When I was a young PR account manager, I was trained extensively to read and practise body language in my communications with clients. It’s something I have used extensively throughout my career, and it has always given me an advantage.

I remember my first lesson. We were told that only 7% of the messages picked up by people came from the words you said, whereas 38% came from the tone of your voice and 55% from your body language. It was called a soft skill and not everyone subscribed to it.

So, like many in the industry, I was both fascinated and heartened by Kuoni’s recent experiment pitting the much-vaunted artificial intelligence (AI) of a machine against the good old-fashioned human travel agent and their expertise, experience and opinions.

The experiment revealed that when it came to recommending a holiday or explaining the differences between destinations, the human agents, perhaps unsurprisingly, won hands down.

Empathy void

As Derek Jones, UK chief executive of Kuoni’s parent company, Der Touristik, pointed out in a tweet about the experiment, while artificial intelligence is brilliant with facts and tasks, it struggles with opinions and feelings – innately human characteristics that require empathy and an ability to read between the lines.

However, there is little doubt that the technology will keep improving. In many areas, where AI failed in the Kuoni test, it will eventually improve and then the playing field will even out.

So, will AI eventually replace the agent? I’ve been avidly reading every report about the predicted impact of AI. Many jobs are predicted to disappear within 10 years because of it. Some are obvious: taxi drivers, cashiers, bank tellers and postal workers. Others less obvious: surveyors, carpenters and even architects have all been listed as endangered roles. And, it must be said, the travel agent is mentioned on nearly every one of these future-extinction lists.

However, for me, the futurologists that compile these lists overlook some vital skills in selling a holiday. They mistake the role of a travel agent as one of simply booking a flight, selecting a hotel and highlighting features in a destination. And yes, on that basis AI is all-powerful.

But the futurologists forget how important holidays are to people. Customers want inspiration and reassurance – but not from a set of algorithms. Being able to read a customer’s hidden desires, fears, comfort zones and aspirations will become increasingly important in the age of AI.

The people factor

And, no matter how much technology develops, it will never replace a fundamental principle for most of us: people like to deal with people.

For in an age where trust is a scarce and ever-diminishing commodity, and where third-party endorsement from someone you like or respect is keenly sought, the people skills of a travel agent will be the one thing AI will find challenging to replicate.

If we harness the best of AI for our businesses, remain adaptable and resourceful – and brush up on our body-language skills – we could be on the cusp of a golden era for travel agents.