Virtual helpers will never beat person-to-person service, says Sharon Munro, chief executive of Barrhead Travel

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the high street travel agent was the only way people could book their fortnight in the sun. But the rise and use of digital technology has been relentless and customers now have hundreds of ‘touchpoints’ before setting off on their flight or cruise. The question is, which is the most effective at clinching the sale?

At a marketing conference in Edinburgh recently I was struck by how quickly consumers are adapting to new technology – and how quickly travel agents need to embrace these channels to stay relevant to the customer.

For many people, the start of their holiday journey is searching online. This is mainly on a computer but also increasingly on a phone or iPad.

What surprised me was how much of this search will soon be done through yet another channel – voice – either via the likes of Siri on a smartphone or a ‘personal assistant’ such as Amazon’s Alexa in the home. Worldwide, there are currently 700 million users of digital assistants, according to market intelligence firm Tractica. And while I certainly don’t have an Alexa at my beck and call yet, this is likely to change as users of this technology are expected to soar to almost two billion by 2021.

Are you ‘Alexa’-ready?

For travel agents, this means adapting marketing processes to ensure that when a customer asks Alexa to find Alaska cruises, your sales channel is ready and waiting to speak to the machine.

There are some fears that ‘bots’ will make humans in the travel trade increasingly obsolete, but I fundamentally disagree. And while IT analytics firm Gartner estimates that 85% of all customer interactions will be managed by a bot rather than a human, I firmly believe that this will merely free up travel professionals to dedicate themselves to offering service that truly adds value to the customer.

The human touch

Our focus on digital systems to deliver to the customer what they need was part of what attracted Travel Leaders Group to acquire Barrhead Travel recently. Their chief executive Ninan Chacko was complimentary about the strength of our ‘click, call and visit’ model and our highly trained travel staff.

It is undoubtedly an exciting time for both groups and I’ll be travelling to the US this month to find out more about how we will work together.

If I get asked which is the most effective sales channel in the travel trade, my answer will be that you have to be in all of them, or at least focus resources on those that deliver the best return on investment.

But while the technology is increasingly smart – and sometimes so amazing it can even seem like magic – the person-to-person connection is still the most important. This is why travel agents always need to be on the high street to offer reassurance or advice. And it is why they have to employ staff with personal experience of the dream holiday: agents whose eyes go soft and far away as they recall some of the highlights of the trip and share their enthusiasm with the customer.

Face-to-face and person-to-person remains the strongest link in the multi-channel process. It’s still the clincher.