Richard Turen
Richard Turen
It's a brand-new year. I had some doubts that the last one would really ever end. But now, it's a new year. We've had our holidays to relax and rejuvenate, and we're ready to do battle once again in the profession that few of us ever leave.

But there are some new wrinkles out there, an uneasiness that, somehow, our mastery of the travel stars is being threatened by some box that has enough intelligence to serve as a travel agent. After all, how much intelligence does that really take?

But then we keep hearing that all of a sudden, we agents are back in vogue, so an experienced travel consultancy with intelligent staff who can communicate might actually find that its services are in demand.

We are the world's only highly trained consultants whose services are largely complimentary. But we've been just plain lousy at communicating that fact to travel purchasers. We have not gone on the attack against those who charge a customer the travel agent commission while not performing most of the services a skilled consultant would provide. It happens, and we say nothing. Quite frankly, I'm not convinced much will change on that front going forward.

But we're hot right now. People have stopped asking why we haven't gone out of business. More often, we get questions related to how we are able to handle the number of clients who wish to use our services.

This new year arrives on a headwind led by a charging stock market and, more importantly, a number of respectable prognosticators who observe that the economy is showing no signs of slowing down.

The new tax cuts will certainly bolster the market's feeling that the U.S. is where you want to be invested, at least for our potential clients: those who invest in the stock market and also hold a valid U.S. passport. What is interesting about that percentage is that, being in the mid-30s, it is close to the portion of U.S. voters who backed and identify with President Trump.

The president's supporters tend not to be heavily invested in the stock market, and they certainly don't hold a majority of the U.S. passports issued. Our clients aren't them, so while we feel the political winds, they won't necessarily slow us down.

The stock-owning, passport-holding, overseas-vacationing client now has some tax breaks coming that will add up to more discretionary spending. So that is all looking positive. This is going to be a great year. Everyone says so. The figures all support it.

Of course, there's that geopolitical thing. A country we don't really talk with has missiles pointed at us. And then there is the rather disturbing growth of far-right political parties in central Europe.

In addition to weather challenges, political extremism and the belief that we are safer staying home, there's that box. The travel industry seems to operate under the assumption that someone in Silicon Valley or Seattle is going to invent that box and make us redundant. Despite strong financial performance, we just don't seem able, as a profession, to relax and enjoy our success. The internet, many believe, is poised to devour us.

Of course the travel industry is the third leg of the internet stool; gambling and pornography are somewhat bigger, which is interesting because they are both under regulatory pressures that make it really tough to operate. But between Bovata, Sports Betting or Betonline, large portions of our population spend time engaged in online play.

After a few hours of that, they turn to pornography, which thrives because of ease of use. Place four letters in the Google search box and you are instantly connected to tens of thousands of pornographic videos, free, with no need to register. Any child who knows the four letters gains access to this world.

Then, of course, there's us. Travel makes up the third-largest category of internet searches, with the top two travel search topics having to do with flight options and hotel reviews.

Google has made some key purchases, and it now has a fast, efficient way to search flight options. If you want to try it, just go up to the top of your open browser screen where the address box appears. Quickly erase the whole thing, including "http://," etc. Everything. Just swipe it and get rid of it. Then quickly type Jan. 10 JFK-Athens. No need for dot-anything. Boom! Options come up.

We knew years ago that the major websites would be getting better at delivering search-engine travel data. But we wondered how good they would ever be at disrupting the collaborative booking process that exists between a travel seller and a client.

All of which leads me to my new invention, tentatively called "Murray," a travel agency consumers can open in their own homes. Why Murray? I thought it might be a nice counterpoint to Alexa. Let me set the stage a bit.

I am not talking about a home-based travel agency model. I am talking about giving every adult in America his or her very own travel agency designed to fit on a shelf in the living room.

You will order Murray from Amazon. Within an hour of its arrival, you should have a fully functioning travel agency in your home. Here is how it would work:

After plugging in Murray, you will be able to choose from several design/color options for your agency. The box, about the size of a 32-inch monitor, will have a front window showing travel videos. It will also be programmed to stream movies filmed in locations you're considering.

After designing your agency, you will be able to interview five virtual "agents," each with a different personality and approach to business. You will select the one with which you feel most comfortable.

You will then fill out a long list of preferences, including specifics regarding your travel history. Your virtual agent will ask any number of questions designed to deliver optimal, personalized search results.
Murray will have the latest artificial intelligence, including software installed in the office of your miniature travel agency, which will update its intelligence from time to time. As you use Murray, it will become more and more intuitive. Unlike the rest of us, it will actually get smarter as it ages.

Murray works 24/7. It never gets sick or goes on vacation. You can replace it with a different avatar anytime you choose.

Murray knows safety data, and it can quickly calculate how safe your planned travel destination is compared with where you live.

Then there are "Murray's friends." It turns out that your agent, the one living in that miniature box in the living room, knows just about every hotel manager and concierge in the world. It can also request dining reservations. What's more, it will print you a detailed proposal or final itinerary in a design format of your choice.

Murray will be able to make bookings for virtually any kind of travel, including those transactions that would normally carry huge fees from live agents. Murray doesn't mind booking local trains in Bangladesh. It likes it, because Murray doesn't work on a time schedule. It is your travel agent. Yours alone. When it's not working on your travel plans, it's watching you watch TV.

I must admit that Murray is not perfect yet. Its tiny backup generator is still on the drawing board. If the power fails, so does Murray. And we have not yet overcome one of the biggest challenges to augmented reality technology: placing virtual reality images with real ones so they meld perfectly on the same screen.

I don't think we'll really have to worry about Murray anytime soon. There is still a lot to work out. But as we go forward into a new year, it might be wise to think about Murray from time to time because, in some strange way, perhaps it is our challenge. The technologies to do what I have proposed already exist. If someone figures out how to monetize it, every home in America can have its own travel agency in a box.

We flesh-and-blood agents just have to be better in so many ways that no one seriously proposes carrying through on the concept. I don't want to get rich on Murray. It would bother me.
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI