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Friday,  May 17, 2024 8:10 PM 

How will AI change the travel industry & help travel advisors? Experts weigh in

How will AI change the travel industry & help travel advisors? Experts weigh in
A smart approach to AI would be a model that involves both machines and humans, says Alexander LeVoci, VP of global strategy & market intelligence at SIS International Research. (PhonlamaiPhoto’s Images)
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.

The age of artificial intelligence (AI) comes as travel soars to all-time highs as people, done with COVID, pack their bags and make up for lost time.

The jury is still out on how AI-powered tools will shape the travel industry’s post-COVID boom, but recent innovations suggest that new technology is paving the way for what could be the biggest disruption (or innovation) that travel and tourism (and the world) has ever seen.

AI analyzes vast amounts of data, from various sources, to create tailored recommendations and answers to user-based questions and commands.

It’s a machine-learning business that has swelled into a global race as tech companies release powerful programs that, in a short period of time, have been eaten up by today’s always-looking-for-a-shortcut society.

READ MORE: How four travel pros are using AI to improve their operations & save time

Some of the stand-outs include ChatGPT, OpenAI’s chatbot that helps users with tasks like writing emails, letters, and even poems, in a human-like way, and Gemini, Google’s new and improved tool, which debuted in Canada on Feb. 8.

Though it has limits, AI is, nonetheless, changing the way travel is booked and experienced.

READ MORE: Step aside, ChatGPT. Why Google’s Gemini could be the next AI supertool for travel advisors

Personalization is central to the evolution. With the ability to analyze past bookings, preferences, reviews, and social media posts, AI can now recommend hotels, flights, destinations, and activities that match specific interests and behaviours.

Personalization is central to the AI evolution. (Shutterstock)

Expedia (owner of, and Vrbo), for example, is one OTA that has partnered with OpenAI to simplify trip planning. Kayak is another, recently unveiling a suite of advanced features, such as a price comparison tool and a refined search engine.

In the host agency space, TravelOnly became the first in Canada last year to launch its own AI Assistant Tool for its network of home-based travel advisors.

Artificial intelligence, arguably, is no match for the personalization a human travel advisor provides. But many in the trade are rapidly unlocking AI’s potential, using new tools to speed up tasks, like itinerary planning and marketing, and improve productivity.

Profound changes

The face of artificial intelligence seems to change every day as companies continue to release programs that transform the way we create and interact with content. (Have you seen Sora? OpenAI’s new text-to-video software? If it takes off, digital marketing and film will never be the same).

AI has long been used in the travel industry, although at various levels of success. The recent case of an Air Canada chatbot giving a customer misleading advice proves that the technology, sometimes, is not successful at all.

Still, with the latest advancements, the sector is changing in profound ways, says one U.S.-based market research and strategy consulting firm.

SIS International Research, which helps travel companies adopt to new technologies like AI, says personalization is one area to watch, and that some tools, like virtual chat bots, are on the cusp of a major overhaul.

“[Bots] will have the ability to book, manage and change [trips and itineraries], instead of just being a basic Q&A,” Alexander LeVoci, VP of global strategy and market intelligence at SIS, tells PAX. “That is where things are really going to adjust.”

Systems will learn from previous travel experiences, he says. “There will be full analytics based on where you want to stay and what your preferred seating is on an airplane." 

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

That same level of customization will also apply to dynamic pricing and revenue, specifically at hotels, says LeVoci.

Currently, hotels increase their prices as rooms fill up. But what's the percentage of people that fall through? How is weather impacting cancellations? What price fluctuations make sense?

“That’s where you're going to see a lot more AI,” LeVoci says. “People can analyze, but there’s not enough time in the day to analyze everything.”

READ MORE: Chatbots have travel ideas. But they can’t replace the human heart

Enhanced security, including fingerprint and facial recognition technology (tools that are already used at some airports), will also simplify travel, LeVoci says.

A fully-integrated “travel companion"

But the biggest change that's on the horizon is customized experiences.

Current AI models can take requests on where to go and when, and process other questions, like if a destination is family friendly or near a beach. Or if activities, like snorkeling, are available.

But eventually, that feedback won’t be used just for planning an itinerary, LeVoci says. “It’s going to be used throughout the entire trip,” he says.

In the case of a snorkeling excursion, an advanced AI system may, for example, offer to schedule it on a day when the weather forecast is more favourable.  

The future of AI will result in a fully-integrated “travel companion," says SIS International. (Thapana_Studio/Shutterstock)

Factor in other futuristic products, like virtual reality glasses, and travellers will be able to navigate venues in real-time, like seeing how a restaurant rates online from the moment they walk in.   

READ MORE: OTA Kayak launches suite of artificial intelligence tools

“It won’t just be AI. It will be combination of AI and real-time notifications that understand news, weather, ratings...everything,” LeVoci says.

The outcome will be a fully-integrated “travel companion,” he says. One that involves data collecting, price matching, customization, real-time feedback, pre and post-trip assistance and alerts, like travel warnings.  

The “smartest” approach to AI, LeVoci says, would be a model that involves humans “who have been in the travel industry for years,”

“When combined, you’ll have an excellent system,” he says.

How will AI help travel advisors?

As tools evolve, travel advisors will be able to offer more personalized travel recommendations based on a client’s previous search history, preferences and budget, says SIS.

“This can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty and generate more agent revenue,” the company says.

Google’s Gemini, for example, could be the next travel agent super tool as it incorporates not only the world’s most-used search engine, but its travel-related software, like Google Maps.

AI that analyzes customer reviews and social media will also be key to understanding client feedback and trends. This will ultimately help agents improve their services, products, and marketing strategies, as well as help identify new niches, SIS says.

(One travel advisor PAX recently spoke to uses Google Trends to monitor what people are searching for and uses that data to predict trends before they happen). 

Agents will also be able to provide their clients with more real-time updates, reducing the stress of travel, as AI-powered bag tracking and flight forecasting tools evolve.

Chatbots, when they work well, will eventually save time and money for agents as customers access faster and more accurate answers, SIS says.

According to LeVoci, artificial intelligence, in general, isn’t about job loss.

“It's about the new jobs that are created, and jobs that have to be retooled and altered to keep up with the tech,” he says.

“Don’t resist, research”

James Doran, who heads up travel practices at SIS, says AI certainly makes way for productivity tools, especially in the air, hotel, cruise and car rental sectors.

“And there's no reason why travel agents shouldn't consider this as a productivity tool as well,” Doran says. “Some agents I've talked to have been panicking, saying that ‘this is the end.’ My adage to them would be don’t resist, research.”

At the same time, it’s important that travel advisors continue to identify their value, Doran says.

“It's about identifying your level of advantage and service. Certainly, the relationship factor is not going to change dramatically as AI is introduced,” he says.

He draws a comparison to when the internet was first launched. “A lot of people were saying ‘the business is gone,’ and “we’re finished,” he says. “Well, the sky didn’t fall.”

Winning in artificial intelligence, as a travel advisor, is ultimately about having the right attitude, says Doran, who prefers the word "innovation" over "disruption" when discussing the topic.  

“If you view it as a disruption, then you already have a negative viewpoint,” he says. “When viewed as an innovation, you can take advantage of it and be better.”

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