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Saturday,  July 13, 2024 12:08 PM 

On Location: Virtuoso exploring AI tools with startups; “Age of distrust” will amplify human connections: CEO

On Location: Virtuoso exploring AI tools with startups; “Age of distrust” will amplify human connections: CEO
From left (of Virtuoso): David Kolner, EVP; Matthew Upchurch, chairman & CEO. (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.

Virtuoso is exploring new partnerships with tech startups as it looks at ways of integrating the latest forms of artificial intelligence (AI) into its platforms.

But the luxury travel consortium won’t be alone in deciding which new tools it should use.

According to David Kolner, executive vice-president at Virtuoso, the organization’s network of some 21,000 luxury travel advisors will help inform the next steps for implementing an AI strategy.   

“The technology space at Virtuoso is a lot like the hotel space. We don't take on a new hotel until our agencies have sold it several times, have sent their clients there, and can vouch for it,” Kolner told PAX at this year’s Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. “So even with AI tools, we'll be looking for our members to pilot and test new technologies and recommend them back to Virtuoso.”

More than 5,000 luxury travel pros are attending Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

Kolner said it’s unlikely that Virtuoso will build many proprietary AI tools when there are startups already making waves in the travel tech space, presenting ample possibilities for partnerships.

The integration of AI will be done in “places where it makes sense,” Kolner said, citing Virtuoso’s consumer-facing “find and advisor” tool as an example.

All eyes on tech

Virtuoso’s 35th annual conference, spanning Las Vegas’ Bellagio, Aria and Vdara resorts from Aug. 12-18, brought together more than 5,000 travel advisors and suppliers for a week of networking, training and informative sessions about the future of luxury travel – with technology being one key focus.

This year, the consortium hosted its second annual Travel Tech Summit, featuring insight from companies such as Microsoft, Hopper and Deloitte, alongside 20 startup businesses, covering hotel, cruise, tour, transportation, sustainability tech, including advisor/agency companies HyperGuest, Tern Travel, TravelWits, Tres Technologies and TripSuite.

Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chairman and CEO, addresses delegates at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chairman and CEO, said the Summit supports a mission to “constantly discover the newest solutions for our members and partners, allowing for efficiencies so that they can focus on what they do best – creating exceptional travel experiences for clients.”

READ MORE: On Location - Will demand for luxury travel last? Trends, insights at Virtuoso Travel Week

This year’s Summit included a “Startup Showcase,” which featured startups alongside Venture Capital investors, tech innovators and Virtuoso’s own team, highlighting the work and connection between the travel space, the finance community and big tech.

“I'm happy that we're encouraging entrepreneurs that can think of things that all of us – people in the travel industry – can't even imagine ourselves,” Kolner told PAX. “We depend on these new thoughts, so why not invite people into our industry to help solve our problems and make an enriching business for them too?”

The “age of distrust”

The travel landscape is in the midst of a technological transition as generative artificial intelligence, like OpenAI’s natural language chatbot ChatGPT, shakes up human processes with automated functions.

ChatGPT, for one, can analyze and summarize content from a vast set of information, and use that data to produce detailed answers across many domains of knowledge.

In the realm of travel, ChatGPT’s chatbot, which mimics human conversation, is capable of taking requests for flights, hotels, dinner reservations and activities and turning them into customized itineraries.

READ MORE: ChatGPT - What it is & why travel advisors should try it out

The question of whether this particular type of AI is a friend or foe to travel advisors has been widely discussed, but in Virtuoso’s view, this advanced form of artificial intelligence has its benefits.

“I think AI is going to do a tremendous job at helping people do their jobs faster, and I think there's going to be many creative ways that people will use it,” said Upchurch, speaking to journalists at a press conference that was held at Virtuoso’s conference last week.

Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chairman and CEO, speaks to journalists at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

However, at the same time, the world is entering “an age of distrust” as more consumers try AI and run into pitfalls, Upchurch said.

