Rob Fixmer
Rob Fixmer

To judge by speeches and remarks made during "The Future of Travel," the Skift Global Forum held in New York on Oct. 9, the travel agent will play no role in the evolution of the industry in the years ahead. With the exception of a passing mention of agents in two presentations (most notably by Raja Rajamannar, MasterCard's chief marketing officer, speaking on the future of cashless travel), no mention was made by any of the 32 presenters during the nine-hour event of any role for the human retailer in the travel industry of tomorrow.

What was portrayed instead was an industry dominated by increasingly powerful and imaginative technologies (if at times slightly scary from a privacy standpoint), which are beginning to anticipate consumers' needs in ways that mimic travelers' interactions with a human agent -- but at light speed and with instantaneous access to an astounding trove of information about products and destinations.

To some degree, that focus might have simply reflected the host. Skift is an online travel news platform that tends to focus heavily on technology in the sales and marketing of travel and the creation of travel products.

Like many of the most recent generation of Web 2.0 sites, Skift sees its product as "curated content," a term that was also embraced widely throughout the conference, along with "curated data," to describe evolving tech-driven business models for selling and distributing travel products. In fact, the terms popped up again and again in speeches on topics ranging from "Reinventing Attractions and Museums for the Digital Age," by Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to "The Power of Using Data to Build a Travel Brand," by TripAdvisor Chief Marketing Officer Barbara Messing.

What these businesses all have in common is that whatever their other attributes, one foundation of their revenue model is social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter but also Pinterest, YouTube and photo- and video-sharing sites like Flickr, Snapchat and Vimeo, the last of which gave a presentation titled "Creativity in Travel Videos."

The fact that no attention was paid to the human retailer clearly was not intended by Skift, CEO Rafat Ali or the event's speakers as a snub to travel agents or as a vision of the future built on the presumption that the traditional travel agent will soon disappear into tech-driven disintermediation.

No, even more disturbing was that the travel agent was simply not considered a factor in these discussions. The inference was that the agent can survive or go extinct, flourish or flounder; it makes no difference in the relentless march of technology that will define the future of travel.

Like it or not, this is the new reality.

That said, an observant agent attending the Skift Global Forum would have gleaned a great deal of useful insight, if only by coming to the realization that the next generation of technologies collectively known as Web 3.0 will annihilate the status quo in the way travel products are distributed.

Web 3.0, also known as the semantic Web, describes an online world in which your connected mobile device will not only understand words; it will also infer meaning, thus imbuing online interactions with a level of artificial intelligence that approaches human thought and understanding. That, in turn, will threaten the last remaining advantage of human agents over digital platforms: the dialogue between a travel consumer and an expert travel counselor.

Terry Jones at the Skift Global Forum.While most of Skift's speakers addressed the near future, citing innovations in Web 2.0 (social media-based) technologies, the future promised by Web 3.0 artificial intelligence was best described, if in broad strokes, by Terry Jones, the first CEO of the first online travel agency, Travelocity, and former chairman of the travel metasearch platform Kayak. Earlier in the week, Jones, a 66-year-old serial entrepreneur, had announced a new venture called WayBlazer, a B-to-C "travel inspiration" and trip-planning service built on the natural language and cognitive capabilities of IBM's Watson supercomputer.

Best known for beating all the human competitors it faced on the TV quiz show "Jeopardy," Watson is described as a "cognitive" computer because it continues to learn as it seeks out and absorbs information. It then makes associations between and among the things it has learned to make assumptions about reality in a way that mimics human thought.

In a Skift Global Forum presentation titled "The Radical Technology Changing Online Travel," Jones described Watson as "sort of a liberal arts major." Alluding to its nonstop accumulation of information, he added, "It is the first computer that's worth more when it's old than when it's new."

Of all the tech and business innovations discussed at the forum, WayBlazer held out both the greatest threat to agents and the greatest opportunity.

"I started my career as a receptionist in a travel agency 40 years ago," Jones said, adding that he still uses a travel agent himself. And after all his online and tech ventures, it is also clear that in some ways he still thinks like an agent, which is what makes WayBlazer so simultaneously threatening and promising to the channel.

Not only can Watson tap into a vast and ever-growing database of information about destinations, transportation options, pricing and product comparisons, concierge recommendations, etc., it theoretically can also be taught how to think like a human agent thinks when counseling a client.

It won't happen tomorrow -- in fact, WayBlazer is not really up and running yet -- and Jones is eyeing destination marketing organizations and convention and visitors bureaus as his initial customers. But in the hands of any eventual customers, whoever they end up being, WayBlazer will become a direct-to-consumer platform for creating, planning and actually booking a vacation or business meeting.

At the moment, Jones' business plan does not include agent or agency clients, though he has considered it. Let's hope he targets them quickly. A wise gambler would place all her chips on the agencies, hosts and consortia that jump on the Web 3.0 bandwagon early. In the hands of an agent, this is more than a tool; it's a learning machine that will gain greater understanding of a client with each contact. In the hands of a supplier, on the other hand, it is a weapon of mass disintermediation.

It makes no sense to rail against the tech-defined industry of the future. It makes great sense to anticipate, embrace and accommodate it.

Contact Rob Fixmer at [email protected].

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