Notes On A Shrinking Planet

Travel.  It’s such a short, functional word which has come to represent something far more profound than its brevity implies, like ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘politics’.  Too often, it’s a word associated only with the mechanics of moving around the world, rather than the effect of doing so.  Perhaps the term ‘transportation’ would better describe the simple relocation that is the very minimum requirement of ‘travel’ in its correct, widest sense.

Still, we’re in something of an etymological mess when it comes to finding the right words for this rather modern phenomenon.  Our default choice in Britain is ‘holiday’, derived from the Victorian practice of visiting a coastal town en masse on a “holy day” – hardly relevant to today’s more secular, less patriarchal society.  Even in America where adopted terms are simplified (‘sidewalk’?) and tend to concentrate on the benefit they provide, the best they can muster to describe the act of leaving home is the effect it has on the home itself – ‘vacation’ – rather than the effect on the person doing the vacating.  It all means that in little more than a few generations, the prevailing notion of travel has grown far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing word adequately to portray it.

Like most normal kids from a normal background, thirty years ago, my ideas of travel were shaped largely by the narrow band of TV shows dedicated to the subject.  While otherworldly figures like Alan Whicker bestrode the globe and sardonically described its most esteemed sights, regular, affordable travel tended to be defined by the more accessible, stereotype-laden clichés of ‘Duty Free’ and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on millions of screens each week.  The average pre-teen of the early 1980s would have felt destined, almost consigned to a future of sangria-fuelled straw donkey collecting on a diet of burgers and chips while being careful not to order ice in the drinks.

It’s precisely this mindset that Peter Kay channels when he riffs on calling home and telling everyone there that ‘Les Fingres’ abroad taste exactly the same.  We laugh at that routine because we’ve lived it – and we sort of expected that always to be the case.  We knew we were unlikely to become smooth, debonair operators like the aforementioned Whicker, with his unlimited budget and James Bond-like ability to infiltrate the world in which ‘the other half’ lived.  And yet, Whicker was every bit as much a stereotype as the cheap-gag Spanish waiter, albeit a much more alluring one.  Our diet of travel-based entertainment seemed to consist only of hotel paella or QE2 caviar.  In the aspiring Eighties, it soon became clear that such a narrow menu would not be enough.

In the 1990s, various TV chefs became credited with creating a new genre of entertainment by breaking the mould of unnecessarily fussy and unattainable representation of cookery.  Ten years previously, the same thing happened to travel TV.  The year was 1988 and the person was Michael Palin.  It was the “former Python” who reprised Jules Verne’s fictional quest to travel around the world in eighty days – an assignement widely believed to have been previously turned down by Whicker himself.  In doing so, Palin carved a secondary career, arguably redefining the concept of travel for an entire generation.

It was travel television presented by a comedian who was famous for being in a show I didn’t remember, re-tracing the plot of a book I hadn’t read, in places I was sure I’d never visit.  In theory, it should have held no appeal to me at all.  And yet, Palin displayed his trademark avuncular silliness, laced with disarmingly profound observations in often gritty or unlikely surroundings.  He was the very antithesis of the emblazered Whicker or the perma-tanned Chalmers, a refreshing antidote to the established pomposity of most TV travel show presenters.  I was hooked – and found myself counting the hours until next week’s episode.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s eponymous challenge is perfect example of a ‘MacGuffin’, a classic literary device in which a character’s compulsion to do something provides the motivation for a story to develop.  Fogg’s desire to win a ridiculous bar-room bet is therefore little more than a thin excuse for him to visit lots of places and give Verne the makings of a plot.  From a writer’s eye, Fogg – and indeed Palin – seem to reinforce the sense that in travel (or indeed, depending upon your philosophy, in life itself), the destination is not as important as the journey.

