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HomeFeaturesFionn Davenport on MondayFionn Davenport: Travel Agents and AI: Friends or Foes?

Fionn Davenport: Travel Agents and AI: Friends or Foes?

Travel agents in Ireland have survived the rise of the internet and the threat of OTAs. But now, there’s a new risk on the horizon: the rise of AI.

It’s the tech story of the year, if not the decade: how will artificial intelligence-powered tools impact jobs?

ChatGPT is transforming much of the business world – and the travel industry is no different. For travel agents, AI is a reality they cannot ignore, but confronting it can provoke fear and confusion. It doesn’t help that ChatGPT’s parent company, OpenAI, included travel agents on its own list of jobs most likely to be impacted by AI.

Robot assistant on modern hotel / office reception.

AI’s role in the travel industry is growing daily, but the challenge for agents is not how to stop it – it’s how to make it work for you.

The New Kid on the Block

We’ve all seen how smart computers are getting at organising our holidays. Agents have had to live with the rise of AI-driven platforms like Expedia and Kayak for some time, with their computer-generated personalised recommendations, instant booking and real-time updates – all available at the click of a button.

AI-driven tools are fast, they don’t get tired and they’re always up for crunching numbers to get the best available deals.

But travel planning is about a lot more than numbers, and that’s where human experts shine.

Last month, the Mirror published a story where AI and a travel agent had a face off on booking a holiday for an imaginary family of four. But guess what? The travel agent won. Why? Because the agent had something that AI just hasn’t been able to master: the human touch.

A Personal Touch Goes a Long Way

Travel agents provide a personal touch that AI has thus far been unable to replicate. They curate personalised recommendations, manage intricate travel plans and stand by as a trusted advisor during travel mishaps. These human-centric services are invaluable, especially for complex trips or for travellers who value direct interaction.

In the test, AI was able to provide basic travel info – including different flight options, some accommodation choices and some recommendations for things to do. Despite the prompt being fairly detailed, though, some of its choices broke the budget; it didn’t find the cheapest available flights and the recommendations for activities were generic and not related to the specific needs of the four family members.

AI was able to provide plenty of information and an impressive range of choices, but it had no real understanding of what you want from a trip.

The travel agent was able to come up with personalised recommendations that took account of the best time to fly with young children, more suitable hotel choices and activities options that considered the ages and interests of those travelling.

Teaming Up with Tech

But AI isn’t going away, and it is ‘learning’ at an impressive rate of knots. At some point in the next 12 months OpenAi will release ChatGPT 5, which promises to be a vast improvement on ChatGPT 4 when it comes to personalisation and accuracy in human-computer interaction – basically, it’ll do a much better job of mirroring human conversation and go further in eliminating errors. It’ll be a lot smarter.

For travel agents, this is a potential opportunity rather than a threat. By revealing the capabilities of AI and putting them against the human touch of the travel agent, The Mirror experiment highlights a critical insight: the future likely belongs to a hybrid model where AI tools help rather than replace agents.

In this predictable future, AI takes care of the boring bits while agents focus on providing that personalised advice and finding those hidden gems that offer added value to a holiday and make the interaction between an agent and a client all the more worthwhile.

And agents can use AI to achieve this. An AI algorithm can analyse a huge amount of data – including customer reviews, previous itineraries and customer travel preferences – that can then help create tailor-made travel recommendations for each client. It’s like Google, but much more reactive and intuitive.

Niche Knowledge is Key

Think about it. AI might know the price of a hotel in Barcelona, but does it understand the vibe of each neighbourhood or know the owner of that little bakery down the street?

That’s where travel agents with a niche — those who really get into the nitty-gritty of a place — have a massive advantage. And that advantage isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

Getting Comfy with AI

There’s no denying that many travel agents view the encroachment of AI with great trepidation. It doesn’t help that a lot of media coverage is sensationalist – the robots are coming and we’re just not ready for them.

Thing is, though, the robots are already here and a lot of agents are more than ready. They’re already letting the machines handle stuff like answering simple questions or crunching through research, freeing up the agents more time to focus on aspects of their service that add unique value — a personal touch, emergency support and specialised knowledge.

Investing in Being Uniquely Human

For travel agents here in Ireland, it’s not about beating AI — it’s about being different. Focusing on areas where they outperform AI not only secures their position but also enhances their marketability. This includes building upon interpersonal skills, travel planning creativity and problem-solving abilities that are uniquely human.

By building on what they do best, like offering that human understanding and crafting trips that are more art than science, travel agents will always stand out.

Travel Agents Aren’t Going Anywhere

Will AI take over the jobs of travel agents in Ireland? Doesn’t look like it. While it will automate certain aspects of travel planning, the complete replacement of human agents is pretty unlikely.

Instead, agents have the chance to grab AI by the hand and use it to up their game. Agents who harness AI’s potential and continue to provide irreplaceable human insights will not only survive but thrive.

The secret to staying relevant isn’t fighting the tech; it’s about blending the human touch with the best AI has to offer to create travel magic.

Geoff Percival
Geoff Percival
Geoff has worked in business, news, consumer and travel journalism for more than 25 years; having worked for and contributed to the likes of The Irish Examiner, Business & Finance, Business Plus, The Sunday Times, The Irish News, Senior Times, and The Sunday Tribune.
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