Have you noticed the current infatuation with artificial intelligence (AI)?
Frank Belzer is the chief sales and marketing officer at Icon Park in Orlando and a regular speaker and panelist at travel trade conferences.
The metaverse is plastered with opinions on how ChatGPT and other manifestations will change everything, eliminate entire business models and drastically change our world. There is some truth to its significance and impact; however, the technology is currently ahead of the regulations. Surely, we must let that catch up before determining how huge of a catalyst this will be.
Unfortunately, the travel industry is often one of the biggest culprits in forecasting and prophesying the end as we know it. The technophiles among us (and you know who you are) love conversation, ideas and debate more than they like the product or believe in the solution.
Remember when NFTs were going to do something similar 18 months ago? We have the crypto craze, the impending blockchain revolution and the implications of augmented and virtual reality — and we still need to sort out 5G.
These innovations are all significant, and over time there is no doubt that we will utilize and adopt them into our routines and practices.
To be clear, I am not dismissing them. All I am saying is that they will find their way into use the same way anything else does; that happens when our consumers embrace and demand them.
A 2022 consumer study in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology used a regression model to determine what mattered most to shoppers, and the No. 1 factor turned out to be trust and a feeling of authenticity. This desire may be what the futurists predict ChatGPT and AI doing for the OTAs.
But will that work? Consumers reference firsthand testimonials, personal accounts or stories when describing authenticity. Would an AI response that pretends to have had an experience be authentic, or would that be received as a dishonest misrepresentation?
Alternatively, the travel advisor, at least the ones I have worked with, are quick to offer guidance, and through specialization they have often been on the exact trip I am planning. That authenticity will be extremely hard to replicate.
One area of conversation that has been particularly active is how the OTAs will leverage AI to improve their model drastically. Another, and perhaps related, is how AI will lead to the elimination of travel advisors.
I decided to research and determine if modern consumers see things the same way as these prophets of doom. Interestingly, a study this year in Marketing Frontiers and Online Marketing Trends indicated that consumers have a good experience with OTAs that offered fantastic imagery, sufficient testimonials, transparent pricing and offers and the possibility of additional service levels. Sounds great for the OTAs. However, of the almost 500 consumers in the sample, only some found those experiences were part of the current OTA experience.
A travel agent reading this might say, “That description of the level of service and customized quality desired by consumers, that’s what I already provide.” They might be right!
When considering these predictions, I always believe several factors are at play.
Those predicting the end of travel agents have never used one and prefer zero interaction when they purchase travel. They write and speak, believing that others agree and feel like them; however, that is usually untrue. Even recent consumer research indicates that many still prefer an advisor, especially when the trip is complex, is in new territory or involves a larger party
I recently was in a preparation meeting for a travel panel discussion where someone said only the boomers use travel agents. I asked where that data came from. Nowhere! The reality based on research is that millennials say online ratings and reviews determine possible hotel selection, but 35% of them would still use travel agents when deciding on a hotel.
Talk to anyone in the industry and you quickly learn that the travel agent channel has remained comparatively strong. Of course, some exceptions and types of vacations have historically done well with agents and have momentum, but these conversations hardly feel like we are dealing with a segment of the industry that is on death’s door.
I hope that travel agents remain for a long time. Why? For the same reason I don’t want AI writing my music, designing my menus or performing in my community theater. It just feels right.
Why do some seem so passionate about removing people as quickly as possible from an experience? Why do some continually post with fervor about removing people and replacing those people with virtual or artificial people? Who gains in this scenario? Replacing firefighters with robots may save lives, but those are hardly the stakes here.
What will the travel agent community offer as an alternative to all this jargon and noise? After reading numerous peer-reviewed and respected consumer research articles over the past few days, all written since the Covid pandemic, I have some ideas.
I suggest “experiential intelligence,” or EI, is the countermove. AI and ChatGPT can create content, write blogs and converse with consumers about the available data. However, only a person who has experienced particular tastes, flavors, sounds and sights can share those reassuringly and meaningfully.
This shift is an opportunity to reinvent and reimagine, but that should be done through something other than imitation or implementation. This is an opportunity to double down on what makes us unique.
Rather than publishing this expertise in a way that can be gleaned and harvested by AI and then used to improve it, we should resort to more meaningful conversations, Zoom meetings and live meetings. We should conduct more private consultations and continue to rely on great referrals based on expertise and service to drive growth. We should continue to let the large consortia and OTAs answer the top-of-the-funnel questions and then be available in the conversion stage where personal assurance matters.
We may never be able to out-tech the tech heads; do we even want to? I know this is counterintuitive and not on trend, but maybe the win for the trade is to advance where we can with technology, using it as a resource, and go even more old school on our core capabilities around personal service and custom planning.
Frank Belzer is the chief sales and marketing officer at Icon Park in Orlando and also serves on the board of Experience Kissimmee. He was formerly a board member and advisor to Visit Florida and a senior vice president at Universal Parks. He is a regular speaker and panelist at travel trade conferences.
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