Digital, mobile technology, and ever more sophisticated automation continue to drive opportunities and disrupt traditional business models. In a sector that differentiates on customer service, seamless travel is becoming a reality. Travel & Tourism needs to strike the right balance between technology and service, and ensure that the skills of the future workforce reflect this.

Will robots replace people in Travel & Tourism?

Technology has long been established as one of the most significant disruptors of traditional Travel & Tourism business models. In 2010, at the WTTC Global Summit in Beijing, Barry Diller, Chairman and Senior Executive of Expedia, Inc. and IAC, told delegates that the future was mobile. In 2016, at the Global Summit in Dallas, his wake up call was around machine learning and artificial intelligence. For a sector that differentiates on customer service, this will pose challenges and bring opportunities in equal measure.

Advances in artificial intelligence mean that many elements of the customer experience can be automated — from decision making and booking through to aftersales and delivery — with considerable efficiencies for companies. However, the human touch is still a vital element of the overall travel experience. Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso explained how “people buy the why and commoditise the what” and that as human beings we are wired for human connection. Data from American Express bears this out with 50% of their business online or mobile and 50% via traditional phone or personal interaction.

That said, the use of technology in the right place at the right time in the right way is vital. Michael Levie, Founder and COO of citizenM hotels, explained their model of check in/out machines with ‘ambassadors’ on hand to help customers with whatever the machines could not. Claire Bennett, President, Global Consumer Travel and Lifestyle Services, American Express agreed that it’s not an ‘either/or’ between technology and personal service but an ‘and’. Both highlighted the importance of a platform that allows companies to communicate effectively with customers throughout the trip.

With this in mind, as Rafat Ali, CEO of Skift, pointed out, it is important that consumers can use their day to day technology while travelling, rather than having to use specific technology. Tom Klein, President and CEO of Sabre reminded us that good design is paramount, as is building up trust and most importantly investing in data security.

For, after all, you “can’t take the humans out of humanity”, a sentiment echoed by Bill Marriott who emphasised the importance of people for his company in the past, present and future. The Youth Career Initiative, (YCI), winner of the Tourism for Tomorrow People Award and a partnership of major global hotel companies, trains young people from around the world to work in hospitality, showing that industry commitment to real humans is still alive and well.

So while it seems that the 108 million jobs directly created by the sector are still relevant, the world is moving fast. As David Radcliffe, CEO of Hogg Robinson reminded us, in the words of Charles Darwin it is “not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive, but the ones who can adapt to change”.

For an overview of the entire Global Summit, please read our Summit summary: Six ways Travel & Tourism can embrace the future.

For more about the Global Summit in Dallas, please visit our website.

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