“If you talk to somebody that doesn't know anything about a particular subject that they've just asked an AI model to [compute], the [responses] look so real. If you ask an expert that knows that subject really, really well, they'll say, ‘That's really close, like 85 per cent accurate.’ But it's that 15 per cent that's the real problem. That 15 per cent can be very critical.”

READ MORE: “Huge opportunities”: Virtuoso Canada brings talent & strategy to Las Vegas

At Virtuoso Travel Week’s opening session on Aug. 13, Upchurch took to the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Bellagio to welcome delegates and emphasize the power of human connections and authentic relationships.

“As we walk into the age of AI, uniquely human qualities will become even more important,” Upchurch said, addressing a packed ballroom.

The CEO went on to say how the success of Virtuoso advisors are “proof of the economic value of human connection.”

“Today, we see unprecedented demand for travel and for advisors,” said Upchurch, who acknowledged that “a next round of players” are determined to use technology to disrupt and corner the market, “which is part of the game.”

The human competitive advantage

Upchurch’s point about human connections was later reinforced in a sit-down chat he had on stage with British-Nigerian entrepreneur Steven Bartlett, host of the podcast, “The Diary of a CEO.”

Bartlett, founder of Thirdweb, Flight Story and Flight Story Fund, as well as co-founder and former co-CEO of Social Chain, released his Sunday Times bestseller in 2021 “Happy Sexy Millionaire,” and this month, he will release his new book, “The Diary of a CEO: 33 Laws of Business and Life.” 

“When we talk about sales, the world of AI, and the human competitive advantage, it’s about being a good tribe member and feeling the love of someone else who's sharing your struggle,” Bartlett told the audience. “We are all in the connection business, whether we know it or not.”

Entrepreneur Steven Bartlett (left) chats with Virtuoso’s Chairman & CEO Matthew Upchurch on stage at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

He listed some of the things that connect people, such as nature, touch, iconic tourism sites, such as the Grand Canyon, and the act of sharing struggles with others.

“Things can get faster and faster with change, but the one thing that's not going to change, fundamentally, is humans…No matter how digital we get, there will always be a need for human community,” Bartlett said. 

Automate & humanize

Artificial intelligence doesn’t seem to be putting a major dent in luxury travel sales at Virtuoso, according to the organization’s latest projections.

The consortium compared its data with 2019 and 2022 – 2019, for one, was a high watermark for luxury travel – and saw that future sales are up significantly (107 per cent higher), and up 39 per cent of where Virtuoso was in 2022.

Future cruise sales at Virtuoso are also up 46 per cent compared to what they were in 2019, and 44 per cent over 2022.

And more travellers, after navigating the pandemic, are seeing the value in using a trusted professional.

“We’ve seen a sustained 50 per cent increase in the number of people looking for a Virtuoso advisor, through our website, since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Misty Belles, vice-president, global public relations at Virtuoso.

Travel humans connecting at a "speed dating" session at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

Virtuoso’s vision for AI is to “automate the predictable to humanize the exceptional,” as Upchurch has said previously.

Kolner said some Virtuoso advisors are, for example, experimenting with AI tools developed by Pittsburgh-based TravelWits, which has created a booking platform that allows advisors to upsell and cross-sell, quickly sample itineraries, decrease the time it takes to book a trip, eliminate silos in workflows and reduce the training of new advisors.

“Not everything is for everyone,” Kolner told PAX. “You have to know who you are and what you like. But if you’re an early adopter, now is absolutely the time to get out there and start playing with AI.”

If anyone can adapt to artificial intelligence, it’s travel advisors, he said.  

“I think travel advisors are way underestimated for their ability to adapt to new technology and change,” Kolner said. “I don't think there's any advisor who hasn't endured more change in this industry than any other industry, honestly. And I think they don't get enough credit for the amount of change they really do endure – literally on a daily basis.”

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