The Travel Adviser: Welcome to the new travel normal

In the travel industry, technology has led to one undeniable fact: the consumer is in control.

Passengers board an Alitalia airplane at Cagliari airport, Italy, July 9, 2018 (photo credit: STEFANO RELLANDINI/ REUTERS/ FILE PHOTO)
Passengers board an Alitalia airplane at Cagliari airport, Italy, July 9, 2018
I was recently invited to spend three days in the Caput Mundi in a city regarded as the birthplace of Western civilization. Eventually the city became the capital of the Roman Empire. The forum was 150 leaders in the technology & travel industry from throughout Europe. Debate, dissension, diatribes and denunciations were the nom de rigueur at this confab.
The premise that resonated throughout was we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Call it digital, as it’s characterized by a fusion of technologies. It is marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the Internet of things and fully autonomous vehicles. The presenters emphasized that these technologies are disrupting almost every industrial country. The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems.
Uber was mentioned repeatedly at the conference. They see themselves as simply moving people from one spot to another. While it started as a transportation network company, it has morphed into a problem solver for riders. Users are able to reserve vehicles by sending text messages or through the use of the application on their mobile devices. The customer can also track the vehicle as it makes its way to their location.
Artificial intelligence with the aid of sophisticated algorithms allows Uber to set the price. A ride during the early afternoon will be priced less than a Saturday night taxi at the conclusion of a movie. It’s called surge pricing and without technology it wouldn’t work. No money is exchanged, as your credit card is charged automatically. How this has transformed the consumers’ concept of grabbing a taxi is mind-boggling and for some people downright embarrassing. I was recently in the UK and when landing at Heathrow Airport, I decided to treat myself to a cab. Having used Uber for several years when I’m not renting a car, I was about to order an Uber when I saw a long queue of black cabs beckoning and decided to hop into one. British cabbies are not taciturn and we chatted animatedly until I reached my destination where I hopped out, and sauntered along. Being fast on foot, I briskly strolled down the street until I heard someone calling out loudly: “Aye, where do you think you’re going?” Sheepishly I turned around and my pleasant driver was quite blunt when he accused me of trying to stiff him. Unlike Uber, normal taxis still require payment made directly to the driver.
In the travel industry, technology has led to one undeniable fact: the consumer is in control. Expectations of customers are sky-high, affecting the very essence of the human experience. Surveys attest that over 72% of the traveling public prefers to spend their money on experiences and not things. In simpler terms, we demand engagement. For travel consultants, that translates to the three facets of loyalty, innovation and partnership. Consumers require a different, personalized end-to-end choice that requires innovative travel agents.
LET ME expound my thesis with the tale of two different couples who purchased identical tickets. It was mid-September when the Charmings and the Lackeys received invitations to a simha in Boston in mid-December. Each wanted to enjoy a sojourn in New York and each couple had to get back before December 25 to Israel. No matter what geopolitical events occur in the Middle East, Christmas is still Christmas and thousands of tourists from all over the world come to Israel to celebrate. So reserving three months in advance meant they could save some money and by purchasing a ticket from United Airlines to Newark and returning on Swiss from Boston via Zurich to Tel Aviv, they were able to conclude their travel plans for a very reasonable airfare. Or so they thought.
The Charmings purchased their tickets through their travel consultant, while the Lackeys eschewed using a travel agent and bought online the same exact itinerary from Cheapair, saving $50. The North American market is one of the most competitive markets and traffic between Israel and the United States attracts all the major players. To that end, a mini alliance of some airlines was created, allowing consumers to mix and match between Air Canada, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Air, Lufthansa, Swiss and United Airlines. This marketing behemoth allows travel consultants a healthy choice when pricing potential itineraries.
Unfortunately, unbeknown to the gnomes of Zurich, Swiss International airlines changed the time of their December 23 flight from Zurich to Tel Aviv. It was only an hour time change, which wouldn’t affect that many fliers. However it had a major impact on our four fliers: they could no longer make the connection from Zurich to Tel Aviv and their itinerary was updated by the computers to have them end their journey in Zurich.