Looking back, there was more than met the contemporary eye to commend Palin’s ’80 Days’ – it would take decades for us to realise it.  Before setting off from the Reform Club, Palin had already involved two other Pythons, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, discussing their thoughts on his epic quest, with each setting him a challenge to bring back a specific item (one being a Chinese roof tile).  I’m sure this was simply a blatant attempt to add another couple of ‘star’ names to the billing in an attempt to garner a few more viewers but their mutual regard, unforced humour and Pythonesque (can you use that word when it’s actually used to describe the Pythons themselves?) randomness showed that travel didn’t have to be so very serious and, given a little education and inquisitiveness, could become a source of entertainment in and of itself.

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The second revelation, an altogether more prescient one, came when Palin arrived in Hong Kong.  There, he was met by an old friend, Basil Pao, who showed him the sights of his home town.  Like most people watching, I didn’t imagine I was ever likely to meet an old friend anywhere overseas – any more than I ever thought I would visit Hong Kong.  This was simply something that only famous, jet-set people could ever do.  It seemed like a reminder that Michael, for all his accessible celebrity-next-door persona, was, after all, far more likely to be found in real life flying to New York on Concorde than on the Dover to Calais Townsend Thoresen service.  We still watched and forgave what seemed like a lapse into more conventional, idealised travel programming because we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be standing frustratedly at another dockside, worrying about missing his next connection.

If you never saw the series or don’t remember the outcome, our Mike did eventually manage to succeed in his challenge.  While the twist in Fogg’s circumnavigation was the overlooked ‘extra’ day provided by eastward travel that Verne cleverly added, Palin’s last-minute complication was the more prosaic and altogether more dispiriting combination of rudeness from British Rail and intransigence from the Reform Club.  After a wonderful celebration of meeting people from many other countries, once back in Britain he could do no more than rather anti-climactically wrap up the story in front of the closed doors of the spectacularly out-of-touch establishment.  At least he managed to bring back that roof tile.

Fast forward almost thirty years and the whole concept of commercially-available travel has been largely transformed, thanks in no small part to the man upon whom John Cleese once bestowed the title The Nicest Man In England.  Palin then went on to travel from one Pole to the other, circumvent the Pacific, cross the Himalayas and do a plethora of other “boy’s own”-type voyages, building a career as a travelogue presenter that now almost eclipses his status as a member of one of the greatest comedy acts that ever drew laughter.  Looking back at ATWIED (as we must now abbreviate TV programme names), many viewers today may completely fail to understand the relevance of the whole ‘lumberjack’ segment he did in North America.  Philistines.

If Michael Palin opened the door to what travel might become, he didn’t exactly enable it.  Greater levels of aspiration, driven by steadily increasing levels of affordability have led, inevitably you might conclude, to an Experience economy.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply be somewhere else, you had to do something different and noteworthy while you were there.  As with TV channels, types of car, supermarkets and cuisine, travel options to the masses began to proliferate, with ever-smaller, more specific segments of the market being catered for.  It didn’t matter if you wanted to go wine-tasting, take in a safari, spend a week on the slopes or find an all-inclusive that specialised in entertaining small children, there was a holiday brochure for you.

Another ingredient in the changing face of travel has been the huge increase in interconnectedness we’ve seen in the new millennium.  In years gone by, people had the default and noble option of simply neglecting to stay in touch with their classmates or former colleagues.  There was of course a hand-written alternative to losing contct but it was generally too labour-intensive to sustain for all but the closest friends – and even then usually around Christmas when it was deemed worthwhile and socially acceptable.  I was fortunate to be on the cusp of this change: I discovered email before it became fashionable, while still at University and was therefore able to maintain a digital proto-social network with my friends from Uni after we left – almost a decade before anyone had heard of ‘The Facebook’.  Today, we friend request people we haven’t seen in the analogue world for over a quarter of a century and become, by extension, a small part of each other’s lives again.

