Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

The viability of travel agents has been under fire from some direction for the better part of a quarter century. A new threat may or may not be emerging from the cryptic force dubbed artificial intelligence.

The subject was broached in a "Meet the Executives" style conclave in the main theater of the Symphony of the Seas last week, where Royal Caribbean International managers were showing off the new ship, mostly to European agents.

Bill Munro, chairman of Barrhead Travel in Glasgow, Scotland, was one of the first to pose a question to Royal president Michael Bayley.

"A lot of our younger staff are taking out mortgages for the first time and they've been asking me about their future," Munro began. "And I've been trying to reassure them that AI will not take over for a long time yet, but I'd like to ask your opinion whether or not artificial intelligence will make a big difference and whether we will still need travel agents for the next decade or so."

Bayley playfully dodged many of the "hard" questions from the session, passing them off to a subordinate on the panel. But not this one.

"You can read some articles," Bayley said at one point. "On the extreme end, it looks like we're all just going to be sitting at home because artificial intelligence will do everything for us."

But he went on to say he doesn't see things that way.

Bayley said that Royal understands the role travel agents play in the complex process of selling a cruise: "I can't see that changing dramatically."

"We all have to adapt to the changing technology that's coming our way but our commitment to our travel partners is absolute and we continue to see it that way. So tell your younger staff, please don't worry," Bayley said.

His perspective is all the more interesting because it is informed by Royal's own investigation of AI.  Bayley said that Royal has begun looking at how AI could improve call center operations by handling routine, repetitive questions, such as those about payments.

"So we're experimenting with that now," he said. "Our hope and our intention is artificial intelligence will bring better efficiency and more simplicity to the customer over time. We see that as inevitable."

Bayley's answer fits with those of executives in other travel segments such as hotels and airlines, where AI creatures such as chatbots are seen as tools to assume some of the more mundane tasks and issues, freeing up agents to focus on deeper, more complex work.

As such, they might creep into cruise sales in the initial stages of a sales conversation. But the complexity of the line/ship/cabin/destination/guest personality equation, combined with the need for human warmth and savvy to move the sales process along at the proper pace, make cruise one of the last areas of travel that AI is likely to push out the door.

Agents, to the extent that they sell simpler products such as air and hotel as well as cruise, may have something to pay attention to. But the cruise sale itself seems, as it has for some time, like a platform agents can count on as they plan their careers.

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