asking the chewies of the 2000s to solve the issues we had back then. 

It’s a reflection of the immaturity of this technology. 

TV: Why do you think Web3 gets such a bad rep? 

NR: There’s almost a religious belief or disbelief in this stuff. If I see adamant disapproval, I will not discuss it anymore because I can see the other party is so entrenched in their belief. There’s nothing I can say that will change their mind.

The skeptics are going to continue to be skeptics. There will continue to be laggards who will never get it. Others will resist because they believe it threatens their core revenue models. 

And then there’ll be the innovators who will look at this, try this, prove it, and eventually have it adapted. 

TV: What’s the best way to prove Web3’s business case in travel?

NR: There’s a significant opportunity to present use case scenarios for the technology, tiny baby steps. So let’s test that out, do several trials, then we’ll perfect it, and then we can say, okay, here are the KPIs associated with implementing this aspect of Web3. This methodology applies to everything from digital twin hotels to the decentralized use of smart contracts. These pilots will prove to stakeholders that this is a better system.

If you can do that, then you can break down barriers.

TV: If successfully integrated, what would Web3 ultimately mean for travel? 

NR: I think the word is transparency. 

The more we demonstrate that this technology provides transparency in transactions, the more it will inform our future. This idea of the “immutable record” for travelers has the power to change people’s minds. 

For instance, corporate rates are not honored 40%-50% of the time. On one front, the information is not loaded correctly in their old archaic system. That’s a technology problem. On the other hand, there is a discrepancy between local property managers, not necessarily working directly for the hotel brand, protecting alternative interests. They’ll say I will not honor corporate rates because I have enough demand elsewhere. 

Consumers would be shocked if they had complete visibility of all the added costs that went into a ticket or hotel room, thanks to the many layers in the bureaucratic chain of command. If you have an immutable record, you would have transparency that never existed before. Some products are doing pieces of that today. I think that’s going to drive a change in mindset. 

TV: Any last words of advice? 

NR: I want to be an evangelist for the future. We need more people doing that. We can’t approach it in a way that turns people off by throwing a bunch of acronyms at people that they don’t understand. 

Evangelizing for the future is about making tomorrow’s possibilities pragmatic and accessible.