Opinion: Travel Agents Tested In New Era of Technology

It’s the era of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and Kindle, Google and YouTube, not to mention social media such as MySpace and Twitter. They are all transforming how people communicate and interact. And for the travel industry, agents, suppliers and destinations, it’s also a ‘Golden Age’ of technology and innovation that is changing how people buy travel. It’s also an era of opportunity, at least for those agents who choose to participate and adopt the new technology available to them.

This is underscored by Trams Technology and Marketing University TMU that opens April 13 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Logically the three-day event will focus on Trams and Sabre Travel Network products, as Trams is now a Sabre owed company. But it will also underline the success of technologies that benefit agents, suppliers and destinations. TMU is in fact marking its 15th year as one of the best agent-focused technology events.

TMU 2010 will also make clear that successful technology companies— and this includes Amadeus, Travelport (Galileo and Worldspan) and Sabre— are also training organizations. Top technology firms have made multimillion-dollar investments in systems. But an equally large investment is being made in effective use of the technologies they develop. One key beneficiary: travel agents.

Today, training is continuous and not just for front line agents. Owners and managers want to know what new technologies can do to benefit their companies and clients. They see technology as an integral part of their sales and marketing programs and the source of data for business decisions. Customer relationship management is a priority for many. Expertise and the proverbial ‘techie’ is welcomed but valued for their ability to communicate and educate peers and managers as much as for their expertise.

Vacation.com, a major agency network, is an outstanding example. An Amadeus subsidiary, Vacation.com works hard to build awareness of the benefits of its technology to its agency members. It links its investment in technology— including its AgentNet desktop and new EZguider booking system— to demonstratable gains in agency productivity and profitability. At least for agents receptive to innovation.

Vacation.com’s annual conference – the next is June 27 – July 1, in Orlando— will feature hands on demonstrations of the EZguider’s advantages and a host of other technologies including state-of-the-art marketing tools. And like Trams TMU, Vacation.com will have skilled – and patient - professional staffers on hand to answer questions and demonstrate the systems capabilities. Trams and Vacation.com penned an agreement last year to coordinate use of Vacation.com’s highly successful Engagement program.

The agreement with Vacation.com and Trams also marks the emergence of agency marketing groups as pioneer implementers, as well as developers of technology, especially in direct and e-mail marketing. Trams, for example, has an agreement with Ensemble to work with Ensemble’s E-Matrix 360 tool that supports Ensemble agents marketing campaigns. Major groups, Virtuoso, Travel Leaders, American Express and Signature all have first class technology platforms and many are represented at Trams conferences.

The advance Trams agenda also offers some clues as to what is coming. A Client Base Windows ‘Certificate’ Course will be available to build and encourage expertise and to train the trainers. The track system for attendees allows agency owners who want to grow bookings and improve efficiency to attend relevant seminars. Another track is for Sabre GDS users that includes sessions on MySabre, finding the lowest airfares, and mobile solutions. Still another option is business coaching for independent travel professionals. Technology wizard Nolan Burris will offer tips on using technology.

Supplier participation in both conferences will be noticeable and that is another part of the new technology equation. Partnerships between productive agents (including the independent agents) and technology firms are basic, including training and incentive programs and new booking systems. Tour operators, hoteliers, car rental firms and cruise lines that want agent businesses are making ongoing investments in new tools.

A third event that showcases technology is the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) cruise3sixty conference, June 2-6, in Vancouver. The conference will feature the American Express Technology Center— 50-minute workshops offering hands-on, practical experience with the latest travel technology. As well, agents can attend booking demonstrations by CLIA member cruise lines. The goal: give agents the maximum benefits from the latest booking technologies.

In addition to conferences, agents clearly benefit from webinars sponsored by technology providers, consortia, franchise groups, host agencies, suppliers and associations. Many are focused on how technology— when combined with the agent’s expertise— can build productivity and profitability. In reality, the travel industry has made a multimillion-dollar investment in the ability and willingness of travel agents to adopt new technologies that are affordable and work.

For lots of reasons, companies (many privately held and competitive) are reluctant to say how big their technology investments are or if they have succeeded in realizing a return on investment. But Jeff Clarke, CEO and president of Travelport, has admitted to an investment of more than $500 million over two years in transaction processing capabilities alone. When it’s all added up the travel industry probably is the beneficiary of billions of dollars invested in people, systems, processes and implementation. As is the traveling public.

Is it a “Golden Age’ of travel technology? The experts can debate it but from the viewpoint of the travel agent and the clients they serve, the answer is yes. And this includes tools that support independent travel agents. ASTA President and CEO Chris Russo summed it up nicely with ASTA’s 2009 release of its GDS survey: "As an industry we are constantly looking for ways to remain competitive while offering our clients the best service.” Its up to the agent to adopt.


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