Steve Byrne, chief executive of Travel Counsellors, discusses the rising use of AI in travel and the importance of retaining a personal relationship based approach
The Travel Counsellors business model like many service based travel providers is built upon the personal relationships that our 1,800 Travel Counsellors across the world cultivate. We are strong believers that people buy from people. Indeed, our own research has shown that the main reason why customers book with us is trust. 74 per cent of Travel Counsellors customers identified the trust that they have in their personal Travel Counsellor as the biggest benefit of booking with them.
While the personal touch remains critical to the process, we recognise the enormous potential that technology has when it comes to supporting these personal relationships, which is why over the past few years we have doubled the spend on the technology we provide our Travel Counsellors globally. Because in the right hands, technology enables us to have the time, data and content and more to care even more.
AI has been touted as the ‘next big thing’ in technology and the rapid race of progress fuelled by the extent of investment by the big four tech companies is expected to fundamentally change shopping experiences. We recently teamed up with management consultancy firm L.E.K Consulting for some research on the impact that AI can have when it comes to enhancing the service that travel providers offer.
Far from being focused on replacing human interaction, one of the main findings from this paper was that the future of artificial intelligence will be to enable companies and OTAs to improve the efficiency of their businesses operations. And if invested in effectively will be used to augment, simplify and accelerate human activities, enabling expert travel advisers to have more knowledge and time to enhance the experience for the customer.
For the travel industry, AI is likely to have the largest impact on trip research and planning, by simplifying the administrative process so that data is easily accessible. In short, human specialist knowledge and customer handling skills, augmented by AI-driven knowledge and content management that enables the adviser to be even better informed to advise and inspire the customer, can create both even more successful outcomes for customers if executed effectively.
Using AI, advisors will be able to improve the services they offer, but the ‘human touch’ in this process will still be imperative. Research suggests customers still want human involvement throughout the process of planning, booking and experiencing the trip and especially when, but not limited to, purchasing more complex and higher value itineraries.
Regardless of budget, our own experience and growth shows they trust the one-to-one advice provided by the human expert that the trip is right for them, to help manage the risk of getting it wrong and will want and value human interaction if plans change or an issue or problem occurs. This is something machines cannot match, but which can certainly augment and streamline the service that sits behind it. This care and attention, displayed by travel brands with a personal recommendation and trusted advisor service at their heart, will continue to create customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy.
However, trust in human travel advisors cannot be taken for granted. Advisors must show interest and care beyond the initial booking. For example, through staying in touch, providing future trip inspiration and displaying the soft touches that only a human being can provide – empathy, care and interest in the customer beyond any ‘hard data’ that may have been captured through the booking process.
The building of an emotional, one-on-one personal relationship between the trusted advisor and the customer, combined with the agent’s situational / expert knowledge, is the reason we believe human travel advisors with a relationship based care for their customers can look forward to a positive future, but one wherein the advisors must have access to the technology and workflow platforms that enables them to compete with OTAs and other customer-facing booking channels.
For travel companies looking to focus on customer service, AI can play an important role in enhancing this offering, whilst the “human touch” will remain critical to the overall proposition. It is therefore hugely advisable for businesses to understand where the opportunities to introduce this technology lie.