RENO, Nev. — From airline commission cuts in the 1990s to 9/11 to the internet boom, travel agents have faced numerous challenges in recent decades. What many view as the next disrupter, artificial intelligence, is knocking on the industry's door, but this time, experts say agents can not only prepare for it but eventually harness the technology to make themselves faster, and better, at their jobs.
What the next few years will look like for agents was a common thread of discussion throughout the ASTA Global Convention held last week at the Peppermill here, with much of that discussion focused on encouraging agents to utilize the power of new technologies as they become more advanced.
"If you think about it, the travel industry seems like it's always facing the next disruption," said John Ische, CEO of Trisept Solutions, the technology company that powers VAX VacationAccess. "There's constant startups. Consolidation. Airbnb or Uber or a travel agent that's a mobile app."
"Disruption," he went on, "has been going on for a long time. I'm sure you remember when they all said, 'All you travel agents, you're all going to go out of business,' because of that new technology, the online travel agencies on the internet, they all made you obsolete. Well I didn't believe those things then, and I certainly don't believe them today. In fact, today I believe the exact opposite: that we're living in the next chapter, and now is one of the best times for you to be a travel agent."
Ische spoke as part of a lunchtime panel hosted by his company, which plans to release a search function based on artificial intelligence (AI) within its agency management platform, Xcelerator, next month.
He views AI as "the next new technology to have a major impact on the travel business" but said it's an impact agents can use to their advantage. It can augment two key capabilities agents already have — knowledge of travel and knowledge of their customers — and offer them intelligent data and suggestions that are highly personalized to individual clients' wants and needs.
"That's a powerful equation," he said.
AI is already prevalent in consumers' lives through many online retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes, which make intelligent suggestions to users, according to industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research.
"Your next generations of customers expect us as an industry to do this," Harteveldt said. "We're starting to, but we've got a long way to go."
AI has been creeping into the industry for some time now. For example, several OTAs offer chatbots, which enable users to search for travel in a text interface. Others, such as Skyscanner, have developed search products that work with Amazon's Echo, enabling users to perform a voice search for flights.
Trisept itself is getting ready to release Discover, the portion of Xcelerator that uses AI to perform advanced searches on several types of travel products, such as cruises. More are planned for the future.
Andy Stuart, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said at Trisept's lunch panel that he believes technology will evolve to give agents a way to sort through complicated travel products like cruises.
"I think technology can be an incredible enabler in assisting that process" of understanding who an agent's customer is and the kind of cruise that best fits them, he said.
Stuart predicted that agents who embrace technology will end up on top, and those who don't will likely be struggling come 2020.
Complexity will likely continue to grow with the market. And, according to Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises North America, the cruise market is steadily growing.
"The industry has grown 8%-plus every year for the last 35 years," he said during the View From the Top panel at a general session. "And it's going to continue to grow because the supply has grown dramatically ... for the last 35 years."
Both 2016 and 2017 are proving to be strong years, Sasso said, "and I think that's just the tip of the iceberg because of the way the industry's growing globally."
He said the next few years into 2020, "and beyond, look very good for all of us."
Harteveldt later moderated another panel, "Travel Distribution 2020: Movers, Shakers and Upstarts," in which he posed the question of what the term "travel agency" will mean in four years. Again, a key theme was agents adopting new technology tools to assist them in doing business.
Gary Tofano, director of account management at Travelport, said that travel agent "means what it means today, because as consultants, as travel agency owners, as entrepreneurs, it's based on relationships. It's providing a value-add service and using the technology tools that you have before you to service the clients. And you have to evolve with the technology, and you've done that over the years."
Even agents reluctant to adopt new technologies might be in luck. Gianni Cataldo, vice president of product and general manager at software provider Datalex Americas, predicted that new technology like AI will become far easier to adopt in a few years.
"I think the big change in 2020 that we're all invested in is removing friction," he said.
"Right now, I'm looking at this crowd, and we're talking APIs, chatbots, everybody is just shaking their heads going, 'This is just never going to happen.' One of the things that I think will happen by 2020 is that the ability to adopt some of these new technologies is going to become a lot simpler," Cataldo said.