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Sunday,  July 21, 2024 8:55 AM 

“Technology, full steam ahead”: TravelOnly conference kicks off in Cancun with focus on AI, pushing boundaries

“Technology, full steam ahead”: TravelOnly conference kicks off in Cancun with focus on AI, pushing boundaries
Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

With the rise of natural language chatbots that can take requests for flights, hotels and activities, and turn them into customized itineraries, the role of artificial intelligence (AI) – and its impact on the travel industry – has been hot topic in recent months.

OpenAI’s “ChatGPT,” for one, since debuting last November, has been shaking up sectors – travel and tourism included – in never-before-seen ways.

ChatGPT (short for “Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer”) has been praised for generating detailed answers across many domains of knowledge, and for understanding nuances that search engines, like Google, can’t grasp.

(Google, too, has notably entered the AI ring with its own generative platform, called Bard).

Some critics have sounded the alarm about this new tech, warning that it can be unreliable at times, and in travel industry circles, the conversation over whether AI is a friend or foe has been ongoing (see PAX’s own take here).

But some people in travel have made up their minds, identifying artificial intelligence as a must-have tool for achieving efficiency, streamlining day-to-day tasks and unlocking bigger-picture thinking.

Gregory Luciani is one of those people.  

The president and CEO of TravelOnly, over the past year, has been working with his team to develop a front-end AI solution – a “TravelGPT,” layered atop ChatGPT – specifically designed for the host agency’s network of some 750 independent and home-based travel advisors.

In his view, it’s the tool of the future.

“Technology is what drives businesses forward and we definitely won't be left behind on that front,” says Gregory Luciani, president & CEO of TravelOnly. (Pax Global Media)

“It’s the biggest ace up our sleeve,” Luciani told PAX in a sit-down interview last month ahead of TravelOnly’s 2023 national conference and sixth annual awards gala, which kicks off in Cancun this week.  

At family-owned, family-run TravelOnly, a host agency that’s been in business for nearly 50 years: “It's technology, full steam ahead,” as Luciani put it.

“Technology is what drives businesses forward and we definitely won't be left behind on that front,” he said.

Luciani was tight-lipped about what TravelOnly’s new AI platform, which is near completion, is capable of, but he referred to it as a “personal assistant” that can help TravelOnly advisors build itineraries and save time.

“This tool will help our associates manage their business better,” he said. “We're pretty excited about it.”

The Pursuit of Passion

Artificial intelligence is just one piece of the “Pursuit of Passion,” the theme of TravelOnly’s conference, on this week at adults-only Secrets The Vine Cancun.

And the passion for travel is hot and heavy – TravelOnly, this year, will see its largest conference turnout yet, attracting more than 150 travel advisors and some 40 suppliers.

READ MORE: "Advisors came prepared” - Growth strategies cap off TravelOnly’s Symposium at Sea

The fun and informative week sold out, and the past few weeks have been spent trying to squeeze more advisors in, Luciani revealed.

“There's something about networking and relationship building, at a conference, in a destination, that you can't recreate anywhere else,” Luciani said. "The travel industry is an ever-evolving landscape, and it's crucial to foster connections and celebrate our collective achievements.”

Be seen, be top of mind

There are two things driving conference fever this year, Luciani told PAX.

One, people are itching to get away after a “stressful” winter, the CEO said (even if business, coming out of COVID, is booming for many).

But secondly, the pressure from suppliers to deliver “more, more, more" is real, Luciani explained, and sometimes, the only way to up the ante is by rallying the troops.  

“In order for us to deliver more, we have to do these events, with more live training and networking, to give advisors the foundation to go out there, be seen and be top of mind,” Luciani said.

READ MORE: People are “actually asking” about service fees: trade insights revealed at TravelOnly’s conference

Top of mind not only within client databases, but also within communities.  

TravelOnly advisors, this week, will attend workshops on how to increase their digital footprint (via social media, for example), but also their actual footprint by being a person of influence in their village, town or city.  