If consumer control is not a media creation but something that must be embraced, then surely this technology will offer an infinite number of offerings. In other words, advancements in technology have led to the empowerment of the consumer. Correctly identifying key motivational antecedents that influence behavioral mechanisms is an important process. Technology is everywhere. You call it digital disruption; the industry calls it optimization across the system. Say you look for a flight on American Airlines between Los Angeles and New York and find the lowest fare at $308. When you check again from the same computer a few minutes later you may find the price has gone up. Their computer knows that if you’re checking more than once you most likely are more serious to make a reservation. We call it lookers versus bookers. Systems are designed to sort out those lookers and seduce them into bookers. However no computer software exists to fix mixed connections. One is told to contact a service representative.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE is reserving a hotel room online. Rarely can you go to a site and find a hotel without being told in a striking font: Only 3 rooms remain. Newsflash: if you book those last three rooms, miraculously more rooms will open up. This not-so-subtle manipulation has been built into the system.
These data-centric systems thrive on cognitive discovery aiming to personalize each travel enquiry. While not having the computing power of these systems, a successful travel agent will have those same features. Those consultants will make doing business with the consumer easy, providing deeper insights and creative solutions. They must be agile, data savvy and inventive. Call it immersive travel; it’s no longer issuing a ticket from one city to another but making a connection with the client and fulfilling his or her personalized travel experience.
The Lackeys went back to their site, navigating through a near endless set of screens trying to find a solution. At last finding a phone number with a human being, they called. To be fair, the wait time was not long, the service representative was quite sympathetic and offered two options for them to return to Israel.
Stay in Zurich for 11 hours or cancel their ticket and get a full refund. Suffice it to say that a new ticket would cost $300 more than the original fare, Lackeys had no choice but to choose to stay in Zurich and explore the charms of the airport or meander into the streets of Zurich as winter embraces the city in all of its bitter cold.
The Charmings travel consultant’s solution was far more elegant. Yes he offered them to stay in Zurich for 11 hours; told them they could fly back a few days earlier, apologized that all of the flights the next two days were completely sold out due to the Christmas rush and suggested they fly on United Airlines via Newark back to Israel. And while the UA flights, like Swiss, were quite full, he did notice there were still a few seats open in a far more expensive economy fare.
Once he gave his clients reasonable options, they asked if they could take some time to decide and were told to sleep on it. The next morning they accepted his offer to fly back on United Airlines; the consultant asked UA to make the change and in 30 seconds new tickets were procured. I’d like to believe the clients were not surprised by this outcome but more one that they expected all along since that was the reason they chose to purchase with an agent.
I reiterate – you, the consumer, are in control. Travel agents add a human element. A travel professional ensures that you are a person, not a number. They are invested in their client’s happiness and satisfaction and want to make sure each and every trip is packed full of positive memories. No longer do we talk about booking a ticket; rather creating a trip. They should be with you before, during and after your trip.
Trips are more complicated than ever, as the number of multi-generational vacations and destination events continues to grow. Baby boomers are paying big money to take their kids and grandkids on high-end vacations. The organized tour, of “If it’s Tuesday, we must be in Belgium,” is ancient history.
Today, niche marketers like AACI TRAVEL, Kosherica or Jewish Historical Seminars provide an immersive experience like never before. How can you travel to Cuba? Is the Big Island of Hawaii open to tourism? How do you get to Pensacola for your niece’s wedding? The world is constantly changing and travel agents are on the ground experience it. Travel advisers don’t just sell a destination – they discover, research and experience the places they offer over and over, sharing the actual reality with their customers. To paraphrase the snappy idiom: it takes a village to understand the dynamics of every destination. Why do it alone if you don’t have to?
Understand that technology doesn’t drive business; business drives technology. Digital re-imaging travel and user-friendly APIs are here today to fulfill and personalize travel. Next up, being tested at some US airports, will be facial recognition, making the actual journey less cumbersome. Don’t be lulled into thinking the new normal is one of anxiety when it comes to travel. Don’t buy into the cliché that travel has become stressful, challenging and downright uncomfortable.
Poppycock!  Travel is a salve, an escape. In fact, I would attest that it is an antidote for anxiety. It was only last year that Jordan tainted by many people’s poor knowledge of Geography forced the country to be on the defensive. Instead Jordan utilized social media to seek out who might be interested in traveling to the country, realizing it was not connected to the terrorism rocking Egypt. By narrowing down its target to understand what type of demand there was my Jordanian colleagues in Rome entertained us with how they successfully marketed their country.
The science of today is the technology of tomorrow. It’s a useful servant but a dangerous master. Do remember: Never allow technology to exceed our humanity.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]