Amadeus has thrown a fresh new report out into the world, which sheds new light on what travellers really value, in particular when shopping for airfares.
Factoring in new technology, the report, ‘Embracing airline digital transformation: a spotlight on what travellers value’, explores how the role of the travel agent has shifted in response to new developments, becoming better equipped to support customers, rather than what some have suggested could be the end of the industry.
While there will always be a continued role for travel agents that provide a valuable, personal service to travellers, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) will become more prominent in coming years, according to the report.
The research suggests travel agents will continue to provide a valued role in the industry, particularly in relation to developing complex travel itineraries and assisting to help refine AI systems and ensure they learn effectively.
Amadeus’ findings draw on more than 20 interviews with industry experts and a traveller survey, to explore how airlines can better shape and communicate their offer through multiple channels. However, it also includes a deep dive on the role of AI and its specific relationship with travel agents.
Travel agents truly are holding their own, with statistics showing that travellers are just as likely to book with a travel agent as they are through a metasearch OTA.
Interestingly, when it came to where travellers are most likely to go to seek advice about an airline before booking a flight, travel agents only ranked at 14 per cent.
Family and friends took the lead spot at 39 per cent, in a tie-for-first-place finish alongside review websites.
Travel agents were only one ahead of last place, which was social media. Only eight per cent of people said they’d turn to their social accounts online to ask for airline advice.
“The fact that air travel consumers are continuing to seek advice from multiple sources highlights the importance of maintaining an omni-channel approach to customer service,” the Amadeus report said.
“This is particularly true when a customer is booking more than solely a flight during a transaction.
“Though only 14 per cent of survey respondents may seek advice from traditional travel agents for flights alone, they are more likely to seek professional advice if they are planning, say, a 10-day tour around Vietnam, or a business trip to Toronto – of which the flight is an important component.
The report made mention of the “so-called Generation Z – those born between about 1995 and 2012” who may never set foot in a travel agent’s office, such is their affinity with technology.
But thankfully, it’s not all dire news from the younger travellers. The report showed Millennials (those born between about 1980 and 1995) are still turning to agents, depending on the context of their trip, as are the generations before them.
The reasons suggested by Amadeus included these customers “value the personalised, empathic advice of another human being”.
Looking at what value the individual consumer places on the product, service and convenience is key for agents in terms of altering their service and travel planning to best cater for clients.
“Most technology so far has concentrated on helping customers search for things they know they want to find,” says Professor Dimitrios Buhalis, Director of the eTourism Lab at the School of Tourism at Bournemouth University.
“Whereas if they go to a physical travel agency, the agent looks them up and down and immediately understands what the customer needs.
“The agent then starts going through a game of proposal and emulation. They say ‘How about Mallorca?’, and the customer says ‘No, I’ve been three times; I’ve never been to Ibiza, though’, which then creates an anchor for the agent to search again.”
The report is a huge advocate for the travel agent business, with research suggesting that the evolution of technology does not mean the end of the agency model.
Rather than eliminating the need for a human touch, tomorrow’s technologies will work with agents to provide the ultimate service, the report claims.
“There’s so much talk today about artificial intelligence (AI) crushing jobs and replacing agents,” said Mikhail Naumov, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at DigitalGenius.
“The reality of the situation is that fully automated chatbots are in no way ready to be used end-to-end to solve customers’ problems.
“An agent’s role has simply evolved from tasks like searching knowledge bases, routing customers and data entry. What’s happening is, machine algorithms are taking over menial tasks, while the humans can focus on providing a much better personalised level of service.
“It’s not the death of the travel agent. It’s an evolution of the travel agent’s job description, where they’re training the AI to be better and the AI is there to help them provide meaningful experiences for customers.
The progression of technology, if harnessed correctly, could dramatically boost the potential for agents to present consumers with personalised, niche travel experiences that they didn’t know they were looking for, and that are relevant and desirable.
This, in turn, could add a whole new layer of value to the role of the agent.