This week, Travel Daily chats with Frederic Barou, Vice President of Distribution, Products & Operations at Amadeus Asia Pacific, about the future of the travel agent…
Q) How has technology changed the role of the travel agent in the last decade or so?
Travel agents have always been great at understanding the rational needs of travellers. If we look back 10-20 years, however, the interaction tended to be more supplier centric – travellers told the agent where they wanted to go and the agent would find and book the right content that met the travellers’ needs.
Today, technology has allowed travel agents to go beyond being simply an intermediary, allowing them to gain a deep knowledge of emotional drivers to become trusted experts. Finding the right blend of technology and personal, consultative selling can build enduring relationships with travellers. More than ever it’s about taking a customer-centric approach, which means personalisation and instantaneity.
Of course there is no substitute for the human touch, and this is where bricks and mortar travel agents will continue to have an edge, but in an era where growth is king, technology can help to understand the emotional needs of larger numbers of customers by filtering and distilling information, then providing customised and hyper-personalised options.
Q) With so much technology and information now available to customers, how can travel agents add value to the research and booking process?
One of the fascinating paradoxes of the world of travel today is that the unrelenting quest for all-encompassing online content can end up overwhelming and alienating travellers. That’s where travel agents can step in and impress.
By understanding customer needs and removing complexity, travel agents can position themselves as a trusted expert, adding real value to the research and booking process. In order to successfully provide this value, agents will require solid breadth and depth of content as well as customer data and predictive analytics, which will allow them to differentiate their service to maximise customer experience and loyalty.
Of course travellers, by nature, are always on the move. Technology will be key to combine the necessary elements and allow travel agents to reach to the traveller anywhere, anytime, through any device.
We have taken an innovative approach here, developing Amadeus Selling Platform Connect, the industry’s first travel agency mobile front office – it allows agents to access their customers’ booking from anywhere on any internet-enabled device: from their desktop, laptop, tablet or even smart phone. It’s being rolled out across the APAC region right now, and it’s something we’re very proud of.
We do have to be realistic: not every traveller will naturally want a brick-and-mortar experience. If we look at the findings from our recent Future Traveller Tribes 2030, traditional agencies will have to offer something unique and adventurous to attract Social Capital Seekers or Cultural Purists. On the other hand, Obligation Meeters, Simplicity Searchers and Reward Hunters will be agents’ lifeblood.
Of course, agents will have an important role in any travel involving complex itineraries, multi-modal travel, visas or unique experiences, but by understanding and catering to the distinctive emotional needs of each Tribe, agents can earn steadfast loyalty in a competitive landscape.
Q) Are there any specific sectors of the industry in which agents have been i) helped by the rise of technology, or ii) threatened by it?
Travel agents may have felt challenged by the inexorable growth of online travel retailers. But every challenge brings new opportunities for the bold – and new distribution and retail models can play into travel agents’ hands.
Technology doesn’t need to be seen as a threat, in fact it can be a travel agent’s best ally. Never before have travel agents had the access to vast content, advanced search, customer profiling and personalisation tool or the ability to provide 24/7 service.
With the right tools at their disposal, travel agents and TMCs can blend human touch with technology to compete intelligently with the pace and impersonal omnipresence of the online world.
The corporate travel space is a great example of a sector that has been propelled forward by technology. TMCs add immense value not just by processing bookings, but by providing value added reporting, rate negotiation, travel trends and business intelligence – all of these areas have been revolutionised by technology.
Of course technology, such as Amadeus Master Pricer, makes it possible for any travel agency to have an online presence. However, as the big online players consolidate, and OTA and metasearch converges, the secret is not to compete on price but to provide differentiated service and specialise: for example destination expert, niche interest, cruise, packaged travel or unique experiences. This is where the hybrid model thrives.
Q) What will be the next important technological innovations for travel agencies? And how do you believe travel agents’ roles will evolve in the coming decades? And what will the typical travel agent look like in 2030?
Today, we are in the Age of Traveller Power where the rules are dictated by the end consumer. In this age and beyond, travel agents need to see the traveller as more than a demographic, and truly understand their wants, values, and behaviours.
More than ever, they need to adapt their approach to appeal to different Traveller Tribes who are searching for unique and personalised travel experiences. So I’d suggest that technology innovation will be increasingly be focused on personalisation.
In the corporate travel space, one of the big things on the agenda of travel managers is the need to deliver even more intuitive tools to their travellers. This means doing things differently, and this is where we’ve been listening to our customers very carefully.
An example would be how we think about business travel in the context of the overall business ecosystem. More often than not, business travel is a factor of meeting management, meaning travel should wrap around the requirements at the destination, instead of the other way around.
In partnership with Microsoft, we are pioneering a solution that will enable users to search and book travel needs directly from their Outlook calendar. This will reduce the need for accessing multiple sites and manually updating the calendar. We are excited about this initiative and will be sharing more details soon.
In this evolving consumer landscape, it is inevitable that the travel agent of the future will have evolved even further. By 2030, they will have to overcome an entirely new set of challenges and opportunities. What these challenges and opportunities will be is anyone’s guess, but you can be certain that a balance of technology and human touch will sit at the heart.