Why Artificial Intelligence Won’t Replace Travel Agents

Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered digital assistants are poised to revolutionize the way customers book vacations, but travel agents who embrace technology can adapt and thrive. That was the crux of a discussion during the United States Tour Operators Association’s (USTOA) Travel Industry Trends & Insights Panel, which took place during the organization’s inaugural Digital Marketing Academy in New York City. The panelists were Jennifer Wesley, head of travel for Google; Anna Blount, director of market research and insights for MMGY Global; and Dan Peltier, tourism reporter for Skift. Susan Black, chief commercial officer for CIE Tours, moderated.

The discussion was especially timely as it took place during a week in which a number of organizations seemed to question the value of travel agents. Marriott International announced that it was cutting commission on group bookings, a move many industry leaders criticized as downplaying the role an agent plays. Additionally, JetBlue announced it is expanding into cruise bookings, casting the current method of booking the cruise through a travel agent an “often-confusing process.” JetBlue’s new cruise booking platform relies on AI to match a consumer with a cruise line based on their budget, destination preference and other activities, an approach that was a major point of discussion during the panel – and one which, according to Wesley, has been enabled by the rise of ubiquitous mobile devices.

“We are in a point in the evolution of mobile that’s very different than what’s come before,” says Wesley. “The phone is no longer a communications device – it’s an assistant.”

In what Wesley dubbed the “Age of Assistance,” AI-powered devices will use massive amounts of personalized data to seamlessly help users with complex tasks, including booking travel. Google’s personal assistant, as well as other AI-powered assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, combine that data with data from other users on the platform to “learn” and refine answers to customer questions.

“It’s about the power to not only answer questions, but predict what you’re going to ask,” says Wesley, noting that the “Age of Assistance” will come about even faster than previous digital revolutions.

Where does that leave travel agents? “We believe travel agents have a great future,” says CIE Tours’ Black, noting that one of the largest travel demographics – Millennials – leads the way in using travel agents.

“We have all this technology, but we need someone to help with this technology,” Black says. “There’s something about visiting a destination for the first time – you want to make sure you get it right.” That takes an expert to help sort through all the information.

Using new technology effectively, however, will be increasingly important. “The agents that will succeed are the agents that can digitize that experience,” says Wesley. “If you’re waiting for people to go back to going into an office to make a booking, you’re not going to have success.”

Wesley noted that AI-powered platforms, such as the Google Trips app, require massive amounts of data about a destination to operate, and that content doesn’t come from Google.  

“Google is the platform for that assistance,” Wesley says. “We are not the one and only assistant.”

Wesley advises that agents should be sure the travel content they generate, such as blog posts, photographs, and other destination information, can be easily “atomized” so that it can be visible in a platform like the Trips app. They should also make sure they are taking full advantage of any proprietary data they have, because that can help them stand out.

“Make it proprietary, and make it useful to people,” Wesley says.

Increasingly, travelers are basing their expectations for a digital travel experience not just on other travel brands, but the best digital experiences out there – period. “Your competition is Amazon, Uber,” Wesley says.

“You have to be open to new technology,” agrees Black.

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