Doubts that virtual travel agents will replace the real thing

The latest attempt by Thomson to create a virtual travel agent has raised the prospect of machines taking over the booking process, but travel firms insist the human touch will always be vital. 

Thomson parent Tui has started trials on next-generation customer search technology powered by the latest IBM Watson artificial intelligence technology.

Tui claimed using technology that could “think like a human” on its website would “raise the bar”.

It said research had found 77% of people believed such technology would be useful when searching for a holiday.

However, observers said that while technology had a place, it was unlikely to truly replicate the service of a real-life agent.

Nick Harding-McKay, managing director of luxury specialist agency Travel Designers, said: “I’m very pro-tech, but this is technology going too far. There’s no way a decent travel agent can be replaced by a bot.

“A computer will not have been on a fam trip and looked at four resorts in three countries, to give you the best choice.

“You need human interaction if you want to sell a customer a genuine holiday experience.”

Bob Morrell, managing director of Reality Training, which helps agents hone their skills, praised Thomson for its innovation.

But he also questioned whether computers had the same power of persuasion of a well-trained agent.

“A machine is unlikely to get someone to go somewhere they’ve never considered or understand the nuance in someone’s reaction to a price,” said Morrell.

“That relationship between agent and customer is so important. I wonder whether a machine will have the same retention level.”

Kuoni UK managing director Derek Jones said face-to-face interactions were more likely to convert, and technology should not be “glaring you in the face”.

Nevertheless, he said Tui’s 
move to improve online interactions was something 
“we will watch closely”.

“This is more interesting than virtual reality and self-serve screens in store,” added Jones.

Carl Morgan, managing director of Tiger Bay, which builds tour operator systems, predicted such technology could spell the end for call centre agents and, in time, the high street.

“Based on trends in technology in all industries, the salesperson at the end of the phone is going to become less important and be replaced by technology,” he said.

“The reason people want face-to-face conversations is good product knowledge, but you can get that from trusted review sites.”

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