Forget about the salesman; the next to die, according to recent reports, will be travel agents. I respectfully disagree — but to survive, travel agents and the companies that claim to “help” consumers plan and purchase travel have a major overhaul ahead.
Consider that Millennials, who by 2018 will be the nation’s biggest spenders, are drawn to convenience and personalization, like moth to flame. Their preferences are well documented across marketing industry publications and witnessed in the proliferation of products and services designed to win with personalization and convenience such as Zipcar, FreshDirect, and The Genius Bar. The primary result, so far, has been to make the once taxing activities (renting a car, picking up groceries, fixing a phone) more enjoyable, or at least less painful.
The travel and leisure sector has been slow to take note and even slower to act. Odd, as this is an industry dedicated to making dreams come true. Far from being helpful, most services in the category do quite the opposite. Let’s be frank: it’s downright miserable to plan a trip.
The explosion of search engines, deal-finders, and alert tools has put control into the hands of an adept Millennial traveller, but in the same stroke, more control means increased effort and anxiety. Just when do you know you’ve got the best flight price? Just which TripAdvisor reviews should you trust?
While search engines are in the throes of developing smarter algorithms to compete, Millennials have yet to experience the reassurance, convenience, and personalization that travel agents used to deliver to past generations. A good travel agent can create the right trip after a single conversation with the customer. Personalized and convenient—Voila!
Speaking to an actual person has become more of a luxury than a given. However, a few companies are addressing this unmet desire. Fortnighter.com, for instance speaks directly to a Millennial looking for a more personalized vacation without the hassle of planning it—“A custom travel guide written just for you”. Emphasis on ‘you’.
Given the overload of today’s ‘ask-the-layman’ crowd sourcing, consumers have a new appreciation for true expertise. The very definition of the travel agent is evolving from a tired old booking agent to the hip globetrotting insider—and associations are shifting from the ‘Tuscany!” poster-laden offices, to beautifully designed websites with slick UX.
But what about the human component? The live interaction between expert and customer?
There’s nothing like being taken care of by another human being—it is the pinnacle of personalization and convenience. That’s why we still work with real estate agents and visit car dealerships. Though not as permanent, purchasing travel is just as personal a buying a house or a car.
Unfortunately, no major travel planning company folds a human element into its services. Travelocity, Kayak, Orbitz, and Expedia all overlook a tremendous opportunity to transform their offering and rise above the competition by rethinking the 21st century travel agent. These big four have the most substantial equity and assets to deliver a more personalized offering to a wider audience. Consumer trust is established; millions already visit their sites each day. With vast databases of consumer preference data, a huge opportunity exists to mine and analyze this information to deliver truly unique travel solutions with the all-important human touch.
Dozens of lessons can be learned from other categories. Personal dating sites have pioneered human emotion mapping and needs pairing. This data science approach could make relevant and inspiring destination suggestions much faster.
Here’s one possible scenario: Imagine completing a simple preferences form at Kayak.com when planning your trip to Machu Picchu. Later that day, you’re talking with a professional “Kayaker” who knows the region like the back of her hand, and she’s walking you through some options that you were emailed before the call.
Or this: Imagine walking down the street to your pre-arranged appointment at the Expedia Road Bar where you meet an agent who’s already developed a few options for your trip to Ibiza, based upon your pre-determined preferences. The next day you purchase your trip and the Expedia Road Bar has become your hub for travel insight.
Either scenario would secure my loyalty for Kayak or Expedia. By providing valuable travel insights, the planning experience is suddenly a lot less painful, and they’ll only get better at understanding my preferences. But most importantly, there’s now a face to a brand where before there was none.
And just like that, a travel engine begins to feel a lot more like a travel agency.