What Role for Millennials in Global Travel and Tourism Innovation?

 POST-EARTH DAY REFLECTIONS ON THE 2015 GLOBAL TRAVEL AND TOURISM SUMMIT

Millennials are our primary hostel guests, so HI USA naturally seeks to be regular and active listeners to 15-35 year old insights and needs, on issues small and large.   Then it’s not surprising that I look for a millennial perspective at meetings and conferences, such as the 2015 Global Travel and Tourism Summit recently held in Madrid.

The Global Summit is the world’s premier forum for travel and tourism leaders organized by the World Travel and Tourism Council.   The largely C-suite gathering of 400 or so convenes annually for presentations and conversation, and I was invited again this year as a delegate.

This year’s theme was “Disruption and Reinvention.”  The invitation-only event featured the likes of former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, World Tourism Organization Secretary General Taleb Rifai, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, Turkish Airlines President Temel Kotil, and humanitarian and supermodel Petra Nemcova.

The rise of millennials in the sector was evident in the delegate audience, although their influence can’t be measured simply by proportions.   As consumers and as innovators, twenty- and early thirty-somethings are responsible for many of the products and services that are currently disrupting (and transforming) the travel and tourism business.  Share platforms, social networking, GPS enabled services, and soon virtual reality, are a few prominent examples.

The Summit largely focused on advancing common understanding and responses to industry opportunities and challenges.   Though in the case of global climate change, panelists shared urgency but few answers.

Of course, that’s not really surprising.  Global climate change is the most complex disruptor of all.  And while still controversial in some circles, it looms as ominously important.   Summit panelist and Harvard professor John Spengler projected the climate tipping point as early as 2030 when the number of global travelers is forecast to reach 1.8 billion.  His take on the outcome if nothing is done: “huge climate disruption, sea level rise, acid sea water, coral reef destruction.”  Travel and tourism, with a wide carbon footprint and destinations in danger, seems especially at risk.

A scientific consensus seems emerging that climate change is linked to human activity and the release of greenhouse gases.   That’s vital.    The answer seems likely to involve either unprecedented collective sacrifice or yet-unidentified technology solutions, or both.   That’s daunting.

Which brings us back to millennials.   While largely not of their making, climate change seems to be becoming a problem for millennials eventually to solve or to suffer.    As a boomer myself who shared years of benefits of the growing carbon footprint, and as a father whose teen-aged sons soon must face the consequences, there’s not a lot to feel good about at the moment.

Millennials’ current opportunity for influence is mainly through their consumer purchase decisions and for a few, their career choices.   As a group, they deserve a larger role and soon — both for their talent and for their huge stake in our finding a timely solution.

Travel and tourism is uniquely positioned to invite a distinctive degree of millennial involvement.   The sector is a relatively large carbon emissions producer, its reach is global, and the customer segment is both substantial and growing.    The 2015 Global Summit productively set the stage for, what is to my mind, the next logical question:  how can travel and tourism engage millennials on climate change as more than  just consumers?   My hunch is their deeper involvement will prove important for everyone.

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