July 19, 2022 | By Bronwen Largier

Incentives in space, virtual reality as a try-before-you-buy travel taster and using NFTs to replace passports were all part of the vision of the two SITE Young Leaders who presented at the inaugural Australia-New Zealand chapter conference of the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), held in Sydney yesterday.

Nachiket Deshpande, from Marriott International, and Carly Pagotto, from Destination Gold Coast, rallied some fascinating facts in support of their varied hypothesis on the future of travel delivered to incentive stakeholders from Australia and New Zealand at Shangri-La Sydney.

With several major incentive destinations possibly underwater within the next 13 to 23 years – that’s the Maldives, Venice and Madagascar – and the Great Wall of China possibly on the way to erosion, Pagotto suggested space might be the next ultra-exclusive forefront for incentive travel, with Deshpande pointing out there is already a private citizen offering for trips to stay on the International Space Station – despite less than 1,000 people having ever visited – while organisations like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin also offer commercial space flights.

“How does jetlag in space work?” Pagotto wondered, while Deshpande said both of them would “figuratively and literally watch this space”.

With nine out of every 10 people expected to be connected to the Internet by the middle of the century, Deshpande said the eternally connected world would completely transform customer engagement and the customer journey in the travel space.

“At the moment, it is…argued that we tend to lose the customer once the journey’s complete.

“In a connected world, this journey, which is rather linear, could actually become a continuous loop.

“The customer then really becomes essential to this whole ecosystem. This would be fundamental to providing those personalised experiences. And most importantly, we won’t really lose the customer – we’ll always be engaged; we’ll always be connected to them.”

Pagotto and Deshpande suggested that rather than see virtual reality as a threat to the travel sector, it could be used to both sell and remember the travel experience.

Rather than using slideshows and site inspections in the pitching process, Deshpande posited a 30-minute immersive travel experience could be used instead.

“You get to feel what you’re going to experience and that would actually mean we get instant decisions.”

And Pagotto theorised there could be “no more FOMO of your own life” if travel memories were captured in virtual reality.

The pair also said that NFTs – that is, non-fungible tokens or distinct bits of digital data stored on the distributed electronic ledger that is blockchain technology – could be used to replace passports and that existing ways of categorising travellers through demographics such as age and gender might change, with travellers more likely to have their traveller type and motivation for travel used as means for allocating them to “travel tribes”. The idea that these tribes might overlap and be different for the same travellers in different circumstances was also raised.

3D printing of meals which fit individual diners’ dietary requirements was flagged as a possibility as delegates’ individual food preferences are expected to continue to diverge. Pagotto pointed out that a wristband at Disneyland can already store your park pass, your room key and your hotdog preferences.

The changes that may come about through an increased focus on sustainability rounded out the futuristic peek.

The concept of “flight rationing” was introduced, in which every traveller is allocated a certain number of flight kilometres each year, which would certainly reshape the incentive travel space.

And with the Young Leaders pointing out that if the aviation industry was a country, it would be among the top 10 biggest polluters in the world, the session – at least in this writer’s mind – brought the conversation about change in the incentive travel industry – as climate awareness rises fast – back to how quickly and urgently things are already changing, with the largest airlines from our part of the world already looking at the development of new industries to drive change in the way the world travels. (See what Qantas and Air New Zealand are doing.)

As they say, the future is now – and then. Either way, it sounds pretty interesting.