Travel Leaders Network (TLN) is upping its artificial intelligence game, recently announcing a tool for its members that will automate some business tasks, such as itinerary building and content creation.
The third-party technology, which Travel Leaders is trialling for a year, will be complimentary to members and will launch in a few weeks, says Christine James, vice-president for Canada at Travel Leaders Network.
“It’s the wave of the future,” said James, speaking with trade media on Wednesday (Oct. 25) at the Hilton Mississauga, where the Toronto-West stop of Travel Leaders’ Canadian Fall Regional series took place. “There's all kinds of interesting things happening on the AI front.”
A couple of weeks back, Travel Leaders welcomed members to three-hour webinar, led by AI expert Dave Birss, who unpacked the many ways travel pros can utilize the game-changing technology, which has seen a rise in popularity over the past year.
Some at TLN – including agents on the Canadian advisory board – are already using AI to enhance their brand and simplify day-to-day tasks, James said.
The Travel Leaders VP said members are using it to enhance their page on Agent Profiler, a lead generation tool – an online directory – that lets agents build a profile, highlight their expertise, promote itineraries and share customer reviews.
Like a dating site, the platform matches travel-curious consumers with travel advisors, resulting in new (and often profitable) business relationships.
Here, agents are using natural-language chatbots to quickly generate text for their profiles and bolster their brand, James said.
“One of our board members used a program to [produce text] that actually sounded like her,” she said. “It read her personality, it sounded like how she would speak.”
Others are using AI to compose emails – specifically, the kind that go to irate clients, James added.
These emails sometimes require “sympathetic and diplomatic” language, and with AI, agents are generating responses that can calmly diffuse and neutralize a situation, she said.
“Especially when it's not your fault,” James explained. ‘You don’t want to lash out emotionally.”
All eyes on AI
It’s the latest chapter in the travel industry’s post-COVID evolution.
The role of artificial intelligence, and its impact on travel, has been hot topic over the past year.
OpenAI’s “ChatGPT,” for one, since debuting in November 2022, has been shaking up travel and tourism in never-before-seen ways.
ChatGPT (short for “Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer”) has been praised for generating detailed answers across many domains of knowledge, and for understanding nuances that search engines, like Google, can’t grasp.
Some critics have sounded the alarm about the new tech, warning that it can be unreliable (and unauthentic) at times, and in travel industry circles, the conversation over whether AI is a friend or foe has been ongoing.
While concerns about AI replacing human travel advisors lingers, some companies are diving in feet first.
TravelOnly, for one, made headlines this month for launching its own “AI Assistant tool,” ushering in a new era of efficiency for its associates.
“If you’re not using AI, you will be behind in a year from now, and then further and further,” TravelOnly’s President and CEO Gregory Luciani told PAX in an earlier interview.
This is something Travel Leaders Network also recognizes, and it’s Christine James’ belief that members will see the value in the consortium’s latest AI offering.
“Our marketing team did their due diligence in finding something that was going to be very valuable for the majority of the membership,” James said.
Once upon a time, the sole task of a travel advisor was to sell travel. However, in recent years, the expectation has been for agents to also function as content creators – a role that many in the trade, to this day, still struggle with.
The automation of content, from social media and blog posts to image and video sourcing, thanks to AI, removes a major pain point in running a modern-day travel agency.
As a time-saver, the technology comes as a “huge relief” to some travel advisors, James said.
It also means advisors no longer have an excuse for not filling out their page on Agent Profiler, where the average sale, thanks to generated leads, starts at $6,000, James revealed.
“I’ve asked agents why they don’t take advantage of Agent Profiler, and they say, ‘I don’t have time to write my profile.’ So, there you go. AI can provide that content,” she said.
Artificial intelligence, for encompassing a sub-field of deep learning, also knows what’s going to “drive a person to buy,” said James, sharing an example of an agent who uses AI to present her tours in a “powerful” way.
AI will help agents “take their marketing to the next level and reach more people who are looking for their services,” James explained.
With that, the TLN VP doesn’t think artificial intelligence poses a threat to human travel professionals.
While AI can certainly complete tasks that are associated with travel agents, like building an itinerary, “we can’t survive on AI alone,” James said.
“AI is not going to execute to your database for you. It’s not going to take offers and negotiate them in the backend with our suppliers,” she said. “I don't feel AI is threat to our members, or a threat to us.”
(And, as PAX has argued before, artificial intelligence, though full of ideas, doesn’t have a heart, nor does it have relationships).
“It's a tool that we can use to enhance our delivery to members, and that members can use to enhance their value and delivery to their clients,” James said.
Meanwhile, another tech addition that's coming to Travel Leaders Network is an enhanced version of SIRVA, SoftVoyage’s B2C platform.
The upgrade comes at a "considerable cost," which Travel Leaders Network is covering, but it will make a “big difference” in the user experience, James said.
The updates come as TLN's Fall Regionals see record-breaking attendance numbers from both agents and suppliers.
Last week, the consortium held events in Edmonton and Vancouver, drawing 160 and 180 guests respectively, and Wednesday’s gathering in Toronto drew some 300 attendees.
The events feature workshops, panels, a trade show, a cocktail reception and dinner, allowing agents an opportunity to interact with suppliers, connect with peers, and learn about new programs.
The high turnout mirrors the consortium’s excellent year in sales. Last year’s results beat 2019’s numbers, and this year, sales are expected to reach new heights.
“People aren’t only travelling, they’re also spending much more,” James noted.
Travel Leaders’ latest three-city Canadian tour builds on its global EDGE conference, which was held this past May in Nashville.
Next year’s EDGE event will return to National Harbour, a waterfront resort in Washington, DC, which last hosted the mega event in 2019. Stay tuned for the dates.