Travellers are rejecting their own web searches and seeking a more expert and personalised service than they can provide for themselves, signs from the industry show. Can AI and self-services keep up?
Even in the UK, which regularly tops lists of countries who spend the most online, travel customers are abandoning their own web searches and instead going back to the high street.
Nikki Davies, marketing director of Trailfinders UK told Euronews late last year that even customers in the habit of booking their own trips were turning to professionals. “We are seeing a lot of people that didn’t use to book through tour operators,” she said.
Many holidaymakers are going through travel agents to allay concerns about being able to claim refunds if travel goes wrong, in the aftermath of last year’s post-Covid-19 flight cancellations and delays.
They want the security net. They had their fingers burned previously, because a lot of people didn’t get refunds during the pandemic… whereas we gave refunds within 24 hours.Nikki Davies, Marketing Director Trailfinders UK
In the last three years, Trailfinders has opened five new UK bricks-and-mortar stores, giving them 44 across the country with 100 new consultants.
But it’s not all about bricks-and-mortar premises. The ability to call on an expert when needed works just as well over the phone. Flight Centre UK has lost around 80% of its physical stores but has home workers on-call to answer customer concerns.
Liz Mathews, general manager, told Euronews that being able to draw on a professional network and partnerships is a way of “really showing the value when things go wrong. We want to make it easy for customers to just enjoy travel rather than be stressed out about it.”
The internet is flooded with information that is harder and harder to find without the right search terms, and the experience of pursuing your own refunds, seeking your own travel guidance, fact-checking it, and trying to be sure you are choosing the best option can be frustrating, even overwhelming, especially as people attempt to put into action the complex mega-trips they’ve been waiting for.
Although a travel agent adds an extra layer of cost, it’s arguable that customers can often save more money on other factors by asking an expert. “We’re seeing people come through to us both for advice on when is the best time to travel and when they can get better value for money,” Mathews explained.
What’s more, advances in business-to-business fintech and automation are boosting the speed and efficiency with which travel agents can now manage complex bookings and refunds, giving them more time to devote to getting to know their customers and responding precisely to their needs.
The trend is such that self-service online providers are attempting to emulate what a personal advisor can offer – using AI. Kayak, for example, and its sister-site Open Table, are rolling out new ChatGPT-powered plug-ins.
“By leveraging AI technology to provide more personalized and intuitive search experiences, we’re making it easier than ever for travellers to plan their dream vacations,” Kayak said.
Kayak claim their bot can respond to the sort of natural language questions customers really want to ask. Let’s just hope that question is not one inspired by Bladerunner: “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?”