The high street travel agent is not dying. Nor will it be dead within the next few years, as some predictions have suggested.
This is a guest comment from Apadmi’s Nick Black
Yet there are growing numbers of UK holidaymakers that are opting to use their smartphone to book their holidays – an average 20% in 2017, according to the Abta Holiday Habits Report 2017, up from 13% in 2016.
But there’s an opportunity for the high street travel agent to add more value to customers than its online counterpart can offer. Tui recently said that online has “reached its limit in terms of interest, and people still want the expertise a travel agent can deliver in a store.”
Not a massive surprise, coming from a travel agent with a huge high street presence. But as with all travel agents, a large proportion of their revenue does come from online channels. Travel agents: take note. The role of the high street travel agent isn’t obsolete. It’s evolving.
"In 2018, travel companies and tour operators need to follow the lead of their innovative competitors by investing in new technology to keep winning and retaining business."
How are travel agents currently adapting to changing consumer needs? Technology is the biggest driving force behind the travel agent’s transformation. Over the past couple of years, the demand for new technology to be used within the sector has accelerated rapidly.
Half of UK holidaymakers now want to use interactive technology like virtual reality (VR), digital assistants and augmented reality (AR) to explore the world in greater depth. And the travel sector is responding, albeit slowly. On the Beach is using an AI system called “Alison” to provide a more personalised and efficient service for its customers. Alison can answer hundreds of common questions from potential customers and gather information on their travel preferences to provide tailored suggestions.
No one really wants to trawl through hundreds of locations, flights, hotels and travel options they’re not interested in before stumbling across the one item they do want more information about.
"On the Beach is using an AI system called ’Alison’ to provide a more personalised and efficient service for its customers"
Tui has also recently launched its Holiday Design Stores, trialling VR headsets in-store to help travellers “experience” destinations before they book. In 2016, Travel Counsellors developed its “My TC” app to open up more communication channels with travellers.
The app expands upon Travel Counsellors’ personalised, premium customer service, while retaining that one-to-one element customers value so highly. Customers can access travel information, itineraries and documentation instantly, from any location, and can remain in constant contact with their personal Travel Counsellor during each stage of their journey.
What can we expect to see in 2018? Voice technology and artificial intelligence (AI) look set to play a big role in the changing face of the travel agent. Voice is developing at a rapid pace. More developers are creating solutions for the growing platforms created by Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google.
Hardware to facilitate voice technology is creeping into the mass market through a variety of phones and speakers, as well as more complex purchases like cars. Integrating voice with AI is likely to blend a personalised big data service with a simplified user experience, where complex requests are spoken in one or two commands, instead of typed or clicked in six separate ones. And this mobile technology is not restricted for use only by customers.
Employees working in high street travel agencies can utilise this technology to help illustrate examples of packages they’re talking to customers about face-to-face. For example: “Alexa, show me the one-bedroom suite at the Delano, Miami with prices and availability.”
While the details are brought up on a mobile device, the agent can continue their conversation with the customer. If a room isn’t available, the mobile solution would know what other hotels of a similar standard are available, at a similar price point. Or suggest when the room is available on different dates.
Agents are still an extremely important part of the booking journey and technology is not going to remove the human element – consumers value face-to-face interactions too much. However in 2018, travel companies and tour operators need to follow the lead of their innovative competitors by investing in new technology to keep winning and retaining business.
Nick Black is chief executive at mobile technology group Apadmi, whose clients include Skyscanner and Travel Counsellors, among others