In an era of big data, we have tons of information about the modern traveler lifestyle and behaviors. But we do not necessarily know how to make informed business decisions to improve the travel experience.

In this episode of People & Business Podcast, we talk with Nick Vivion, Senior Brand Journalist at Sabre. He shared his process behind his data-driven projects about travel, and the upcoming challenges for travel companies in such a competitive industry.

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References Shared in this Episode

Nick vivion

Nick Vivion

Senior Brand Journalist at Sabre

He covers travel and technology trends across the worldwide travel industry. This includes: startups, gadgets, apps, mobile, social media, marketing campaigns, earnings, new products, gear reviews, technological trends, innovations and more. As a former restaurateur, he also explore the travel and hospitality industry, including video, photos, and words in magazines like Saveur. More about Nick Vivion.

Transcript Notes

[1:26] What is your inspiration behind your projects about Travel?

Nick: Travel has always been something that has been close to my heart. My father is in the pharmaceutical industry, so I actually grew up in Switzerland and we ended up moving around and traveling a lot. So I think from the very beginning I was passionate about travel and I decided after college that I was going to go around and do short films around the world for a company called Current TV which was Al Gore’s TV station that is no longer.

But ever since that moment when I started uploading my videos to YouTube and seeing that summer of 2006 when YouTube really blew up and seeing that global community happen, it was just very exciting to realize that I could travel and create content about it.

And so for a while I did the consumer side of things. But I’ve always been a business kid. I’ve always really enjoyed economics and trying to make money. And figuring out business.

So once I realized that I could do both, it was pretty fantastic. It never occurred to me that there are business journalists in the world.

So I put the two together and kind of cut that out. So I was able to see the content side of things and also try to understand how to build a business using content.


[3:00] How do you in order to collect data for your projects? Do you have a specific tool to do it?

Nick: It’s a complicated endeavor. At Sabre we serve the hotel industry, airline industry, airports, travel agents, corporate travel managers. We serve pretty much everybody in the travel industry.

And so there are many data sources. And we work to bring those together into a single source of data as much as possible so that we can make sure that we can access it.

So currently I look at different types of trends that come from industry data. We have something called MIDT data which is an industry wide data source which helps us look at realtime or pretty close to realtime trends in booking behaviors. That’s a pretty big source of information.

Then I try to bring that in, whether it’s through Excel or Tableau or these other tools and we try to find the trends. And that’s the toughest part because I think as you start to see with your travel ops, you have to know that it’s not just getting the data and now you have the data, you have to understand where the data came from. I think a lot of people forget that. They don’t ask enough questions like, someone send me a spreadsheet. And there is data in it.

But if you don’t understand where it came from, sometimes that can lead you to make grave errors.

Thankfully for what I do I’m trying to find stories. So I can’t really hurt people or do anything crazy when I’m maybe telling a story where the data isn’t quite correct. But when you start getting into really important operational details, that’s just not possible. As you have to have valid and accurate data.

I really have learned over time to be more inquisitive and to be curious about the data sources, so that I can help understand what stories might be within that data.

One of my favorite ones that we’ve done is on Bleisure travel. It’s a terrible word, but it is business and leisure travel put together. And the idea is that we all know that you put a couple of leisure days on the end or a beginning of a business trip.

The media really loves this story because it has that fancy little name. But it’s also interesting for travel businesses, so if I’m a hotel and I have some business travels coming to a convention, perhaps I want to work specifically with a partner hotel or maybe another brand within our company to get them to maybe go into the city to stay those extra two days.

I love the implications of it in travel.

It was so difficult actually to get a valid take on what makes a Bleisure trip. Most people think it’s just staying on a Saturday night, so you kind of look at someone who goes from a Saturday morning arrival and leaves on a Friday. So the idea that maybe the weekend was when they had their fun.

But I know for myself sometimes I like to go home early from a vacation so that I can have the weekend to catch up.

So we had to go through all the data sources and really think about people’s behavior while also letting the data suggest new behaviors to us.


[6:14] How you make sense of the data collected and transform them into insights? Do you have any process for that?

Nick: The traditional scientific method if we’ll say of creating a thesis and trying to look to prove or disprove that thesis, I’m a big fan of that basic fundamental approach.

I think sometimes people want to make the data say what they want it to say. So the appearance bias or cognitive bias.

So I think you have to be very careful that you aren’t just manipulating the data to support your own beliefs. But I do like to take a very specific point, so for example we would say a Bleisure traveler more often than not stays on a Saturday night.

And then try to prove or more importantly disprove it.

I think that’s almost more important because then we know that’s not a good statement. Then we can try going from there.

So I always try to prove and disprove. And if you’ve gone through 3 – 5 cycles of that, you can be comfortable with the fact that the story is probably accurate.

On the flip side, every time you find something in the data that disproves what you thought, that’s a great story. That on its own is a story.

So if you go into it thinking one thing and you discovered it was wrong, that’s actually the story.

So you’ve actually told something that people find interesting because nobody wants to read an article about everyone being right.

But if you go out and say, actually we have this travel app and we are proving that 80% of people that say this, we don’t believe that’s true. And that’s fine, finding those moments.

The process to get there is a lot of trial and error. A lot of pivot tables in Excel. It’s quite the adventure.


[8:18] Based on your experience, What is the upcoming biggest challenge for the travel industry?

Nick: That’s such a huge topic. It’s also a topic that always gets me in trouble. So I always have to be very careful.

There are lots of different things going on in the world in general in travel. And because so many people are either really excited when they are going on a trip because it’s their vacation or they are workers and they are business travelers and they do it all the time, there is a lot of mixed expectations on any given day in any airport or car rental place or wherever you are.

Honestly I think the biggest challenge is continuing to deal with the fact that you have all of these different expectations in one place.

I can’t quite think of a product that has that many expectations.

If someone is selling a t-shirt, people aren’t expecting that t-shirt to do 1000 things for them. One person isn’t wearing it on their business trip and the other person is at the beach with it.

It has a specific function because of the way it looks, they know who it is marketed to. But travel’s biggest challenge is making sure that we can identify the individual preferences and desires and how that person wants to be dealt with. And try to make that happen on a one to one basis.

A lot of people talk about one to one marketing but for travel, it’s incredibly difficult because it’s also not consistent.

So the bleisure example, if I arrive on a Saturday night, that Saturday night and Sunday, I’m a casual tourist. But starting on Monday I become a business person.

That switch is really tough to notice. And that’s where the technology can come into play. That’s where data can come into play. But that’s also where the traveler comes into play.

So the challenge is understanding how to prove to the traveler that we can use their data responsibility and use their data effectively so that they have a better experience.

Because that’s what we all want. But how do we prove that to the traveler so they say, please do, here is the data I want to give you and pleased to make my experience better.

That’s a lot in one of the world’s biggest industries.


[10:32] What is your advice for travel companies trying to offer that better experience that we were talking about?

Nick: It’s definitely a long term project.

I work for a huge travel company and that’s tough. We are over 60 years old. We actually invented the first computer that processed tickets. And that’s a wonderful heritage but with that comes literally a lot of baggage. There is a lot of history there.

And so I think we have to take it one day at a time. And then we have to have a vision for where we want to go because every company is different. So if you are off reading the blogs and the media and everyone is telling you that you need to do X, Y and Z, that’s great to know that. But what is your company, what’s right for your company and how do you achieve it at a speed that your customers are expecting from you?

That’s another key component to the challenges that I think we all face is that the consumer is really far ahead of us now generally in business. It used to be that they were closely in parallel but things move so fast now that I feel like it’s catch up all the time for a lot of businesses and travel especially because people are mobile, they are carrying those mobile phones, they are moving around.

And so when I would approach that evolution, the first step is to figure out where you want to go and then back in from there to a near term solution because you’ve got to be patient. But if you aren’t putting the building blocks in place, for example making sure the data that you collect is clean which is a very simple one.

If you aren’t doing that at every turn, then you are never going to get to that vision. And I think you just have to knock them down one by one mostly starting by making sure the data that you get is clean and that everyone knows to expect with it.

