It is expected that each year will see a 5% annual increase in passenger traffic moving forward and, by 2030, there will be an extra billion people in the world, of which 20% will be travelling.
Alongside this growth, we are seeing many new technologies that will revolutionise the customer experience and change traveller expectations. The population increase combined with new expectations means travel agents will rapidly need to evolve and change their approach.
Technologies such as mobile devices, artificial intelligence, and big data are and will continue to completely change the customer experience. Consumers will soon expect to visit an exotic beach without leaving their armchairs, or receive recommendations for local restaurants when booking a flight to a new city. Embracing this technology and exploring new ways to use them in the sales process will ensure travel agents stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
It will be key for travel agents to remember that not everyone will be as technologically savvy as the millennial generation, who are often keen to use mobile. Some older travellers may be uncomfortable with mobile booking and will prefer a phone call or an online chat; some younger travellers may turn away from technology entirely and embrace a face-to-face conversation with a travel agent. An omnichannel approach, making use of online, mobile, and personal interaction, will ensure all customers are comfortable coordinating their journey.
Combining technological approaches with human service will be a common theme for many travel agents in the future. Some customers are “high touch,” valuing human interaction and enjoy being guided through the purchasing process; they are often happy to use technology as long as it is in conjunction with personal services. Other customers are “low touch,” preferring to use self-serve technology and requiring little or no interaction with travel agents. And some customers will have different preferences based on the type of trip they’re planning.
Travel agents will need to differentiate between high and low touch customers – and high and low touch requests. One way to do this is simply by asking them: agencies can provide a brief online quiz to determine the traveller’s personality and, from that, identify how much personal interaction they would like in a given circumstance.
There are a number of innovations travel providers are making use of to appeal to high or low touch guests. The Wellesley in London, for example, has a WhatsApp number high touch guests can text to make reservations. Some other hotels are using RFID technology in towels to determine where in the room the towel is and gauge whether a guest needs housekeeping without asking them, which is very appealing to low touch guests. Travel agents, too, could provide a text-to-book option and find ways to determine whether a customer needs assistance without relying on regular check-ins.
Being successful in this growing market will not just be about understanding how much personal or technological interaction each customer prefer, it will also be about clearly identifying the type of travel agency you are. Some travel agents will become highly specialised. Boutique agencies that can organise the best luxury trip, or the most authentic experience in a region, or offer ethical, green journeys – these agencies may not appeal to the widest traveller base, but will focus on expertly offering a niche group exactly the type of trip they want.
Another direction agencies might pursue is partnering with others to become a single Mega Online Travel Retailer. Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) are already beginning to explore the advertising model, such as KAYAK linking with Priceline. As they converge with metasearch companies, OTAs are able to produce more – and more accurate – information. They are becoming Mega Online Travel Retailers, integrating relevant referral content (which they redirect to the supplier) and reseller content (which they can book) to become more competitive and appeal to a wider range of travellers.
It is clear that the travel industry is changing, and travel agencies will need to evolve to keep up with new expectations. Whether they become niche agencies or aim to appeal to a wide range of travellers, all agencies will need to embrace an omnichannel approach to ensure they can reach their customers. New technologies are rapidly being developed for use throughout the industry; now is the time for travel agencies to explore how they can be used.