Using data to tell travel stories

What is your reaction when learning that 15% of the world — 1.22 billion people — can afford to travel internationally today and that, in 2050, 25% of the population — 2.44 billion — will have that ability?

Does it make you feel you’re lucky to be in a growth industry? Or, given the present state of crowding in some destinations today, are you not so sure that travel will be the pleasure it once was?

I interviewed Edmund Morris, founder and CEO of Equator Analytics, onstage at the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s World Travel Summit, held here earlier this week, and I left the stage not quite sure how I would answer the question.

But forewarned is forearmed. The future seems always obscured in fog, so once a convincing data-based case can be made for what we’ll be facing, informed planning can commence.

Morris’ company is an unusual research firm. He does not conduct surveys or focus groups but, rather, accesses and analyzes publicly available data to advise companies.

For instance, he can confidently say that there were more Airbnbs in Porto, Portugal, this past summer than there were in the summer of 2019. In fact, he can even plot the exact locations of vacation rentals during both years without having contacted either Airbnb or anyone in Porto.

All his team had to do was look at user reviews and include in the 2022 tally those with recent comments and eliminate any that have been inactive for three years.

Not rocket science but clever.

He’ll look at Google Street View photos of the entrance of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia in May 2012 and May 2022 to evaluate the increase in traffic at that site. (It’s more crowded this year by a triple-digit factor.)

He’s likely got Gapminder, an independent nonprofit that uses data to correct global misconceptions, bookmarked on his phone. Heatmaps — websites and apps that display where people congregate for various activities — are an essential instrument in his toolbox.

You might be wondering: If all of this information is publicly available to anyone, what value is he adding for his clients? Aggregating easily accessible data seems a relatively low-level task. Is what he does creative?

I would say so, and offer this parallel example: The comedian Ricky Gervais has a routine where he dissects the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again,” Gervais recites, before observing: Should that be a surprise? Is there an animal on Earth less qualified to reassemble an egg than a horse?

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