Lifting your head out of business as usual

Oct 7, 2021

Industry panel discussions are incredibly valuable moments to hear what others in your field are doing and thinking. They are also opportunities to be inspired by professionals and examples from outside of your field. Moderators play an important role in provoking these conversations and uncovering the common themes, little-known nuggets of wisdom and other curiosities that we can all learn from.  

 We hear a lot from panellists in these discussions, but less from the moderators. Moderating an industry panel discussion is a unique role that requires deep knowledge and broad overview, confidence to not only speak, but question others and facilitate focus and generate take-aways for listeners. It’s not an easy job, but it does have some rewards. 

Each year we are thankful to the professionals of our industry who selflessly invest time to the educational programme of the World Youth and Student Travel Conference. This year, as parts of the youth and student travel industry emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, the job has certainly not become easier. We thought it would make sense to talk to one of this year’s moderators – and let you know what they think. 

 This is a conversation with Vicki Cunningham (BUNAC & USIT), moderator of the Work experience programmes panel discussion for WYSTC 2021.

First of all, Vicki, big thanks to you for acting as a moderator for an industry discussion at WYSTC this year.

My absolute pleasure – always lovely to be asked.

You’ve done this before, not only at WYSTC but at WETM-IAC. What’s the most difficult thing about moderating a panel discussion, but also, what’s the most rewarding? 

It can be hard to carve out the time and likewise encouraging fellow speakers to do the same, however it’s so energising to lift your head out of business as usual for a few hours, immerse yourself in a specific topic, chat through issues with new or existing colleagues and inevitably learn something. It can also be hard keeping everyone on track – no one wants to hear a sales pitch or run over the lunchbreak. I’m ruthless at keeping time these days!

Has anything about these industry discussions struck you as different this year and how have you dealt with that? For example, are there fundamentally different concerns or approaches? Are people more or less willing to talk?  

During this time of crisis I think the conversation has been more open and honest – or at least that’s my experience. Every business in our youth travel space has experienced unprecedented tough times during the last 18 months and there’s a kind of unifying camaraderie that goes with that. On LinkedIn you see travel company employees offering support and encouragement to fellow travel colleagues who were previously viewed as competitors… a win for one travel company feels like a win for us all – it’s really inspiring.   

A common theme heard from the two WYSTC panel discussions this year is more guidance and assurance from agents and operators. That travellers want more assistance – whether that be in the form of packaging up specific services with the core experience or providing answers to new and different questions. Is that accurate and if so, what becomes of independent travel? 

It’s undoubtedly an acute trend we’re seeing right now as a response to the confusion around travel restrictions due to COVID19 – of course all our travelers have far more questions about vaccinations, quarantines, entry requirements and concerns and it’s our role to support that.

Long-term I’m not sure it’s fair to say young people are less independent; more that they have improved tools at their disposal, are being drowned in information and choice and perhaps have more awareness of what can go wrong on a travel experience.

I see it as our job to help cut through the info overload, remove the stress points of travel, and provide reassurances so young people can get on with creating those unique, independent travel moment memories that last a lifetime!

The big “S” words – safety and sustainability. There’s a lot of talk – noise even – about health safety and making big changes to the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of travel and tourism. If we can cut through the noise – what’s most important to travellers right now on these points and are these lasting attitudes and behaviours, in your opinion? 

Ultimately the travel sector is lagging a lot of other industries when it comes to sustainability, and we need to evolve if we want to survive. Of course, there is pent up demand for travel but this is an important issue for young people and they’ve witnessed some of the environmental benefits of the COVID travel restrictions – cleaner beaches, less overcrowding in tourist hotspots, reduced emissions. Given the choice of two companies with similar offerings, young people are more likely than generations before them to select the organisation with a clear environmental and sustainability commitment. I think they will lead the way on tourism dispersion, not only aid travel sustainability but feeding the gen Z need for a more authentic and unique – off the beaten path experience.

The United States has been one of the most popular youth travel destinations in the world – whether it be for study, cultural exchange or just holiday. The US borders have also been closed to a large portion of the world since early 2020. Although that’s expected to change soon, do you think that anything has changed about the attractiveness of the US as a youth travel destination during this time? Why or why not? 

I think demand for the US is resilient and will bounce back quickly. In this group we spend a lot of time analysing the J1/Bridge USA programmes and all its restrictions, however they offer all young people globally, regardless of nationality, a cultural & travel experience whilst allowing them to work which makes it more affordable and accessible. That’s pretty incredible and I can’t think of another country that comes close to having a youth mobility programme with such broad inclusion.

Anything specific that you’d like to say to your industry peers who won’t make it to Lisbon for WYSTC this year? 

Looking forward to seeing you all next year – learning, sharing ideas and raising a glass or two with like minded colleagues- old and new – is just one of the many reasons I love this industry!