As natural and human-made events continue to batter the travel industry, it is becoming increasingly important for travel agents to communicate and support customers throughout their journeys.
Several speakers at the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) Premium Business Summit in New York City on Mar. 4, talked about the impact to travel agencies that cannot help predict issues and take the necessary actions to mitigate travel disruptions for their clients.
“There is nothing worse than being ignorant about what is going on,” said Bruce McIndoe, president and founder of iJet International. “Travelers walking right into airport closures, or protests, when the likelihood of an event was well known weeks and months in advance looks bad for an agency who didn’t communicate that to travelers.”
Indeed, the Summit itself was impacted as a number of speakers and attendees had their travel disrupted or even canceled as a nor’easter hit the east coast Friday, causing more than 1,500 flight cancellations at the five main airports from Washington to Boston.
Cancellations and delays at the major New York airports and on Amtrak continued into Saturday, and ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby told the stories he had heard about 12-hour drives, aborted aircraft landings and canceled flights. Speakers like Lisa Bourget, sales and emergency service call center lead at AIG, and Krista Pappas, vice president of business development at travel app company Lola, had to cancel their appearances at the Summit.
McIndoe recounted his trip from Baltimore on Amtrak as an example of how technology could have helped. He said he checked iJet’s reports on Thursday but didn’t call Amtrak until Friday. He got a busy signal and hung up. “So, I called their premium customer number. That was busy too,” he said, diverting to the Amtrak app on his phone.
Each train option the app offered showed “Sold Out,” he said, and he finally decided to cancel his train reservation and drive. “This is what a typical traveler goes through when there is a problem. How many of them throw in the towel and don’t take the trip?”
But this scenario, McIndoe said, “is coming to an end really quickly, because there is a lot of technology in the travel space to send me a message and ask me ‘which flight or train segment from these options would you like to rebook on.’ That is where we are going.”
AI will help travelers think ahead
Further, McIndoe said, is technology fueled by artificial intelligence that on Thursday would have given him a likelihood that his train segment Friday was going to be canceled and offered to rebook his reservations way in advance. “Then it becomes proactive disruption avoidance. You are helping me think ahead while there is still inventory available to fix my problem.”
Later in the day, other experts talked about how artificial intelligence soon will complement agent personalized service to solve a wide variety of traveler issues when bad weather and other events are on the horizon.
For example, Carey International president and CEO Gary Kessler envisions a not-so-far-away future where travel software can tap into weather reports. The application will ask, “What is the weather going to be like in New York? Rain? We can predict greater demand for car service in the rain, so the system will ask if the traveler wants to book a car now, instead of getting there and finding a shortage,” said Kessler. “If you can layer that over, that’s a more holistic solution.”
Technology will complement agent care during crises
John Rose, iJet International chief operating officer, believes that with cable news overly focused on terrorism and other travel dangers, “people are easily scared,” but that agents can help calm travelers by informing them of risks in advance, and developing basic crisis management plans focused on three areas: prepare, monitor and respond.
Simple things like preparing travelers with emergency contact numbers readily available to them while traveling can help. Rose said that only 46 percent of U.S. and U.K. travelers carry a contact number to call if they are in a crisis abroad.
Another part of the preparation phase is providing travelers with accurate and timely risk assessments, McIndoe said. “We have to communicate in factual ways about these relevant risks, and that we are their vigilant guardians, and we are going to steer you away so the likelihood of danger is virtually nil.”
McIndoe laid out the facts, how the probability of anyone in the room, “or your travelers, dying as a result of terrorism, is 1 in 20 million. In the U.S., the chance of dying by lightning strike is 1 in 4.5 million. The likelihood of you being killed as a pedestrian walking is 1 in 47,000 and the chance you will be in an automobile accident is 1 in 17,000,” he said.
During the monitor phase, technology is providing travelers with the ability for others to know their location, and to time push notifications in case they enter dangerous areas or situations change.
Smartphones have become so sophisticated, Rose said, “we can put the threat data into the device where it could tell them, ‘You’re headed into a bad neighborhood. You might want to turn around.’”
In the response phase, agents will have prepared travelers with the ability to reach out for assistance, or for technology to take over to allow them to protect themselves.