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At this year’s VIR Online Innovation Days the digital industry focused its discussions on innovation and sustainability

At this year’s VIR Online Innovation Days, which in 2019 were once again hosted by ITB at Messe Berlin’s Marshall Haus, the focus was on topics of pressing concern. On day one ’Innovation’ was the dominant theme. With the rapid growth of competitors both at home and abroad, particularly in Asia, digital tourism companies are coming under pressure to quickly adapt.

The annual Innovators’ Competition at which industry newcomers competed for the jury’s attention, provided inspiration once again. Six candidates out of a total of 32 were given the opportunity to deliver brief pitches. This year it was PinCamp, a company run by the experienced entrepreneur Uwe Frers, which made the running. His latest start-up aims to make it much easier to book camping sites online in a fragmented market. The presentation was notable for Frers sharing a large part of his winner’s prize with Motourismo, the second-placed entry. This portal specialises in motorcycle tours for which customers are prepared to pay prices similar to those for a sea cruise.

The topic of ’Innovativeness’ on day one of the VIR Online Innovation Days was not confined to newcomers. At a panel discussion with experts investors discussed what start-ups should be looking out for in their search for financial backers. The role of sponsors was also examined: investment and capital venture are important factors for digital tourism companies. Sponsoring up-and-coming start-ups is regarded as an ideal opportunity to make one’s mark in an intensely competitive market. The Award Night, an established event which was sponsored by Wirecard again, rounded off day one. Participants were able to network and discuss information in detail until after midnight.

Day two was dominated by a debate on sustainability. The fact that those attending were sweating in almost 36-degree record temperatures only contributed to the sense of urgency that the Fridays for Future movement and Greta Thunberg have been emphasising all along. Dr. Michael Braungart of Erasmus University Rotterdam delivered the keynote speech. He took up a controversial position by throwing many ideas overboard, such as the usual calls to reduce CO2 emissions, and promoted a ’cradle to cradle’ vision which postulates circulating goods and materials back to their natural origins or recycling them instead of avoiding consumption.

Hannes Lichtenmannegger produced numerous examples of local practice from Berghotel Rehlegg in Bavaria, the first carbon-neutral hotel. He highlighted numerous best practices such as the purchase of an entire livestock animal even if that means ordering an ox from a farmer two-and-a-half years before delivery. The theme day was rounded off with panel discussions. Rika Jean-Francois, CSR officer of ITB Berlin, moderated a fascinating discussion in which leading proponents of sustainable tourism including Petra Thomas of forum anders reisen e.V., Prof. Dr. Edgar Kreilkamp of the Green Travel Transformation project, Franziska Tritscher of TUI, and Hannes Schleicher of Chamäleon Reisen took part. They emphasised that socially responsible and sustainable practices were indispensable to future travel. The online industry urgently needed to become aware of that too, they said.

The other panel discussion featured experts from the hotel trade, including representatives of Greensign, Scandic Hotels and the consultancy Klimapatenschaft.

Many of those visiting the VIR conference agreed that besides overtourism, sustainability was a topic that would still be on the agenda of ITB and the Online Innovation Days in years to come. The question now is how the industry will deal with this huge threat in the immediate future.

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