Last week, Travel Weekly was at Collette’s 2018 Global Travel Forum, soaking up some industry insights and celebrating Collette’s 100 year anniversary in between conference sessions.
Some of the most interesting conference sessions we listened in on were the panel discussions – especially the Future of Travel Distribution discussion – where agents and the art of the conversation were praised throughout.
Although technology will undoubtedly play a massive part in the future of travel, the consensus among these experts was in-person interactions will still be prevalent when customers are looking for authentic and unique travel experiences.
Which experts, you ask? This fabulous panel was moderated by Arnie Weissman, senior vice president of Travel Weekly US (Not to be mistaken for the equally fabulous Travel Weekly AUS).
But the panellists were pretty impressive themselves: Bill Sutherland, senior VP travel and publishing at AAA, Nick Lucock, executive general manager at Flight Centre and Amos Khim, managing director of worldwide sales strategy at United Airlines wowed the crowd with some truth bombs on the future of travel.
“Getting information to customers is a key part of our business,” Lucock began.
But getting that information across is changing and becoming more technologically sophisticated.
“Our most valuable asset is our consultants. So that one on one consultation, whether it be in the store or on the phone, we find that’s the best way to get information across to our customers,” he said.
Khim agreed that with said sophisticated technology (like Wi-Fi on an airplane), customer expectations were higher than ever before, but that more work needed to be done in customer data.
“Frankly, on the airline side, we think there’s a lot of work that can be done in the unsexy areas – the plumbing of travel data,” he said.
Khim added that United use technology to both understand their customers better, and understand their mechanical elements better.
“If [a customer] had no intention of going to London, we’d give them a more generous offer. So it’s a way for us to refine offers that we give out to customers, thats the commercial element. And then the operational side is using machine learning,” he said.
From a consumer standpoint, Lucock said that “the best technology is when you don’t know that there’s technology underneath the surface.”
“There’s got to be a line between efficency and providing a good service,” he said.
Part of that line is making sure you don’t miss out on the human element of travel – which Lucock said can happen when there’s too much technology involved in travel.
“I travel to meet locals. I travel to make memories. So there’s got to be a balance between what technology you employ,” he said.
Sutherland completely agreed.
“Technology should enable [the back an forth of a conversation], not replace it,” he said.
Lucock agreed that conversation was still particularly important in the industry – especially when it was via the company’s consultants.
“Our best tool is our consultants,” he reiterated.
“They’re the one’s that are engaging in a one-on-one relationship with the customer – because we want that customer to come back and engage with our consultants and our brands.”
Sutherland said that despite the technology being a massive part of travel going forward, their biggest capital at AAA are their people.
“We have to make sure that those people aren’t afraid of technology, that they actually harness technology and use it to their advantage, so there are seamless opportunities for transactions between the consumer and the agent.
“As we look at the distibtrution of the future, the need for human intervention and being able to cut through all the clutter and to make sense of this overwhelming amount of content to help give that customer the best vacation opportunity.
“To me, the future lies in our people and our capital as well as technology. But technology should not overrun and overpower us in this process,” he said.