PROFILE: The MTA’s Roy and Karen Merricks talk AI and defending agent’s IP in Fiji

PROFILE: The MTA’s Roy and Karen Merricks talk AI and defending agent’s IP in Fiji

Karen Merricks’ face lights up as she embraces one beaming woman, meanwhile husband Roy grabs a hand in a two-fisted shake and finishes with a pat on the back on the way through. On and on it goes like this as they work their way slowly through the crowd.

The vibe is phenomenal. It’s a combination of seeing each other after a long time and the enthusiasm and being back in the presence of like minds. This is what a family reunion would be like if you had 330 relatives in one place, minus the hundred or so who couldn’t make it.

The Mobile Travel Agents annual conference returned for the first time since 2020, this year at the Merricks’ favourite destination, Fiji, a place they have visited for decades. They are such big fans that they have a unit in Denarau Harbour, just a short trip from at Sheraton Fiji Golf and Beach Resort where this year’s conference was held.

The couple are held in such high esteem that Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, Viliame (Bill) Gavoka, turned up on an important national holiday to sing their praises and congratulate the couple on the event and their support for the island nation.

Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, Viliame (Bill) Gavoka, with Roy and Karen Merricks.

Next year, the couple celebrate 25 years of Mobile Travel Agents, launched in an era of landlines, SWIFT codes and faxes, where a mobile phone or a laptop was a novelty.

The family-style culture has been key from the start, with Karen offering face-to-face meetings with new candidates or driving for hours to sort out a consultant’s personal issues.

“I went up and spent the afternoon with her and chatted to her about her business and about what’s happening in her life,” Karen recalls. “And she ended up changing the direction of her business. Never been happier. And now she’s a platinum (MTA consultant).”

It’s what family does.

Not only did 330 MTA reps head to Fiji this year, so too did all 58 MTA staff who not only worked the conference floor but also kept things ticking along at home, wherever that may be for mobile agents. Among the staff on site in Fiji were the business development and training teams who also led two full-day pre-conference training programs, prior to the big event itself.

The conference host was 14-year MTA ambassador Jessica Watson, the solo round-the-world then-teenage yachtswomen, who knows a bit about adversity. She presented key sponsor videos, introduced the winners of the MTA awards, and called out dozens of lucky door prize winers. She is also part of the family.

There were also presentations from Tourism Fiji boss Brent Hill, whose aims is to hit from pretty much zero tourists during the pandemic to 1 million visitors to the island in the next few years.

Talking about forward thinking, international researcher, social commentator, and futurist, Dr Joanne Orlando was keynote speaker and delved into the role AI will play in the travel industry – a tool with all its strengths and weaknesses.

What AI will not replace, though, is the human touch. What those MTA consultants know is there will be someone on the other end of the line at Robina HQ in Queensland to help out if required. That there will be the little things like having a member of the MTA team design a brochure for them or a maintain their website, or a create a Merry Christmas sign-off tile for the bottom of an email.

Or making a booking for big client – or finishing one off – if the consultant can’t do it for whatever reason without the fear of losing a client.

“Concern about maybe, you know, the client’s getting friendly with the other consultant and moving on. All that sort of stuff just doesn’t happen,” says Roy.

It’s how the 70/30 split works: Sometime, somewhere help will be needed.

For the clients of consultants, it’s knowing they have their agent’s mobile phone number – not a call centre – to ring, no matter where they are or what their situation is.

“With travelling, stuff happens,” says Roy. “The flight’s delayed. What happens to the hotel that you’ve missed? You’re not going to check in in time? You know that someone’s got your back? I think it’s so relaxing. You know, you can just contact your agent.”

That could also include being helicoptered out of Base Camp at Everest with a broken leg, as has happened to the client of one veteran consultant. How does AI do that?

Where’s the drone? Group shot Day 2 of MTA’s conference.

Protecting agents’ IP from the AI vacuum

When keynote speaker Dr Joanne Orlando detailed the technique of feeding content into a platform such as ChatGPT on Day 1, Karen took stock. She is of the view that the knowledge of long-term consultants is very valuable intellectual property that shouldn’t be handed over willy-nilly.

“We’re navigating that at the moment,” she says. “We’ve got some specialist consultants that specialise in a destination – a lot of agents that put a lot of work into itineraries and stuff. And I was sort of like, wait a minute? After listening to what she was saying to then (have consultants) go in and you can upload your itineraries.

