Over the last 20 years, technology has radically altered the way travel is purchased and the role agents play in the value chain. While these changes have challenged agencies to redefine themselves, and have put many laggards out of business, the changes coming in the next five years will make the first 20 seem tame in comparison, experts say.
On Mar. 4-5, top travel agencies attended the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) Premium Business Summit in New York City, where they discussed technology developments like artificial intelligence (AI), Facebook Messenger and chatbots — and how these tools could support or supplant travel agents, depending on agents' desire and ability to participate in the coming digital revolution.
Because of AI, voice recognition and virtual reality, “we have moved from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance,” said Steve Glenn, CEO of Executive Travel in Lincoln, Nebraska, during a keynote presentation.
Artificial intelligence will replace apps
“I have a lot of apps on my phone, and none of them really interface with each other. In a matter of a few years or less, you won’t need apps, because AI and other tools will be the single user interface to integrate all of the information apps provide to us. With AI and VR, we may very well ask ourselves, ‘Do I even need an app?’”
Summit moderator and industry veteran Tony D’Astolfo painted a picture of a leisure traveler soon asking Google, “'Find me a beach destination for under $1,000.’ That’s a little intimidating.”
Despite the uncertainty that technology is creating, Glenn urged attendees to think about where their agencies and customers are on the path to disruption. “I know this all sounds scary. But I think about the opportunity, that we are entering a period of abundance. Once you understand that, you can deal with it,” he said.
Marc Casto, president and CEO of Casto Travel in San Jose, California, said he sees chat travel competitors like Lola and Pana “on a daily basis” in corporate requests for proposal.
Casto described how Hipmunk, a travel search tool purchased by Concur in 2016, can look at a business traveler’s calendar, identify an upcoming business meeting, and “predict when you are going to need travel, book that trip and insert it into your calendar. And there is no person needed in that transaction,” he said.
Hipmunk and similar companies “are all competitors to us. There’s no question about that,” Casto told the audience. “But they also are an opportunity,” he said, agreeing with Glenn.
For example, Casto pointed out the disruption the nor’easter caused for so many Summit attendees, and how AI and chatbots could have saved agencies and the attendees time and money rebooking canceled and delayed flights.
“We’re in the very, very early stages, but chatbot to chatbot does exist and will expand. All of our companies were really busy the last few days dealing with all of the delays and cancellations. And many of us wasted time on the phone. If you had your own chatbot developed, to communicate with the airlines, automatically established for waivers and cancellations, you could have screened out a significant number of those calls to improve the operability for all of our clients and improve customer support,” he said.
ASTA sets Technology Committee
Technology developments are happening so rapidly and have become so critical to the industry’s success, ASTA this weekend created a Technology Committee, designed to monitor and advise the ASTA Board of Directors.
ASTA Chairman Jay Ellenby, and president of Safe Harbors Business Travel, LLC, said the committee will meet via teleconference two to three times per quarter and provide regular reports to the board. The committee’s work also will be shared with ASTA members through its various conferences, webinars and other communications vehicles.
“Considering how Amazon, Google and others are just around the corner and so many other tech companies are getting into the travel space, we determined ASTA needs to be at the forefront, identifying opportunities, threats and what’s just smoke and mirrors,” said Ellenby.
The committee leaders are working out details about how the committee will operate. Anyone interested in participating on the committee “should be prepared to bring any research they have done on current and future technologies potentially impacting our industry,” Ellenby said.
Build your tech strategy based on your clients
Panelists for one session talked about how there are a handful of predominant platforms on smartphones, and how agents are best focusing on how to use one or more of those, versus trying to build their own internally.
For example, Sabre is working with Casto Travel to test its Facebook messenger customer interface. “You have to look for the tools that are available. Doing it yourself is expensive,” said Marc Casto. “Talk to your GDS, to these app companies offering a 30-day free trial. Dabble in it.”
Tricept Solutions President and CEO John Ische noted how some customers want text messaging. “For international travelers overseas, WhatsApp is huge. There are many slices in this space. You are going to have to work with a technology platform that plays in the channels where your customer exists,” he said.
“Start with your clients,” said Casto. “Find out what five apps are on their phone, and plan to engineer tools back to them.”
Most panelists and attendees felt that even with the advent of AI and other tools, the position of leisure travel agents remains on firmer ground than corporate travel. Referring to D’Astolfo’s earlier example of Google searching for beach vacations, Ische noted how, “Google is still going to come back with a big list that the customer will have to pick through. It’s the agent who will tell their client, ‘This resort has the right set of restaurants, amenities, activities, for you.'”
“The internet has been your best friend,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support, and service for Royal Caribbean International, “because the Internet produces consumer confusion. You help guide consumers to making the right buying decision. You are the value interpreter.”
“Vacations are more emotional. I don’t know if computers are going to figure out emotional intelligence,” said Ische. “Sometimes what a client is looking for might surprise you, so unless you connect with the customer and the use case of that trip, it might not work.”
“A traveler’s calendar may show they are going to Phoenix, but it might be the customer’s daughter is interested in attending ASU. It’s not really a vacation.”
Ische also believes agency owners should embrace technology because it can help the industry solve some of its recruiting and staffing issues.
“We see in the leisure travel space, so many new agents are coming into the business. They have a limited set of knowledge, and experience. Think about how you can use big data and artificial intelligence to help these new hires be a better travel agent, and faster,” he said.