Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

Technology is making travel better in a lot of ways, but it's also made apparent the fact that human connection still matters.

That was, in part, American Express Travel (No. 8 on Travel Weekly's 2019 Power List) president Audrey Hendley's message at CES 2020, the massive consumer technology show that took place last month in Las Vegas. Hendley spoke during a panel about artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality in travel.

She shared some of trends in tech as well as her advice for travel advisors about how to best harness them in their own businesses.

First, the trends:
• Developments in AI and biometrics will make the airport experience better, thanks to services like Clear, which uses biometrics to quickly move travelers through security lines.
• AI is streamlining booking for travelers. For instance, American Express in 2018 acquired Mezi, a virtual travel assistant that uses AI to communicate with travelers.
• The human connection still matters. While AI works to improve travel experiences, it's an enhancement to humans behind the scenes, not a replacement.
• Smart partnerships with technology providers will help improve travel, and those seeking to use new technology should try to solve existing pain points with it (like American Express' recent acquisition of LoungeBuddy, enabling eligible card members to check into certain lounges before their arrival).

Hendley said travel advisors can effectively harness new and emerging technology while staying relevant.

"We call it high-tech meets high-touch," she said.

Technology offers advisors the ability to communicate with their customers in the channel of their choice, something travelers increasingly want.

"Technology is no doubt a very powerful travel tool, but it needs to be deployed as one aspect of a suite of tools that are used to communicate with customers," Hendley said. "Everything is trip-specific, customer-specific or situation-specific, so it's important for us to have a variety of communication channels that meet all of our customers' needs."

There are also many situations in which a client will want to speak directly with their advisor. And while some might believe that desire is lessening with younger generations, that's not true: Hendley pointed to a recent American Express study that found 90% of millennials still want to have the ability to talk with a human when they need to.

Hendley said technology is best used to solve problems for which travel advisors already have solutions.

Once a problem area has been identified, she said, "look within your own four walls to leverage existing talent when possible."

"If you do need to look outside your organization," Hendley added, "look for a partner whose values and goals are similar to your company's, will bring something unique to the table and serve as a resource for you, like we've done recently with our acquisitions of Mezi, LoungeBuddy and Resy."

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