Innovation is crucial but nothing can replace people, says Sharon Munro, chief executive of Barrhead Travel
As I prepare for our annual supplier conference this weekend, I have been reflecting on one of the most crucial messages to deliver: innovation. Innovation is the key to ensuring that your business keeps moving forward. Businesses that stand still are much more at risk of going backwards if they do not look to emerging consumer trends and how to stay relevant to their customer base.
Our industry faces enough challenges on a weekly basis, from changing economic and political climates to acts and threats of terrorism.
Then, of course, there are the disruptors, such as Airbnb and Uber, new business models, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual currencies like Bitcoin and new technologies like blockchain. All these innovations are supposedly set to cause havoc with the traditional business models.
It all sounds very scary, and the purveyors of gloom and doom have already written off the traditional business models.
Sound familiar? Direct-sell, low‑cost carriers, zero commission from scheduled airlines and, of course, the internet were all tipped to kill off the traditional travel agent.
But it did not happen. Why?
Because most traditional travel agents are run by entrepreneurs who have prospered by exploiting change and new technologies to deliver something that customers want and need.
And the central theme is simple, old-fashioned, excellent customer service. People still want advice and service and to know they are booking with a brand that they can trust. In fact, I believe that the travel agent is stronger than ever.
We have seen some exceptional technological advances that genuinely help drive forward a business, but there are also many that are simply niceties that do little more than complement an existing service or experience.
Don’t be scared
Here’s my advice for the travel agency community based on our experience: don’t be scared – embrace change and new technologies; take the bits that work for you and discard those that are not relevant to your business; allow others to trial and test; and be driven by customer demand, not the technology.
Our innovations reflect the ever-changing world around us and how our customers are consuming new media and technologies. We understand that there are a multitude of ways that customers want to communicate now. For some, it will always be face-to-face service, others may prefer live chat on a website, and some will use a variety of ways to touch base. Interestingly, 53% of customers would rather interact with a business that uses Messenger, while by 2020 it is predicted that over 40% of conversations between consumers and businesses will be conducted by bots.
At Barrhead Travel, we embrace technology that can help us improve our offering. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence and bots should not be feared but relished as part of a customer-focused innovation strategy.
But we have seen it before and we will see it again: nothing can replace people and it’s the people that are at the heart of the travel industry.
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