In the same time, there’s been an increase in migrant working which means that if you have a hundred Facebook friends, the odds are that at least one of them will be living abroad – or may be someone you met while you were overseas.  Either way, if you ever visit that person’s country, you’re now much more likely to make the effort to meet up ‘IRL’.  What no-one saw, Michael Palin included, I’m sure, was that his rendezvous with an old friend in Hong Kong would in time become less the preserve of well-heeled journalists with impeccable connections but a much more commonplace occurrence in a more connected world.  We truly are a more global species today than we were  in 1988, a year before the end of the Cold War.  Even those of us who have never ventured beyond their own borders have become so, by proxy.

So where does all this cultural and societal progress leave the already ill-defined notion of what travel is, what travel should be?  And what will that word come to represent to the next generation of travellers?

Perhaps part of the reason for the ambiguity is that “travel” has come to mean whatever you want it to – a beach holiday on the Costas or a year’s back-packing around Asia.  The extent of our travels may always be limited by our funds but we will become less and less limited by the availability and therefore opportunity to choose how we travel.  For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in eco-tourism, pilgrimages, be they religious (Mecca), secular (Machu Picchu) or sporting (international tournaments) – as well as innumerable other niches in the market.

Then of course, there’s the effect of the good old internet.  Comparison sites for flights, accommodation, car hire etc. have flattened the many-tiered vertical model of agents, removing margin and lowering end user prices.  The removal of the heavily-formatted product via an intermediary has brought about the seemingly modern (but actually quite old-fashioned) concept of the independent traveller, a return to the days of real-life Phileas Foggs and Doctor Livingstones, you might presume.  Then, as now, travel did not have to be simply a pre-ordained itinerary of critical-mass conveyance and accommodation but, cliché aside, a true voyage of discovery.  Without the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional agent model, it’s now much easier to travel like a Victorian gentleman – with the assurances of today’s communications as our latter-day Passepartout.

The flexibility of options has also extended to the levels of communality we may prefer – travel with friends, extended family, other like-minded souls.  Nor do we all have to move around together; we may choose to overlap our schedules, make rendezvous plans, even choose to synchronistically exchange the use of our houses.  It’s all a far cry from the group-booked coach tours that communal travel implied in days gone by.

In a world where you can choose from thousands of possible combinations every time you order a coffee, it’s no surprise that travel too has metamorphosed from a curated and prescribed activity to an utterly personalised one.  It’s now not just about where you go or for how long, but with whom, for what reason and in order to take in which experiences.

We may well extend our physical travel horizons even further over the next decade or two, with sub-orbital or even inter-planetary options potentially on offer but it’s difficult to contend that the most profound revolution in travel isn’t already taking place, here on earth, right now.  Phileas Fogg may have become, by a Python’s extension, an inspiration for the travel aspirations of millions today but when he was created, his adventures were just as unlikely, just as much a part of the realm of science fiction as Verne’s other work, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.  That Fogg’s grand touring is so widely available today is travel’s ongoing legacy.  Anything else, intra- or extra-terrestrial, is simply a matter of geography.

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ETN: Evolution – Thumbs Up or Down?

The greatest misconception of evolution is that it adheres to a plan. We largely believe that opposable thumbs occurred because they were a good idea. It’s hogwash: it was actually via a series of accidents and mutations over countless generations that they ever existed. The fact they then proved to be advantageous kept them in the gene pool while countless other, less successful, thumb configurations were forgotten. Generally, because the timescales and variations involved are difficult to conceive, we prefer to employ the notion that evolution is a pre-ordained process as a kind of metaphor – and then forget it’s a metaphor and start using the term “designed”.

The same is true of anything that can be said to have evolved – and it’s largely the way a supply chain works. We may think we’ve designed it, rationally and earnestly but in reality, we’ve only really done more of the things that gave a good return and less of the things that threatened our existence.

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“I’ll threaten your existence if you think all primitive life is ill-adapted” Photo: Paul Bentham

It always used to fascinate me how many pairs of hands a product went through from factory floor to the consumer’s door, each adding a layer of margin but reducing affordability and competitiveness along the way. Each (opposable) thumb in the pie claims to “add value” but is that always the case or is there a lot of money for old rope being paid? And, according to the ‘law of the jungle’, for how long will that remain to be the case?