“Well, all I see with that is that you’re giving the AI your expertise.”

MTA will now be addressing the issue and will support a process where consultants can utilise AI, knowing their IP is protected, and not hand over that hard-earned knowledge to the vacuum that is an AI bot.

Protection of MTA and consultant data is also already high-level with PCI compliance and two-factor authentication, plus the the assurance of Amadeus, the global software platform for the travel industry.

What goes up, should come down

One of the other industry fundamentals Roy thinks should be addressed is pricing. Because, while air tickets are going down, accommodation is not. And given half their clientele is business or first, a room is a lot of the cost.

“I think one of the things that’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge for everybody, is the pricing levels of particularly luxury property. People are paying it. Yeah, they are. They’re paying it, but it’s too high. There needs to be some sort of global sort of check of property like resort and property prices,” he says hopefully.

Roy offers his thanks to attendees at the end-of-conference dinner.

That accommodation includes multigenerational stays, too. Grandparents asking for group bookings of the same agents who sent young couples on their way 20 years ago with a couple of little kids in tow. It’s also now those same kids in their twenties, and young couples who are now using mum and dad’s MTA agent.

“I think the older people are telling their kids. Oh, definitely we see that,” says Roy. “Yeah, the millennials are using travel agents. Absolutely.

“And I think the experience of the older people in the family is sort of saying (to the kids booking holidays) ‘No, don’t do it on your own. You are on your own, if you do it on your own.”

In other words, no one to call should something go wrong.

“Clients are saying ‘We want the service we’re prepared to pay for’, and it is a service industry,” says Karen.

Talking of the next generation, their two children have also continued to grow the business since the couple started it 24 years age, at about the same age their kids Ben and Sara are now. Both children have worked their way up through all aspects of the home-based travel agent model.

Don Beattie (centre) has been a ‘godsend’ say the Merricks.

Karen and Roy also gave up their co-CEO jobs when they hired Don Beattie 11 years ago as MTA became a bit too big for both to handle both day to day, and at executive level. They have never looked back.

“He’s been an absolute godsend,” says Roy of Beattie. “He’s made a massive difference. Eleven years ago, we were doing what he does now. A lot of the frontline sort of day-to-day stuff. It’s been a lot easier for us since he came on board, for sure.”

Helping ease that workload is Sara and Ben working with Don to make the big decisions when required.
“Don knows exactly how we and what we’d feel about doing something,” Karen says. “We’d always know, ‘Well, if it seems the right thing to do, that’s what you guys want to do? Do it.”

Chips in Roy: “Ninety-nine out of 100 times, whatever decision they make is what we would have made.”

The MTA crew enjoyed Malamala Island off Denarau Bay, Fiji.

Hot agent topics discussed in the tropics

Accreditation is also a hot-button issue at present with anyone able to nail up a shingle and claim they are a travel agent.

While the Australian Travel Industry Association’s Australian Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) for travel agents and tour operators goes some way towards assuring best business practices, rogue operators continue to exist, says Roy who is on the ATIA board.

“It is a great step forward. Brilliant,” he says of ATAS. “The industry knows all about it, but do consumers? That’s the trick to that. One is we’ve got to get the consumers understanding that. You know that ATAS approval is a vetted system within the industry.

“It can’t completely ensure, you know, that someone’s not going to get into financial difficulties or whatever, but I’ll tell you what, it goes a long way towards it.”

While the next generation being to take the reins with the help and guidance of Don Beattie, Karen and Roy still are not contemplating the “R” word.

“What’s that word!” exclaims Roy in mock indignation of retirement. But it wasn’t all work at the conference, there were plenty of Hawaiian shirts, gorgeous floral dresses, cocktail soirees and dinner under the stars at their favourite destination. And more planning for the future.

But they might spend a bit more personal time in Fiji – or Italy – or go on a cruise or buy their own boat or take their two grandchildren, boys aged eight and 11, to see Santa in Lapland.

Just one big happy family.

A local choir performed at the end of Day 1.

Travel Weekly Editor Grant Jones, travelled to MTA Fiji as a guest of MTA.

Feature image: MTA founders Karen and Roy Merricks at Sheraton Fiji Golf and Beach Resort. Picture Grant Jones

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