One-on-one: Booking.com’s Todd Lacey on sustainability, diversity and the risks of AI

One-on-one: Booking.com’s Todd Lacey on sustainability, diversity and the risks of AI

Todd Lacey is no stranger to this part of the world, and he’s no stranger to those who work with Booking.com either.

He’s recently started in the role of Regional Manager Oceania.

Lacey has been at Booking.com for eight years. In that time he’s worked with teams in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, the Pacific, South Korea and his home country of New Zealand (us Kiwis are taking over).

Travel Weekly sat down with Lacey for a quick chat over coffee on a rainy autumn morning in central Sydney.

World Pride sets high standard for future global events in Australia

I had just been reading about the potential bid from Christchurch to host the Commonwealth Games, and wanted to get his thoughts on what big events can bring to a city.

Christchurch last hosted the games in 1974.

Especially given Booking.com’s involvement in the Cricket World Cup and World Pride which brought a whole lot of tourists, money and glitter into Sydney and New South Wales.

“There are both short and long-term effects on the travel industry as a result of large events in destinations across Australia and New Zealand.

“The short-term effect of events like the ICC T20 Men’s Cricket World Cup for example, is that they attract thousands of travellers into the country, and we see a flow on spend to the economy not just in the accommodation space but for the entire tourism sector,” he said.

Not-so-subtle advertising from Booking.com

“The long-term effect of events such as these is exposure of our market to an international audience, and supporting getting more travellers exposed to Australia for potential future trips.”

“That’s just one of the reasons we supported Sydney WorldPride as a major partner and exclusive digital travel provider.”

“We saw during this period the drive to revive Sydney’s tourism economy following the pandemic and the efforts in supporting a wider understanding of how accommodation partners in the city had been affected over the past few years.”

“The breadth of the accommodation and hospitality industry that got behind the event and the LGBTQIA+ community was immense and sets a benchmark for future events and what the city and Australia has to offer for all travellers.”

The AI elephant in the room

The biggest talking point in just about any industry right now is AI, and how it will change things for the better, or worse.

The elephant in the room.

So, what about the travel industry?

“As a travel technology company, we are of course very interested in the advancements of AI and the possibilities and opportunities it presents.”

“AI is an incredibly exciting technology, not just for the travel industry but many different industries.

“It’s game-changing and amazing how rapidly it’s been adopted by consumer marketing and the likes of ChatGPT for example.

“In particular, we see applications for our vision of the connected trip – all the different verticals of the business seamlessly talking to one another to remove the friction associated with travel – that is where AI will play an important part in Booking.com.”

He said users of Booking.com are interacting with some level of AI already, whether they know it or not.

“Booking.com bears a responsibility to continue protecting the trust built with both customers and partners over the last 25 years, maintaining a high bar for data and machine learning ethics throughout.”

That brings us to the risks of AI.

“One of the areas and reasons why we haven’t seen a huge adoption yet for the utilisation of AI technology is data and its security,” he said.

“What happens to the data and how it’s utilised going forward by these applications is critical.

“At Booking.com we are extremely protective of our customer and partner data and that’s an area where we need to be 100 per cent on when working with AI.”

The battle to put an end to inequality for travellers

One thing that has always made Booking.com stand out for me, has been its consumer-facing commitment to diversity.

There’s no way anyone would have attended World Pride and not known Booking.com was involved.

And, the reason behind the company’s involvement is quite eye-opening.

“With recent data revealing 82 per cent of LGBTQIA+ travellers experienced less than welcoming, or uncomfortable experiences, we believe it’s our job as a leading travel platform to help educate and provide resources to better the industry.

“It links back to Booking.com’s overall mission, to make it easier for everyone to experience the world.

“We know that there is a lot of education that needs to be done in this space and we need to ensure people have a fair, equal and enjoyable time when they travel,” he said.

“We’re one of the largest facilitators for this type of training for accommodations in the world.’’

“We are also really proud of our efforts, with over 15,000 accommodations, including more than 1,500 across Australia and New Zealand now being recognised for their inclusive hospitality efforts with a Travel Proud badge on Booking.com.”

It also makes business sense, too. If someone from the LGBTQIA+ community has a good experience at a hotel, they are highly likely to tell people about it and rebook in the future.

Keeping the world clean and green

“We have a sustainability mission: making sure there is a world worth experiencing,” he said.

“Launching our Travel Sustainable program and Sustainable Travel badge on Booking.com in 2021, empowers our partners to make sustainability a key component of their operational routine and makes it easier for customers to adopt a sustainable travel mindset.

“Particularly across Australia and New Zealand we can see people want to go off-grid and stay somewhere coastal and it’s here that we can see the importance for people to stay in not just hotels but also homes that offer the Sustainable Travel Badge.

“We also see corporate commitments to sustainability as key to sustainable travel decision-making.

“As a corporate traveller myself I am much more aware and conscious about actively choosing something sustainable and spending my money somewhere that is doing something positive in this space,” Lacey said.

Not that Crystal Ball!

Time to get out the crystal ball now…

What’s Todd’s prediction for the next 12 months?

“From our most recent Travel Predictions research, amid global instability and the desire for escapism, 86 per cent of travellers admit they want the thrill of reliving the glory days with nostalgic getaways, like going to beach destinations or back to where you visited when you were younger.

“One of the destinations in terms of outbound demand, is Indonesia, with Bali becoming popular all over again.”

“As a Bali lover myself, I have been many times and you really know what you’re going to get.”

With the cost of living situation, people are a little more risk averse, so going to places you know are going to provide you with what you need is what is important.

“In terms of inbound markets, Australia and New Zealand have unique cultures and differences that we see markets like the US are searching for on Booking.com, which also aligns with the increased flight capacity and networks that we’ve seen announced in the past weeks,” he said.

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