Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

We all know that no one "owns" a traveler. Travel advisers and suppliers collaborate to please clients while simultaneously competing for loyalty and affection.

There is a third cohort, invisible to most consumers, that enables suppliers and retailers alike to cooperate and compete for a dominant, if not exclusive, portion of traveler mindshare: the GDS.

The evolution of GDSs from reservation systems to travel technology solution providers has accelerated quickly in the past few years, and I was recently given a glimpse of how their impact may soon affect consumers, advisers and suppliers in increasingly profound ways.

Amadeus has formed an alliance with global consulting firm Accenture, and together they showed me prototypes of projects they're working on that specifically address how travel could be sold in the future and how the travel experience can be affected using emerging technologies. The demonstrations showed how exciting innovation can be, even in the service of utility.

The GDSs were created by the airlines, and they remain deeply aware of the inherent complexities of commercial aviation and that air transportation is the portion of a trip most prone to disruption.

"[Travel] is such a varied ecosystem, and the experience can be taken down by the weakest link," Luke Jackson, the managing director of travel industry practices for Accenture, told me. 

Much of what I saw that day was directly related to airline operations, e.g., how holograms can be used for training or how block-chain technology can reunite passengers with their lost bags.

But they're also at work on advanced technology to sell travel, with or without a live agent. Several platforms, from an interactive television to augmented reality, will be deployed.

Until now, television has been a somewhat "meh" tool for travel sales. Perhaps nothing underscores its inability to close transactions more than the absence of a QVC-type channel selling travel, particularly given that QVC's founder, Barry Diller, is also chairman of Expedia.

One prototype shown by the Accenture-Amadeus Alliance pairs Apple TV capabilities with inspirational videos to sell travel. It enables viewers to bookmark destinations of interest and check airfares in real time, compare options and, if connected to a smartphone, share information and purchase vacations.

They are also at work on an augmented reality assistant for travel advisers using Microsoft HoloLens technology. While virtual reality is developing as an inspirational tool in travel, plans for augmented reality go further. The demonstration I saw combined holograms and video with interactive bookmarking components.

Through HoloLens, a video of an African safari appeared against a blank wall. In front of it was a hologram of a flat surface projecting out of the wall like a tabletop, with a 3-D safari lodge resting on it and an antelope walking around, grazing. A meerkat hovered above the table on the right, and a giraffe sat on the floor to the left.

The demonstration was intended as a travel agent tool, with an adviser guiding a client through the experience, though it's not hard to imagine that this, too, could be fully automated.

At one point during my tour, Jackson, the Accenture managing director who was showing me around, excused himself. He received a notification that his afternoon flight had been changed and that he had been rerouted through Atlanta. But his new connection time, he felt, was too short.

Coincidentally, the next demonstration I saw used artificial intelligence to resolve travel disruption. A computerized assistant, enabled with voice recognition, used text to send an alert that a flight had been rebooked, leaving a 28-minute connection time. "It will be tight, but you should make your connection," it reported.

I replied by asking, as I would if the situation were real, what gate I'd arrive at and which I'd depart from (i.e., would I have to run?). The virtual assistant did not understand the question.

I asked if it could move me to a seat closer to the front of the plane on the first leg.

It did not understand the question.

The presenter reassured me that this was an early-stage prototype. "We're far from [completion]," he said.

About 15 minutes after Jackson had left us to work on his flight, I found him in a lounge, still hunched over his phone. "I thought I had it rebooked, but by the time I entered all my information, the one seat available was gone," he said.

Did he have a travel agent he could call? I asked.

"Well, I know what they know," he said.

I was going to say something about an agent saving him time -- I wasn't going to mention that an agent might have been able to grab that last seat more quickly -- but he was focused on his task, and I didn't want to interrupt again.

Ultimately, a system will develop that understands Jackson's tolerance for connecting times. Still, the irony of the situation was hard to ignore.

And, departing the demonstrations, although my conviction that nobody owns a customer remained intact, the increasing role that integrated automated systems will play in both booking and the travel experience complicates the battle for mindshare, with the potential to dilute, strengthen -- or perhaps supplant -- client loyalty.

Correction: In a previous version, United Airlines was incorrectly identified as a partner in an Apple TV prototype being developed by the Accenture-Amadeus Alliance to sell travel.


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