A large proportion of travel professionals are “sleepwalking” into a digital future and must act faster to predict clients’ needs using technology to survive, an e-tourism academic has warned.

This means offering expert advice, added value and using technology to understand holidaymakers’ needs, said Professor Dimitrios Buhalis, director of the eTourism Lab at Bournemouth University.

He was speaking ahead of the Future Skills in Travel and Tourism event hosted by Abta where he will talk to delegates about how clients already question the value of the travel agent.

Saying the job is not just a booking process, he said: “It’s much more than that.

“For the industry now it’s a matter of agility and understanding technology and creating value for customers – using digital resources to create value in real time to address all contextual challenges.”

Buhalis said the number of high street agents had reduced dramatically in the last 30 years, stressing competition from digital giants as a key factor. “If we fail to address the needs of the market, digital players such as Google and Amazon will move into tourism and provide agile intermediation between consumers and suppliers,” he said.

And he suggested the industry was still “living behind the times”, with most firms still reliant on 1980s technology.

“Customers are now questioning the industry on whether it creates value,” he said. “They have done their research. They want expert advice and expect professionals to add value. Agents need to proactively understand what customers need before customers even realise.”

Examples of where the agent can add value would be making clients aware of visas or vaccinations needed, booking exclusive experiences or giving personal recommendations, he said.

He stressed the need for employers to take on qualified, experienced staff, who are digital-savvy and can maximise value for clients.

The Future Skills in Travel and Tourism one-day seminar is on June 19 at Abta’s offices in London.