Sunday, 26 November 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 10

Kiev (Ukraine) - Ouarzazate (Morocco) - Idelssan (Morocco) - Ouarzazate (Morocco)

This week the cast of travellers on The Amazing Race became the cast of a movie within the TV show, cheered on by a crowd of extras in a chariot race on a Moroccan movie studio’s desert back lot.

What does this have to do with real-world travel? About as much as a visit to Disneyland, I would say.

At the annual PhoCusWright conference I attended earlier this month in Hollywood, CEO Rod Cuthbert of called the assembled travel industry executives to task for focusing their Web sites on transportation, accommodations, and logistics — rarely the high points of a good trip — rather than the experiences at the destination which, if all goes well, are what we remember.

But the experiences Cuthbert’s company sells are mostly, well, “staged”. There’s no counterweight within the travel “industry” to the pressure to commodify travel experiences into travel “products”.

The focus of the PhoCusWright conference was on what was portrayed as “user-centrism” (“Web 2.0”) as applied to travel, including user-generated content on travel Web sites. Lonely Planet CEO Judy Slatyer made an interesting counter-pitch for the continued importance of professional expertise in providing comparisons and perspectives. As the Internet reduces LP’s cost of distributing travel information, she said, they will be able to allocate more of their budget to the content itself, and pay more for writing and photos. I’ll believe it when my friends who write and shoot photos for LP see a raise in their pay rates.

Unfortunately, most of the renewed focus on personalization seemed to be on how to individualize marketing to “users” (travellers), not how to serve their individual needs.

Five years ago in The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace I pointed out some of the easy things that could be done to provide more relevant responses to airfare queries, if personalization were used to serve travellers rather than marketers:

  • We could assign each airport a value for the cost of getting there from our home ($5 to get to Newark, $45 to get to JFK, for example), and results could be weighted accordingly. This is no more difficult than the Web sites that allow a shopper to enter a Zip code, and factor the cost of shipping to that Zip code into their price-comparison rankings.

  • We could assign a value to frequent-flyer credits, in cents per mile (2 cents a mile for American Airlines miles, say), and have that value included in the ranking of prices for flights on those airlines.

  • We could set our personal values for how much it’s worth to change planes, or per extra hour of travel duration, or for arrivals outside of a certain time window ($35 for the additional cost of a taxi, rather than the subway, if I have to arrive at SFO during the hours that BART trains aren’t running), and have those values factored into the order in which options are displayed.

All this is simple stuff, comparable to what’s done on other types of Web sites. None of these features, so far as I know, has been implemented on any airline ticket price Web site.

The sad fact is that travel Web sites still work primarily as marketing arms of the suppliers of travel services, not as advocates for, or tools to advance, the interests of travel consumers.

Instead, what we have is an onslaught of advertising and personalized “push” travel marketing:

“Sleeper cells” of shills

Nowhere was travel marketers’ focus clearer than in the workshops on blogs and community media. I had hoped there would have been some interest in using them as a tool for learning about what consumers and travellers want. But no — they were seen only as a channel that could be exploited to push top-down commercial messages.

Elias Plishner, V.P. of the interactive division of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, boasted that, “We have an entire division in Singapore [where labor is cheaper than in the USA] devoted to seeding online forums and bulletin boards with targetted content” for our advertising clients. Worse, these people are paid to spend months, in between assignments, creating profiles and posting “neutral” messages to establish a credible online persona and background from which to post their secretly-paid advertising messages, such as to promote a newly-released movie. founder Sean Keener left the room livid: “They’re spamming me!” Shilling is a more precise term for it, but the anger is appropriate.

Ken Leeder, Founder/CEO of travel blogging site , and Founder/CEO J.R. Johnson of travel rating and review site were equally outraged when I related Plishner’s remarks to them the next day. “It makes me want to block every posting from a user in Singapore, although of course I wouldn’t. How can I stop these guys?”, Johnson asked. “They’re sabotaging our credibility”, said Leeder. “But what can I do?”

Tracking travellers through their payments

Christopher Rodriguez, President and CEO of Visa, gave welcome lip service to the idea that “Travel is a right, not a privilege”, and should be accessible to those who don’t have credit cards and those from poorer countries like China.

The solution he proposes, however, is RFID debit cards, which “will transform the way travellers experience a destination”. Needless to say, he didn’t mention that RFID credit cards have already been cracked , leading consumer watchdogs to call for their recall as insecure and an identity-theft threat.

When I pointed out that the greatest interest in RFID use for travel is from the governments of countries like China that want to use them to track and control people’s movements, and asked whether Visa was doing anything to promote anonymous digital cash that could offer the efficiency of electronic payments without being vulnerable to misuse in opposition to his professed goal of free travel, Rodriguez was speechless for a good 30 seconds before he came up with the oldest evasion in the book: “That’s a very good question”. Which he couldn’t answer.

Aggregating travel transaction data

A new presence at the conference, sharing a booth with Acxiom, was . It’s pretty much the nightmare scenario of those who fear commercial travel surveillance and data abuse: a joint venture formed last year between Sabre (the largest computerized reservation system ) and Equitec (one of the largest and most sophisticated data mining and direct marketing firms). Both the Acxiom representatives and Vistrio CEO Tim Prunk described Vistrio as a “partner” of Acxiom that uses data hosting and analysis services provided by Acxiom — probably the same tools that Acxiom used when they were secretly hired by a military contractor to match the archives of jetBlue Airways reservations with financial and marketing profiles of each traveller.

Vistrio’s goal is to aggregate travel transaction data from multiple companies, so as to construct a comprehensive personal profile of your travel behavior, even if you made your reservations through many different channels for different trips or different aspects of the same trip. Vistrio refuses to say who its clients are, or to allow travellers to know what information Vistrio has amassed about them. Vistrio audits its clients’ privacy policies but makes no attempt to audit their actual practices , and doesn’t require them to disclose to their customers that they pass transaction data on to Vistrio.

Prunk claims this is legal, since Vistrio only keeps data on transactions with U.S. residents where the “point of sale” is in the U.S., where there is no commercial data protection law. But in reality, travel companies don’t generally ask, or know, where their customers’ residences are. Anyone residing outside the USA, and asking for your data from travel companies , should include Vistrio in your requests. I’ve revised my sample request letters accordingly.

Prunk claims travellers have nothing to fear from Vistrio, and later told me that Vistrio has no records about me. Given the law in the USA, however, such claims can’t be believed: Vistrio might have received a “national security letter” from the U.S. government ordering them to turn over their files about me (which I can’t see, so I don’t know if, like thousands or tens of thousands of other people, my records have been mixed up with those of people on watch lists with similar names) and ordering Vistrio to lie to me, even if directly asked, about whether they have received such an order.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 26 November 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Just as Survivor has little to do with real-world survival, and The Apprentice has little to do with real-world business practices, the whole Amazing Race show has little to do with real-world travel.

And while interesting, your posts often have little to do with The Amazing Race. The show's episodes are just springboards for your essays.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 28 November 2006, 00:18 (12:18 AM)

On the other side of the coin regarding real personalization of travel websites: That's one of the few things in which real live travel agents still have an edge.

Posted by: Lun Esex, 28 November 2006, 14:10 ( 2:10 PM)

As a rule of thumb, on average, how long after filming of a season of The Amazing Race is it broadcast on TV?

Posted by: Jim Smith, 10 December 2006, 18:48 ( 6:48 PM)
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