An expert panel has predicted that travel will follow in the footsteps of manufacturing, with technology helping firms produce more with less staff.
Speakers at Travolution’s Travel Innovators session at Eyefortravel in London on Thursday said that with more travel booking moving online, firms would adapt to use fewer staff per booking when discussing the results of Travolution’s annual Innovation report.
Dave Jones, director of Atcore, said: “Manufacturing is a very interesting industry to compare to travel. If you go back ten to fifteen years, when lastminute.com and Expedia had just been born, manufacturing had nothing like the technology we saw in travel. But that’s changed a huge amount.
“There’s a huge drop off in employment in manufacturing but at the same time there’s as massive increase in productivity in the manufacturing industry. They are doing a whole load more than before with a whole load less staff. I think that’s a trend that we’ll start to see through travel.”
Jones said there had already been a ‘modest’ drop-off in the number of staff due to the rise of technology.
“Technology is a deflationary force,” he added. “It used to be really hard to build technology and really easy to sell. There wasn’t much around. It’s the other way around now, it’s much easier to build stuff because technology is getting so much better.”
Andy Owen Jones, co-founder and CEO of BD4Travel said there was some “fun” use of robots at hotels, but technology was unlikely to replace humans in roles such as reception.
Instead, he said, artificial intelligence will be brought in only when it can produce a better result than people.
He said: “Where big concentrations of people are taking decisions which could be made better by an algorithm, that’s where you’ll see people costs go down very quickly, like in manufacturing.
“The equivalent of the robot is not the robot at the hotel desk, it’s the people who are choosing the products for the tour operator.”
But he went on to say the issue is that “no one wants to vote for that”, adding: “If your powerbase is built on the number of people you employ, and our society has historically valued people, it’s going to be quite a mindset change. Is that a process that the larger players go through themselves or do smaller players come in who have mastered that and drive that themselves?
“The people who resist technology most are the ones who are directly replaceable by an algorithm. That becomes an interesting debate because actually if they master it they can ride in front of it and take it forward.”
Scott Leslie, international marketing manager at Traveltek, used the example of Flight Centre buying a £7m stake in Argentinian tech-focussed travel group Bibam. He said: “Travel agents and tour operators have to be perceived to be ahead of the curve and follow the current trends for booking packages. You see these travel agencies wanting to expand their digital footprint, at the same time get into other markets. They want the intelligence and digital knowledge that these companies have. They want to be seen that they are on top of the digital game.”
But he said it takes time, and resource, to move teams over to new software from legacy systems, adding: “You need to update the staff on how to use the systems. And you need to have the transition period going between legacy systems to a new system. Consultants need to be brought in to teach your travel agents and staff how to do that. That’s why there’s a high cost to computer services.
“I think spending on services will go down once the companies have transitioned away from their old systems. Their reliance on consultants will go down.”