Tech talk dominates Collette centennial event

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Travel Weekly's Arnie Weissmann moderates a panel discussion with (from left): AAA's Bill Sutherland, Flight Centre's Nick Lucock and Unired's Amos Khim.
Travel Weekly's Arnie Weissmann moderates a panel discussion with (from left): AAA's Bill Sutherland, Flight Centre's Nick Lucock and Unired's Amos Khim. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Rather than look back at the past 100 years, tour operator Collette appeared to be much more focused on the future at its centennial celebration event here, where a series of panel discussions on Thursday addressed the critical role technology is playing in the evolution of the travel industry.

The two-day event kicked off with a presentation by Todd Knapp, owner of Envision Technology Advisors, about why travel companies should be embracing bitcoin if they want to better protect their businesses and enhance the consumer experience. Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann then moderated a panel discussion about the future of travel distribution.

"The biggest threat from technology is if you don't embrace it. Technology has helped democratize travel," said Nick Lucock, Flight Centre's executive general manager, in response to Weissmann's question about what the panelists feel is the biggest existential threat to the travel industry.

The panelists went on to discuss the many ways technology is enhancing their business, from helping them to collect better customer data so that they can serve up more targeted marketing and customer service, to how artificial intelligence (AI) is giving customers improved access to their products.

But they also pointed out that the key to successfully embracing technology is acknowledging that so much about the travel experience remains rooted in human interactions, from the point of sale to the in-destination encounters that can make or break a trip. They all seemed to agree that technology should be used to improve operations behind-the-scenes while people still remain on the front lines.

"Obviously, technology is going to be a very big part of our future going forward, but our biggest capital at AAA are our people, particularly our agents, who are very good at what they do," said Bill Sutherland, senior vice president, travel and publishing, AAA Travel. He noted that there are many ways in which AAA is embracing tech including digitizing its beloved guides and travel content, and partnering with Google Home and Alexa. 

CBS news host and travel editor Peter Greenberg was less optimistic about the opportunities technology presents and was more concerned about some of the threats it poses to the travel experience. 

"It's not about getting a room rate that matters, it's about asking all the other questions you need to ask and the Internet can't do that for you. You have to have a conversation," said Greenberg. "And people don't do it anymore and then they wonder why they get abused."

He added, "The reason why Collette is 100 years old and thriving is, at least some part of it, due to initiating and continuing the conversation."

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