TravelOnly advisors and suppliers gather at the host agency's 2022 Symposium at Sea conference. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

One element at this year’s conference, compared to previous years, is a heightened focus on internal and business processes.

Supplier presentations are still on the agenda (some brands, such as Exoticca, Celestyal Cruises, Club Med, Explora Journeys and Seabourn, are attending TravelOnly’s conference for the first time).

But interwoven throughout are seminars about accounting and sales, panel discussions, and one-on-one sessions where advisors can meet not only with suppliers, but also with each other.

TravelOnly, notably, has a mentorship program that connects its most experienced and successful agents with new and rising stars within its network – and those meetings are typically a highlight for many.

“I always feel like our associates walk away with tangible, actionable items to help them grow their business,” Luciani said.

There will also be presentations on new tools that are available to TravelOnly advisors, from digital marketing and future AI systems to automatic email distribution and print media. 

Investments in marketing, suppliers

Securing original content for social media, in particular, has been a key focus at TravelOnly in recent years.

“We're investing in content that’s exclusive to us,” Luciani said.

What that means is that TravelOnly advisors won’t all be publishing the same verbatim posts to Facebook, at the same time – an all-too-common problem seen in some marketing programs today.

From left (of TravelOnly): Gregory Luciani, president & CEO; Ann Luciani, owner & CFO. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

Something else TravelOnly is investing in? Suppliers that pay good commissions. 

“We’re focusing on commissions above 15 per cent,” Luciani said. “So, whoever that partner might be – or whoever that partner is willing to be – that's who we're going to be investing more of our time and energy in. It gives us the return on our investment and time.”

It’s a fair argument. These days, it’s “more work than ever” for a travel advisor to fulfill a booking, from that initial intro call to the completion of a trip, Luciani said.

“Even with all the tech and tools, clients want a higher level of service,” he said.

Time to lower the temperature

This also plays into a strategy that aims to “bring the temperature down” in the world of product flow and time management. 

The travel industry, Luciani said, has reached a “boiling point” where demand is high, agents are busy and products, it seems, are endless.

“On the sales side, it’s wonderful, but we’re trying to focus on higher margins,” Luciani said.

In a way, it’s a pledge to work smarter, not harder.

“We’re eliminating business that's not a right fit for our associates,” Luciani said, citing suppliers that pay less than eight per cent commission as an example. “We’re focusing on mid to high-end markets so we can eliminate the low end and bring the boiling water down.”

It’s also about getting to a point where service levels are no longer compromised.

“Associates can't continue to be a punching bag for their clients,” Luciani said. “Because that's what happens when a service issue arises with tour operators. Clients get upset, they blame the agents, and after a while, you become disenfranchised.”

The next step for the industry, Luciani said, is to invest in technology solutions, like self-service tools, that eliminate some of the back-office burden some agents, today, are coping with.

Industry newcomers

The “Pursuit of Passion” conference comes as TravelOnly experiences a spike in post-COVID growth.

The host agency is recruiting 60 per cent, year over year, and the bulk of newcomers are new to the travel industry, from other sectors, Luciani said.

Real-estate agents, teachers, accountants. Even chiropractors and personal wellness experts.

“These are professionals from other industries,” Luciani said. “They know they have a big database of customers, or a network, and they're looking at travel as a way to move over completely.”

Many will start off as part-time, but the goal is to become a full-time professional “which takes time,” Luciani said.

But in Luciani’s view, it’s time worth investing in, and even if TravelOnly anticipates that it will soon pass the 800, 900-agent mark, the promise of “no agent gets left behind” remains.

“We don't look at [success] in terms of, ‘Oh, let's get to a certain number.’ We're really focused on the agents we have,” Luciani said. “We want to be able to support every single agent in the company.”

Ultimately, the “Pursuit of Passion” is about empowering agents and strengthening relationships.

“We’re proud to create a platform where industry professionals can come together, exchange ideas, and continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in travel,” Luciani said.

"We believe in the power of collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and we are confident that this event will be instrumental in propelling our industry forward."

Stay tuned for more coverage from TravelOnly's 2023 national conference and awards gala. 

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