That was the message from industry leaders at Online Travel Training’s first Agent Evolution conference.
“Our concept of the travel agent is already redundant – people use them for their service,” Steve Byrne, chief executive of Travel Counsellors, told delegates.
Speaking later as part of a panel moderated by TTG editor Sophie Griffiths, Byrne added: “There was a trend to move away from agents to online bookings, but that has steadied off. What has changed significantly is that the concept of a travel agent as we knew it is dead.”
However, Byrne dismissed concerns that technology would replace agents. “Smart businesses will use artificial intelligence the right way; they will think: ‘How can I use it to complement my business?’”
Julia Lo Bue-Said, managing director, The Advantage Travel Partnership, agreed: “We need to embrace enablers that will embrace our business. Don’t be afraid of risk, our sector is far from becoming extinct.”
Mick Gibbs, executive chairman of Norad Travel, added: “We are still a people business. People still want to talk to people, to feel that trust and confidence. Technology can give you a buzz, but only people can build long-lasting relationships.”
Asked how the travel agent might look in 15 years, Byrne said: “They will be completely mobile and tech-enabled, but the technology will be so intuitive, consultants won’t have to do anything other than get to know the customer and build a relationship.
“The future belongs to those that care,” he told delegates at the conference. “In the internet age, people are being overwhelmed by information but starved of those who care.”
Elsewhere, Byrne warned of the dangers of focusing too much on Generation Y and Z at the risk of ignoring the older generations.
“Every type of customer is important, but if I was going to pick one part of the sector to focus on, it would be the older generation.”