Ten to fifteen years ago, the focus among the agency community was on their mobile strategy. Today the question is, “What is your AI strategy?” And while nothing has been deployed in large degree to the industry, many travel agents are getting their feet wet with artificial intelligence (AI) through their own internal research and application.
But, change is on the horizon, say industry experts.
Marc Casto, president and CEO of Casto Travel, likens the swift progression of AI to degrees in education, advising travel agents to prepare for what will inevitably be the norm. “Presently, AI has the education knowledge of a young toddler, but it will have its bachelor’s degree in two years and its post-baccalaureate two years after that.”
“AI will help travel agents to have a deeper understanding of their customers,” concurred John Ische, president of leading-edge travel technology firm, Trisept Solutions. “AI technology will help agents engage travelers through the vacation lifecycle, ultimately driving greater customer loyalty and enabling agents to gain a greater share of their vacation travel spend.”
Here are some of the reasons why travel advisors should be using AI to their advantage:
AI doesn’t replace the experience, it enhances it
Voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google are already embedded in our everyday lives and have become commonplace in our homes, so why not in your business? Asking for help for flight details, a next calendar event, or sending money, could be as simple as speaking out loud as opposed to adding it to your already very-long “to do” list.
One frequent traveler shared a personal example of how AI enhances her flight experience. “Delta knows I like seat 3C when I’m upgraded to first class, not because I have it in my profile, but because I choose or change to that seat when given the option. Now they choose it for me.”
Problem-solving and time-saving tool
Virtual assistants can take care of mundane activities that give agents more time to dedicate themselves to providing their clients with exceptional customer service.
“Travelers are becoming very sophisticated and tech savvy,” said Ische. “This trend will continue to ramp up. Agents need to be aligned with an integrated front-, mid-, and back-office that will let them focus on what they do best – plan great trips. AI will be the power of the agents in the future.”
Use AI to your advantage
Most booking engines already use AI to provide more personalized and tailored results. And CRMs no longer just store information. Make the switch to fully-integrated CRMs, which combine all the functionality a travel agent needs into one solution, taking your entire workflow and putting it into one secure platform. And don’t forget to pay attention and reference your client’s social media posts and interactions.
Educate yourself about AI
We’ve heard it a million times over – knowledge is power. And when it comes to AI, self-education is the first step to understanding the different components of it. Let Google and YouTube be your guide as you educate yourself on terms and concepts, and don’t be intimidated by technology. Once you feel you have sufficient knowledge for yourself, Casto says, partner with a third party for development.
For example, Casto Travel recently re-released chat bot MARCO in conjunction with Sabre. “MARCO is designed to assist travelers with simple questions like, “Where’s my gate?”, “Can I change my seat?”, and “Can I get a meal?”
“That’s a huge value for the traveler because it gives them access to a solution quickly. Some travelers are identifying with this as their primary means of communication.” Casto said his clients can access the chat bot via Facebook Messenger or an online chat. “As long as they have an internet connection, they are good. They don’t need to even download an application.”
From the practical standpoint of an agent, MARCO saves them five minutes in time that could be better spent working with a client on trip planning. “I’d rather return time for both parties in a more expeditious way.”
Another recommended tool is MyTripRoute, a mobile travel companion that will help you build itineraries for your clients, provide them with real-time flight updates and engage in real-time chats with fellow travelers and their agent. It can be sent via email or clients can download the app.
Think broad and stay 'in the know'
Long before implementing any technology, industry experts say travel agents need to first think about what they want to accomplish and how they hope to improve their agency, including what level of service they envision providing for their customers.
“Think about the outcome before thinking about the technology. Are you looking to engage customers similar to the way you do today but just want to be more efficient (AI can help here)? Or are you looking to use AI to engage customers? Agents need to stay close to travel industry technology providers, which includes the big guys like Sabre and Amadeus but also the smaller players like Trisept and Mezi,” said Ische.
The takeaway? AI isn’t going anywhere and travel agents who haven’t embraced it yet will soon find they are in the minority.
“Any agency that doesn’t invest in the future of their company is making poor choices, and it is inescapable that AI will affect our future,” said Casto.
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