So like with you guys with your travel app, you have one data source and maybe there is another team working over there and you are working from parallel data sources but no one has actually checked to make sure that that data really is the same single source, you all could have a big problem.

I don’t know if everyone is understanding that and then making sure that we evolve on that same data platform.


[12:44] And also the foundation of the data is user centric. So we focus on our customers but people are also evolving. So it’s quite more challenging every time.

Nick: Absolutely. Me personally as a consumer and a traveler, I think it would be so cool if we could get to the point where we all can control our data profiles because not only are people like Facebook making money on us but I think the average person understands that giving and sharing a certain amount of data, it can give benefits back to you.

I think one of the only ways to actually show that is if there is some Rubrix where we have more control over our data profile because then we can see it clearly. Like, I gave my data to X company and I got this in return.

Instead of all of these weird things where all of a sudden you get something in your mailbox and you are like how did they get my address? And then you see it online and it doesn’t quite sync up.


[13:46] What can you suggest us in order to help our clients in the Travel Industry to improve what they are doing?

.Nick: Listening to the customer is one of the hardest things I think most of us do.

I used to own restaurants in New Orleans and that was a tough experience when you have a customer right there and they are saying something that’s honest or it’s not honest, you aren’t sure what the perspective is but that customer has a feeling and you have to accept that feeling. And you have to come to accept it from the very beginning in order to resolve it.

You can’t be defensive. And it’s so tough when you put your heart and soul literally into something and then you have someone saying they hate it. And that hurts, it really does hurt. And so sometimes it’s hard to take that personal emotion away.

But if you can truly from a good place and an honest open place listen to your customers, that’s the best route because then you don’t build something that people don’t want. Or you are able to catch something before it goes on live production. And that saves resources, it saves your sanity and your customer is happier.

In travel that is a challenge because you are moving so many people through constantly and with restaurants you have Yelp and you have all of these online platforms but you can’t usually rectify the situation right there in real-time.

So as close as you can get to their customer and as close as you can get to the time that they are having that feeling, that’s cool because then you can say I see this happened right now, let’s fix it. And that will let it linger.

And so any time you can listen to your customer and fix those issues in advance, that’s amazing.

With your app, if you are able to figure out what they need in advance, it’s helpful. And I know some people will say often times consumers don’t know what they want which is true but if there is a lack of clarity, sometimes that’s a message on its own. Like why are people confused? Or why can’t people tell us what they want?


[16:15] How can you be innovative in order to see new things and propose new ideas?

Nick: That’s one of the on-going tasks of our lives I think is to stay curious.

And to me I think that’s the journalist side of me that I appreciate so deeply and I’m glad to have is that desire to pursue. And to be curious about things. And to really ask why and try to get a deeper, do the 5 whys, or whatever you need to do.

I think innovation a lot of times comes from just asking the right questions and sometimes you don’t know if they are the right questions, so you just have to ask.

And eventually you might start to see those connections between two disciplines, or maybe at the edge of one thing and something else begins. And I think that finding those spots, those overlaps is kind of where true innovation or the seeds of a new thought or a new innovation can happen because it’s usually in a place where people aren’t directly there.

So it’s kind of at the edges and not everyone is playing in that space, so you can discover things that way.

I never think that if I have an idea, that nobody else has it. If I’m able to think it, I’m sure someone else has.

So I also understand that once an idea has occurred, you want to think about it and pursue it to determine if it’s something that is fully right or if it’s something that could be [inaudible] to something that I’m currently working on.

That part is the very beginning of the innovation process because it’s a long term thing just like you have to be patient as you are trying to evolve. You need to have a vision and I definitely don’t think there is overnight successes or that innovation just appears. I think we all have sparks of wisdom. If you are in the shower or whatever it is, usually I’m driving and listening to some music and going crazy or singing or something and it will hit.

A lot of times it’s putting your head in a place that isn’t familiar or that isn’t really thinking about the problem.

And then you’ve just got to start. That is the hard part. You have the idea, then you have to go do the work. And a lot of times that’s where people stop and they fail because it’s hard to do that work sometimes.

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