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Monday,  March 4, 2024 11:41 PM 

On Location: “People make travel better”: Ensemble tackles ChatGPT at conference in Las Vegas

On Location: “People make travel better”: Ensemble tackles ChatGPT at conference in Las Vegas
From left (of Ensemble): Shahla Lalani, SVP, marketing; Beth Butzlaff, SVP, partner relations; Kristina Boyce, SVP, operations; Michael Johnson, president. (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.

Ensemble’s 2023 Horizons conference kicked off in Las Vegas on Thursday (Nov. 2) with a live demonstration of the number one thing that is challenging the travel landscape right now: ChatGPT.

Addressing a ballroom of more than 700 travel advisors, agency managers, owners, and suppliers, Ensemble President Michael Johnson took to a stage at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino to address the natural language chatbot, a form of artificial intelligence that debuted last year.

ChatGPT can assist users with tasks like writing emails, essays and, yes, travel itineraries, in a human-like way, and generate content in seconds.

Ensemble President Michael Johnson welcomes conference delegates at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. (Pax Global Media)

To show conference delegates just how fast it all works, Johnson, using his voice and a wall of projection screens, promoted ChatGPT to generate a three-day itinerary for a family visiting Paris for the first time.

Within the blink of an eye, a somewhat decent itinerary for Paris splashed across the room – content that could have otherwise been created by the very people attending Ensemble’s conference.

The point of the exercise was to not only address the elephant in the room (whether artificial intelligence, like ChatGPT, is a friend or foe of the industry is up for debate), but to also emphasize how “people make travel better.”

More than 700 travel pros fill a ballroom at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. (Pax Global Media)

“The truth is, there are people that don't believe that,” Johnson told the crowd. “In fact, there are thousands of people working right now to [prove] that a machine can book travel faster and cheaper than anyone in this room.”

“Soon, [ChatGPT] will add booking payments and document distribution to its repertoire. Its goal is to make booking travel easier and is without emotion, and it is relentless. It's kind of depressing.”

Things are changing

Ensemble’s President acknowledged that “things are changing.”

However, in the face of new and innovative technology, it’s something that “we shouldn't ignore, and that we shouldn't fear either.”

On the rise of artificial intelligence: “I think this represents an incredible opportunity for our industry,” Johnson said, “because it's forcing us to come to terms with our value proposition.”

There’s also misconceptions about the meaning of time, he explained.

“Time doesn't need to mean fast. Time can also mean quality and care. It’s not your biggest weakness. In fact, it's one of your strengths,” Johnson said, citing an example of how a travel advisor takes time to develop expertise, get to know their clients, and build relationships with suppliers.

“That is the most valuable,” Johnson said. “It's something that technology can't replicate. Your craft is your advantage.”

Level up

The role of human-powered travel is just one facet in the art of “Levelling Up” on business (“Level Up” is this year’s Ensemble conference theme).

This year’s event, on until Nov. 5, will take attendees through a jam-packed itinerary of supplier sessions, one-on-one meetings, workshops and parties, including a Moulin Rouge-themed closing gala on Sunday – all with the neon glow of Las Vegas in the background.

This year's Horizon's conference takes place at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. (Pax Global Media)

Ensemble, which was acquired by the Navigatr Group in May of 2022, is wrapping up a year of transformation, unlocking a stronger value proposition for its members.

Navigatr is a travel holding company that includes assets such as Kensington Tours, Travel Edge, T/E Network and TripArc, and the rebuilding of Ensemble has led to several changes.

This has included expanding the team, a brand refresh and a new logo; and new print and digital publications, including new consumer magazines, Range and Range Best, which feature exclusive partner offers.

Other initiatives have included a new FAM program, called Further Your World (this year's inaugural event was with Silversea aboard the Silver Moon in Iceland)a new marketing platform, hotel and DMC program, as well as updated training and development under Ensemble Training Academy. 

Ensemble members aboard Silver Moon. (Supplied)

Key to Ensemble’s growth strategy has been its ability to onboard members on the proprietary ADX platform.

This tool, which stands for Agent Digital Experience, was launched in 2014 by TripArcand allows advisors to not only book all aspects of a client's trip, but to also invoice in the same platform for maximum efficiency (and commissions).

Then there’s Ensemble’s new menu of events.

Horizons is an annual gathering for the entire consortium (this year’s event in Las Vegas welcomes members from across the board, whereas last year’s conference in Miami was primarily for owners and managers. This year also sees a stronger Canadian contingent).

Other events include “Uncharted,” an advisor-focused virtual session, and “Summit,” which is for owners and managers.  

Humans and connections

This year’s Horizons conference revolves around three fundamentals, Johnson said yesterday – the first one being the value of humans.

Fundamental number two is that “connection matters,” Johnson said.  

From left: Kristin Erz, Hurtigruten, Patricia Di Benedetto, Explora Journeys; David Green, G Adventures. (Pax Global Media)

“It's easy in today's business environment, the pace at which we operate, to write off the importance of connections,” he said. “It's not something to walk by and ignore. Connection is not a replacement of deliverables. In fact, it can be a method by which those deliverables are achieved.”

Canada on the scene at Ensemble's Horizon's conference in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

(Pax Global Media)

Thirdly, “agencies need business partners, not affiliations,” Johnson said.

“We're the facilitators, but you're the magic,” he said, addressing delegates. “We're not trying to win a popularity contest at Ensemble. Instead, our goal is to push you forward…our role at Ensemble is to support you, not brand you.”

Fatima Da Silva, Norwegian Cruise Line; Jordana Botting, Viking; Derek Lloyd, Norwegian Cruise Line. (Pax Global Media)

Sandra Gardiner of AmaWaterways (right) and team. (Pax Global Media)

Upgrades & enhancements  

Some announcements that were made at Thursday’s opening session include Ensemble’s plan to launch a new and enhanced member portal in early 2024, as well as upgrades to its “UofE” training academy.

Travel agencies and independent contractors also now have access to a new tool that allows them to build a fully-customizable website for highlighting certifications, expertise, while pairing it with preferred partners and marketing.

“Editing it is as straightforward as using Word,” said Kristina Boyce, Ensemble’s senior vice-president of operations. “And if you need help writing, there's AI-enabled content support [in addition to human support].”

Kristina Boyce, Ensemble’s senior vice-president of operations. (Pax Global Media)

New giving program

Ensemble has also announced a new giving program, called Spark, which connects members to two million charities and non-profits around the globe, in both Canadian and U.S. currencies, with tax receipting.

“Ensemble is proud to equip its members with the ability to support causes most meaningful to you and to engage with your advisors and clients in fundraising campaigns,” Johnson said.

Photographer Giles Duley, CEO of Legacy of War Foundation, spoke at Thursday's opening. (Pax Global Media)

To maximize contributions, Ensemble will match dollar for dollar all contributions made to specific partners, which include Doctors Without Borders, Make-A-Wish, Legacy of War Foundation, the Royal Ontario Museum, and many others.

“We’re going to start there, and there is absolutely more to come,” Johnson said.

Stay tuned as PAX brings you more on-location coverage from Ensemble’s 2023 Horizon’s conference, “Level Up,” in Las Vegas.

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