Guest Post: Tech-focused travel advisors must not forget the human touch

Guest Post: Tech-focused travel advisors must not forget the human touch

Highly-personalised service is becoming the key differentiator for travel advisors in the new world of travel? Based on findings from a new report published by Accor examining the strategies, technologies and trends impacting leisure travel advisors in the recovery and beyond Dana Lewis, VP meetings events & leisure, Europe & North Africa of Accor

The accelerated digital transformation of travel advisory businesses has been one of the biggest stories in town for those with an interest in the sector, and continues to be, driven by the enormous headline-grabbing potential of technologies such as generative AI.

But there is a risk that some in the sector will put too many of their eggs in the technology basket, forgetting the human element that serves as travel advisors’ true differentiator.

Like no other event in living memory, the pandemic forced travel agents and tour operators to make dramatic changes to their models, particularly evident with their investment in technology. Forced to shift their operations online when physical locations had to close due to lockdown restrictions, travel advisors had to invest quickly to ensure they would be ready to serve their clients when the recovery arrived. Adoption of digital technology usage in the industry accelerated at pace, as travel advisors were compelled to meet the heightened expectations of their clients and remain competitive.

Accor recently published a report examining the strategies, technologies and trends impacting leisure travel advisors in the recovery and beyond. In it, the laser-eyed focus on tech of some of the industry’s major players is evident.

TUI Group, Europe’s largest holiday package operator, reportedly hired large numbers of software developers to help it automate key processes and is aiming to turn itself into a digital platform business, including offering travel products through third-parties equipped with their technology.

Online travel agent Expedia Group is focusing heavily on its B2B business, providing its technology to other businesses from any sector who want to sell travel inventory, made possible by API technology.

And bed banks like Hotelbeds have been working on other B2B tech products to supplement its main business as a wholesaler of hotel rooms. 

While tech is front and centre for these major leisure travel intermediaries, for smaller travel advisors, keeping up with this change is also vital. 

Consumers have heightened expectations. They want the slick digital experience of booking and paying for an Uber, buying something at Amazon or watching their favourite programme on Netflix, in all areas of their lives – including travel. People are looking for more personalised and convenient travel options and are using digital channels to research and book them. They want a simple, intuitive and automated booking path, with all services clustered in one digital platform. 

But travellers have also picked up a taste for the personal touch. Initially driven by ongoing uncertainty and the perceived need for professional guidance to take the stress out of travel in a hugely unpredictable and complex time, in the recovery travellers began to seek different kinds of trips. Trips that were longer, and that required more personalised care and attention to organise every last detail.

Travel advisors, with their specialist expertise, tools and resources, are uniquely positioned to help travellers plan their dream getaways. Their knowledge and network of contacts, gives them access to information about destinations, attractions and travel tips that are difficult to find through other channels. This makes them valuable to leisure travellers, because they can satisfy the elevated customer expectations of what a great user experience feels like when they are planning and booking travel. They want a faster turnaround; more options that are personalised to their preferences; and faster responses to issues or queries.

Of course, the digital experience is an important part of this. Used properly, technology - from messaging platforms to payments and artificial intelligence - can be travel advisors’ best friend. It can help them to optimise their capacity with a wide variety of inventory; access powerful digital distribution channels; better understand their customers; market themselves and provide more sophisticated and efficient services.

But it is far from the be-all and end-all. Digital tools can be invaluable in contributing to better knowledge and understanding of your customers and streamlining certain services, but this information has to be applied in a human-centric manner to truly satisfy today’s traveller.

Consumers increasingly value the ability of travel advisors to remove the stress from their trip, tailor it to their preferences, plan every last detail in a flexible way, and be the reassuring presence that takes care of problems when they arise. 

The ability to provide this bespoke level of service that can exceed the expectations of customers, help them feel the way they should feel around a holiday – excited, well-rested or recharged - and build emotional, long-lasting connections, is a competitive advantage over purely digital platform competitors that should be maximised.

For travel advisors, continually digitally transforming their operations is of course vital. But even more important is to build an overall customer experience that blends technology with the human touch to make their clients feel great about their trip. They must develop the services and nurture the partnerships with accommodation and other service providers that can help them delight and connect with their customers on a level that is beyond what alternative intermediary models can achieve.