Staying ahead of the curve: Why agents should embrace GDS automation

Staying ahead of the curve: Why agents should embrace GDS automation

When travel agents discuss sales automation, it often comes with an overtone of concern about the future of their role.

There seems to be an attitude that when part of an agent’s job becomes automated, it’s another step toward making that job redundant. But is this really the case?

The technology behind an agent’s Global Distribution System (GDS) is increasingly advancing to automate more aspects of the travel sales process.

Operational areas such as queue management, a passenger name record (PNR), quality checking and ticketing take a lot of the travel consultants’ time but can be easily done using artificial intelligence (AI). This is particularly important as the inevitable disruption resulting from the travel bounceback eats up more and more precious booking time.

So we rounded up a few experts to get a handle on how automation will progress and what travel agents can do to best get ahead of the curve by using automation for their own gain.

“There’s capacity issues, there’s expensive tickets, there’s no staff, and we’re rebounding at an amazing pace,” Kristy Williams, Travelport’s APAC head of account management & online travel agencies, said.

“From our perspective, as a GDS, I don’t think that our technology and automation has ever been more important.”

Agents are understaffed and overworked now more so than ever. A mass exodus during the pandemic, increased demand for travel and increasingly difficult requirements for agents to do their jobs mean many agencies are looking to technology and automation to keep up with demand.

“It allows front office staff to focus on what they know best: sales and servicing,” Kaylene Shuttlewood, Amadeus’ managing director of travel sellers Pacific said of automation processes.

A variety of GDS’ have different programs in place to tackle some of the more basic tasks. Sabre has tech that automates exchanges and refunds, Amadeus has its ‘Amadeus Robotics’ tools that automate travel agents’ tasks on queues, PNRs and issuance activities, and Travelport has its Productivity Automator to eliminate repetitive tasks, however, the demand for more automation continues.

Brett Thorsad, Sabre’s agency sales VP said that their GDS has looked further than just automating repetitive tasks and into engaging AI and machine learning (ML) to advance sales.

“We co-develop with Google products and technologies in the AI and ML space, and so we are already leveraging Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities,” Thorsad said.

“In several of our Sabre products under the Sabre travel AI branding, we believe we will see predictive capabilities, and machine learning, becoming more and more useful, but also necessary in terms of an agency’s ability to handle an increasingly complex and increasingly personalised travel itinerary.”

But even with travel sales automation leading toward highly sophisticated consumer behaviour predictions, it’s important to remember the human element provided by an agent in travel sales, particularly with post-pandemic travel.

Shuttlewood gave the comparison of booking travel as with ordering something from Amazon or Zalando, but there are a few obvious differences that make agents critical to the process.

“Cancelling and refunding travel, for example, is not quite as easy as a pair of shoes,” Shuttlewood said.

“Some airfares are really complex, they may involve several carriers, numerous airport and service taxes that may or may not be refundable, complex flows, etc. 

“It’s not just two clicks and a return label. The process behind changing or cancelling a ticket needs professional handling, and that is why we have travel agents. But that is also why applying technology to automate that process for the travel agents as much is possible is so crucial.”

This process is what leads to agents freeing up their time to take care of their customers’ service needs, making the customer experience feel as easy as the Amazon/Zalando process, Shuttlewood argued.

But all this automation can be quite confusing and difficult to implement for day-to-day operations. José Cañas, TravelManagers’ fares and ticketing manager said that with many agents so busy right now, many of them do not have the time or know-how to implement these tools.

“They’re not always sure where to go to actually find if there is something that could help them make their work easier and automate certain systems,” Cañas said.

To counter this, savvy agencies like TravelManagers provide webinars and services to help agents better use and understand GDS products.

That said, it needs to be understood that travel sales automation is happening, and whether agents stay up with it or not is up to them, Thorsad argues.

“Travel agencies need to be aware that their competitors are doing it and if they want to remain competitive in this sort of post-pandemic environment, automation products are a necessary part of an agency’s workflow,” Thorsad said.

Featured Image: iStock/South_agency

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