Interview: Kayak CEO Steve Hafner on the future of travel

We spoke to the travel industry veteran about navigating 2020, how travel has changed forever, and the trends he's watching going forward.

The last 2 years have been chaotic for the travel industry (understatement of the year). We’ve written about it previously here and here, and recently had the chance to catch up Kayak CEO Steve Hafner about navigating 2020, how travel has changed forever, and what trends he’s keeping an eye on. 

How did Kayak navigate 2020? 

Since we had early exposure to Asia, we pivoted teams to make sure they took care of travelers that already made plans. Beyond that, we made a lot of changes. We waived all fees for restaurants, changed the front door of the app to rental cars instead of flights, and published data on trips and volume of where people were going. We also launched some new products, including a directory for groceries, Kayak for Business, and a hotel in Miami Beach. 

Do you believe travel will get back to pre-pandemic levels?

It will definitely get back there. We’re seeing pent up demand for travel and dining, and any time restrictions are lifted, we’ve seen business come roaring back – especially in leisure. When President Biden announced a lift on travel restrictions, we saw an immediate spike in Europe searches. Before things fully return to normal, we expect to see more of the trends that have emerged over the last 2 years, including more activity in driving markets, more local trips, and outdoor markets. 

What are some ways that travel has been changed forever?

Ineffective and inefficient meetings aren’t going to happen anymore in person. Specifically, that likely means no more daytrips for existing clients or internal meetings. We’ll probably still see trips to meet with new potential clients. Short term, business travel will have a hard time coming back. In some ways, Zoom has helped make travel easier because you can work from anywhere. Because of that, we expect to see a lot more extended trips going forward.

What are the biggest trends you’ll be watching over the next 3-5 years? 

We really believe in more authentic local experiences. With Kayak hotels, we wanted to reimagine travel a bit, and get people out of the cookie cutter places. We also expect more adventurous travel, along with a bigger focus on experiences, which means people need to connect with guides and experts. That’s part of why we launched “Things to do” in Kayak. Our goal is to make the app the only place you need to go to navigate a city. 

What are some of your favorite travel spots?

I love Sweden, especially Stockholm and the islands out there. For a good beach spot, I love St. Barts, and you can’t go wrong with any of the islands in Greece.

Favorite book?

Confederacy of Dunces, I try to reread it every year. It’s just so good.

Do you have a request for a startup?

If you could digitize physical mail, and take 90% of spam out and get rid of it, and just send the real stuff – I would pay for that.

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