One clear takeaway from U.S. Travel Association’s Future of Travel Mobility conference: Sustainability and innovation are not just buzzwords, but central pillars of the industry’s growth in coming years.
Over the full-day event at Washington, DC’s Union Station on September 20, leaders from some of America’s largest travel, transportation and technology companies joined public officials in making clear that as travel rebounds, it is evolving to address shifting consumer demands and environmental sustainability. Speakers explored issues critical to the coming decade of travel mobility and the traveler experience, including sustainability, frictionless and secure travel, emerging trends and innovative technology.
The event opened with a discussion between U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman and MGM Resorts International CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle on the innovative sustainability measures taken by Las Vegas’ tourism industry, as well as the short-term policies needed to lay the groundwork for a stronger, more sustainable future for the industry nationwide.
While sustainable travel options, such as electric vehicles, are becoming more common in urban areas, it is a priority of the association to expand charging access to all regions of the country. In a fireside chat with U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy Tori Emerson Barnes, Enterprise Holdings President and CEO Chrissy Taylor emphasized the need for a whole-of-industry approach to ensure EV infrastructure is accessible to all Americans.
“We need to make sure there is infrastructure in neighborhoods where people live,” said Taylor. “Charging and infrastructure should be equitable for all, not just on main corridors.”
Taylor touted Enterprise’s rapid push to electrify its rental car fleet and familiarize its customer base with EVs—an acknowledgement that electrification is the future of the rental car industry.
“Electric vehicles are here to stay,” said Brendan Jones, President of Blink Charging, a company that is leading in the deployment of electric vehicle infrastructure.
In addition to vehicle electrification, automation was a key topic of discussion. Gil West, Chief Operating Officer of Cruise, shared a compelling video of his company’s autonomous vehicle picking up passengers on the streets of San Francisco.
“It’s an incredible moment in time to watch the birth of a new mode of transportation,” said West.
Taylor’s calls for a more interconnected, sustainable travel industry were later echoed by White House Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu. In his remarks, Landrieu highlighted the role that infrastructure investment projects can play in creating jobs and strengthening communities.
“It’s not just about building a bridge, it’s about who’s building it, what it’s made of, where it’s going and what communities get access to it,” said Landrieu. “It’s about lifting America up and moving her generations forward.”
The Future of Travel Mobility conference also addressed the shift in consumer preferences as an imperative to advance more sustainable travel options. Speakers on a panel discussion explained how corporate environmental commitments and changing traveler expectations will impact travel, and how the industry can flourish in a more sustainable future.
“Travelers increasingly want to do the right thing when it comes to sustainable and responsible travel,” said Sangeeta Naik, Global Head of Strategic Partnerships & Marketing, American Express Travel. “Our customers are demanding this and holding us all accountable.”
“Business traveler customers are looking at sustainability as a point of decision making,” added Jean Garris Hand, Vice President of Global ESG, Hilton. “Our corporate customers want to align with fellow, purpose-driven organizations as partners.”
It is particularly important for the industry to implement more sustainable travel options as business travel accelerates. According to U.S. Travel’s forecast, a strong comeback is expected for business travel in the second half of 2022 and into 2023.
Speakers at the Future of Travel Mobility largely concurred with U.S. Travel’s projection that business travel, while slow to fully recover, will strengthen in the near term. In a discussion with U.S. Travel Association National Chair and Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom had an emphatic rebuttal to those who predicted business travel would never return after the pandemic.
“You are wrong, wrong, wrong when it comes to business travel and aviation,” declared Isom.
While leisure travel demand is strong and business travel’s near-term growth forecast is robust, U.S. Travel is bracing for headwinds as an anticipated softening in demand—coupled with high inflation and fluctuating fuel prices—pose threats to the industry’s future growth and its efforts to achieve greater sustainability.
“As the industry continues to face impediments to its full recovery, the Future of Travel Mobility conference was a golden opportunity to advance the policies critical to a more sustainable, innovative future for travel mobility,” said Freeman. “By bringing together travel and government thought leaders, we can ensure alignment on key issues that will make travel more globally competitive and sustainable for decades to come.”
The day’s final speaker, Rep. Sam Graves, Ranking Member of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, left the crowd with something to anticipate: its next Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
“We are taking information and ideas from stakeholders now, but we probably won’t start the process until early next year,” Graves said, hinting that a bill may take shape by next summer.