Skift Take

Managing complexity and adding a human touch has always been the strength of travel agents. They'll need to embrace that as they face the latest travel tech disruptions.

Travel agents have been left for dead before – and while some are not known to be the most tech-savvy, they’ve adapted when faced with massive disruptions.

They survived the Internet and the pandemic. But now comes AI, and these are particularly unpredictable times.

“For the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve been destined to be left back in the history books. And yet we are a resilient industry,” said Otto de Vries, CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents about the impact of OpenAi’s ChatGPT and its potential to disrupt travel planning. “We have always found ways to re-engineer ourselves, drive value and carve out a meaningful role that speaks to our customers.”  

Personalization is at the core of the shift from travel agent to travel advisor, according to Erika Richter, American Society of Travel Advisors vice president of communications.

“We’ve moved away from the transactional nature of what an agent would do and into the more holistic nature of what advisors do,” said Richter. “Travel agents look at the trip, but they also look at the whole person and ask important questions like ‘what does this trip mean to you?’”   

For Jacques Engelbrecht, a South-African-based travel agent with 18 years of travel industry experience, itinerary lengths and the types of experiences being booked have seen the most changes.

During the pandemic, shorter stays of two to three days and last-minute bookings made life tough for agents. Over the past year, 12-day itineraries are more common making it far easier to negotiate and manage the best price for accommodation and experiences, said Engelbrecht, who operates his own boutique agency, Eyona Travel and Safari

Engelbrecht said that partnerships with travel agents in the United States have accounted for a 20 percent lift in his business for 2023, compared to 2019. 

“We are all about adding that little bit extra,” said Engelbrecht.” It’s the simple fine-tuning of an offering. It’s become about personalized and private experiences on the ground.”

For example, a U.S. agent Engelbrecht works with required a change in the type of transfer vehicle used by his company from H1 vans or mini-busses to high-end sedans. “Costing-wise, this is not much more than using an H1. But just by picking people up in an E-class or S-class Mercedes-Benz has made a difference,” Engelbrecht said.

Alternative accommodation choices are also being influenced by the extended stays and push to private and premium experiences. 

Engelbrecht detailed a booking for a family of 16 arriving in August who have opted to stay in a villa in Camps Bay, one of Cape Town’s most affluent suburbs, instead of a five-star hotel. This is the fifth request the company has seen for alternative accommodation in a month.

“These are full-service villas and include all the extras like a five-star hotel. If you work it out with a big family, including their own personal chef, it could even work out cheaper,” said Engelbrecht.   

The Travel Corporation recently conducted a survey involving over 7,000 travelers across its six brands and determined that 43 percent of travelers were willing to pay more for a personalized experience, while 32 percent said they would pay more for a premium experience. Some 70 percent of participants want to dive into new cultures, and a further 67 percent want to explore new countries.   

Kimberly Stirdivant Wason, spokesperson for TourRadar, an for online marketplace and booking platform for travel agents, believes personalization will only continue to grow, noting that TourRadar bookings tailored to personalized requirements of travelers have increased from 12 percent in 2022, to 15 percent for the first part of 2023.  

“Customers traveling with their inner circle of friends or family are choosing to tailor their adventure, and personalizing it to their wishes,” said Stirdivant Wason.   

These are types of nuances not readily available via a chatbot. At least not yet, according to De Vries who admitted, “AI is a great opportunity for the travel industry to leverage service and better their offering for their clients.” 

De Vries described how he and a colleague tested a prompt about the best LGBTQ+ hotels in Rome.   

A Google search “kicked back thousands of results or whatever the crazy number was,” said De Vries. “And then we put it into a chatbot and the response was concise, it was clear, it was considered, and it gave you the reasons to why these hotels were in the top 10.”  

Travel agents need to leverage chatbot technology to remain on point with innovation, said De Vries who further added, “In the short and medium term, I think that it could be a very powerful tool to support travel agents. But what the future looks like beyond, you know, the next couple of years is very difficult to predict.” 

He believed that in many respects, it’s a case of returning to the travel agent of old, the pre-Internet days. But instead of lagging in tech adoption, as has sometimes been the case, travel agents should seize the opportunity.

“It’s actually when things don’t work that you realize just how important it is to have someone else on the other end of the line. This is something that a lot of people value and are prepared to pay money for,” said De Vries.

“People just looking for a point-to-point booking of a plane can serve themselves on one of the multiple online travel agencies that are available out there. Our strength really pops out when you start looking at the complexities of travel. The more complex the itinerary, the more interesting and valuable, that’s when people will start to see using a travel agent as a means of not only booking, but managing the entire travel experience.”


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Tags: artificial intelligence, asta, experiences, multi-day tours, south africa, the travel corporation, tourradar, tours and activities, travel booking, usa

Photo credit: Travelers are looking to visit new destinations with rich culture elements. Source: The Travel Corporation.

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