Here’s my basic summary of the traditional supply chain:

  • Manufacturer: Owns factory, makes stuff. Production requires that volumes are huge. Often more obsessed with improving the product than finding a route to market for it. Historically tended to be the ‘brand owner’.
  • Wholesaler: Owns warehouse, professional ‘go-between’. Sees promising products and buys in bulk, to offer to a roster of retailers. Justifies ‘middleman’ cut by offering exclusivity and/or continuity of supply by investing in large quantities, stocking it “so the retailer doesn’t have to”.
  • Retailer: Owns shop, cultivates goodwill with local clientele. Needs broad range of competitively-priced items that local clientele demands/will tolerate. Accepts Wholesaler’s higher price for small-volume supply flexibility with implicit promise that no-one else uses their lower cost prices to engage directly with ‘their’ end user.

Yes, the landscape has become complicated over time, with the addition of Distributors, Agents, Buying Co-operatives, Marketplaces, Franchisees and Affiliates (did I forget anyone?) but still, you can’t make stuff economically without great depth of units and you can’t be the place to go shopping for very long without a great breadth of range. The Wholesaler always was – and usually still is – the solution to this Depth-to-Breadth conundrum, explaining why there are three or four lots of profit margin on the same item between creation and consumption.

Here comes the “but”: …but the supply chain as we recognise it today is not a product of immutable parameters. It merely evolved as an adaptation to limitations on communications and the logistical solution to production in great depth and re-selling in great breadth.

There have always been temptations to miss someone out and pocket their margin as well as your own. Retailers have been at it for years, doing supply deals with manufacturers when MOQs allow, much to the chagrin of Wholesalers. Then again, Wholesalers haven’t always played a straight bat, occasionally offering price reductions they wouldn’t tolerate of their stockists or (gasp) “going direct”. As in the evolution of life itself, much of the last epoch has seen one type of life-form or another attempting to assert its dominance over the whole ecosystem.

Evolutionary theory also warns us to expect, eventually, an extinction event, an inevitable occurrence that becomes a game-changer. It’s believed the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period (thus creating opportunity for the dominance of mammals) and it’s worth considering what the next asteroid-scale event might look like. Having scanned the skies, I wonder if I might have found it. It’s a bit scary and Retailers in particular may wish to make sure they’re sitting down at this point.

Some American retail analysts now predict a quarter of all consumer ‘retail’ spend will take place online within six years (perhaps 30% in the UK) in an online space that will be 40% controlled by the combined might of Amazon, eBay and Alibaba. In addition to current trends, the growing ‘internet of things’ (if that’s a new phrase to you, Google it!) will offer a multitude of self-ordered replacement items with shoppers merely ‘signing off’ auto-suggested purchases rather than actively shopping.

Better, cheaper communications (social media, email, apps, digital ads) have strengthened direct engagement for all; the part of the equation that was traditionally the brands’ biggest weakness – plus the virtual nature of shopping means that breadth of offering isn’t as vital as it always was. With the gloves off and everyone approaching the punter, the brands can now circumvent the distribution network and communicate their message to the end user without the distortive prism of stockists and distributors. Brands may already fulfill orders directly to their “customer” so they’re increasingly less reliant on the old-fashioned retailer for shifting the units. There’s even a belief that surviving retail stores in future won’t be places to physically procure products any more but to simply ‘experience the brand’. 4.6 million people work in retail in the US and their long-term career advice is to find another sector before they’re replaced by Amazon-style automated stores.

If you’re frantically clutching your chest at this point, it may help to point out that we’re not in the most cutting-edge of industries – and that’s probably a good thing. Remember, sixty million years ago, while 75% of the planet’s fauna was being wiped out, only the most durable species, able to live on the most meagre of diets (notably, sharks and crocodiles) survived – and continue to thrive today. The ability of the equestrian industry to make a living in an environment most others would regard as infertile may yet see it outlive the real dinosaurs of mainstream retail.