Earlier this month, London’s ExCeL hosted World Travel Market. Many of us love to hate running the annual gauntlet of meetings, business updates and catch-ups with industry peers.
There is no denying, however, that it is the UK’s most significant tourism event. Some 50,000 visitors are believed to have attended and almost 5,000 companies from across the world exhibited.
I found myself increasingly drawn to the technology stages this year. Artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage and, wherever you turn, there are stories about the rise of the machine. AI, machine learning and data science are still in their relative infancy in many industries, but are already producing powerful real-world impacts.
We know AI shouldn’t be ignored, but I believe it shouldn’t be feared, either. It is going to impact every aspect of life, from the way we drive our cars to the healthcare we receive in hospitals. As an industry, travel needs to take an active interest now and make AI and machine learning work for us to enhance our offering.
Colleagues who work in business travel tell me many of the large TMCs have already developed some pretty impressive AI systems to assist corporate travellers. The prospect of this technology anticipating and booking travel for business travel clients is very real. Of course, that world – dominated by travel policy and self-booking tools – has pretty narrow rules and so fits within the confines of computer processes.
Leisure travel is altogether more complex, making it definitely a “people” business for the foreseeable future. Consumers often come to agents wanting inspiration for a trip, and trying to get a computer recommendation with no data to input will ensure you quickly realise why real-life experts are invaluable.
Investing in this human expertise remains a priority for us. I’m lucky that both Gold Medal and Travel 2 have long-standing reputations for investing in their people and agents’ knowledge base. For years, both brands have been taking agents to faraway destinations and making experience the focus.
Flying long-haul just to make agents view an endless procession of hotel rooms doesn’t make sense – it’s much better to take them white-water rafting in Cairns or rum-tasting in Antigua. Humans convey the thrill of these experiences better than a computer could mimic.
In the next few weeks, we’ll be announcing details of one of our biggest-ever fam programmes, designed to support and build on the offers we’ll have for the peak period.
We’ll be doing it with the help of many of our loyal supplier partners, all of whom think the same as us – that we can prosper together by sending agents away to build their knowledge.
Travel thrives when it adapts, and there is no denying AI is going to play a huge role in our industry. But right now I believe that role works better if it goes hand-in-hand with humans and the holiday experience remains as personal as our customers require.
Lisa McAuley is managing director of Gold Medal and Travel 2