Special Report: Senior industry figures on trading, AI and the future

Agents, operators, airlines and cruise lines discuss their start to the year during a round-table debate hosted by Travel Weekly and Hotelplan

Travel agents, operators, airlines and cruise lines reported a “flying” start to the year during a round-table debate, saying peaks sales met the record-breaking forecasts set at the end of 2023.

Sarah Lancashire, dnata marketing director, said the group’s four brands – Gold Medal, Pure Luxury, Cruise Plus and Incredible Journeys – enjoyed an “outstanding peaks”.

“Phones were ringing off the hook since the beginning of December, which was earlier than usual,” she said. “We’ve also had a few exclusive offers for out-of-date-range holidays and they’ve flown off the shelves.”

Lancashire said the growing all-inclusive trend “hasn’t dwindled” and families are the “most cost-conscious” customers, which was also noted by John Sullivan, commercial head at The Advantage Travel Partnership, in last week’s Travel Weekly.

If Only general manager Gordon McCreadie also reported a strong start to the year despite a weaker February, saying: “January was great, February was a lot softer and March has improved again; in fact, it’s flying.”

Barrhead sales and marketing director Nicki Tempest-Mitchell said the agency had enjoyed a record-breaking start to the year, buoyed by “four consecutive record-breaking Saturdays”.

McCreadie added there was still a degree of caution among certain consumers, with some still yet to seal their booking after enquiring and others looking ahead to next year.

The consumer was thinking about their holiday far earlier for this year; peaks has definitely changed

“Some customers are still saying they plan to book this year but haven’t got round to it yet, while others are securing the holiday of their dreams for next year,” he added.

This was echoed by Silversea UK sales director Connie Georgiou. She said: “We’ve had a really good Q1 but it’s been more for 2025-26 bookings.”

Sam Conway, head of UK travel sales at Travelzoo, also noted a shift in booking patterns, saying: “We had our busiest booking day on December 20, even though peak trading didn’t kick off until January 1. The consumer was thinking about their holiday far earlier for this year; peaks has definitely changed.”

McCreadie agreed: “Traditional peaks doesn’t have the same make-or-break impact it used to.”

Conway added that frequently introducing new destinations to offer more choice has proved successful. “We carry a huge amount of Greece on Travelzoo, but when you push something new such as Serbia or Montenegro the interest is huge – people want different things,” he said.

Rising cost of flights

Georgiou noted the rising cost of flights is putting some customers off booking, warning: “People want to go away and want to book – the key thing stopping people is the price of flights.”

Janet Parton, vice-president of business development at Celestyal, agreed: “The shoulder seasons are selling well, but flight prices to Athens are really high. It’s cheaper to do a seven-night cruise from Doha in Qatar than it is in the Med because of high fares.”

Similarly, Virgin Voyages’ director of UK sales Sarah Jane Walker said: “For Q1 overall we’ve got just over double the number of bookings versus last year. We’re heading in the right direction, but July and August are a bit softer, probably due to the higher flight prices. The Caribbean is looking more appealing because it’s a similar price to some of our European sailings.”

Lancashire said: “Agreed. The low-cost carriers aren’t low cost anymore!”

However, Virgin Atlantic’s head of agency sales Nicki Goldsmith said: “More capacity is coming into the market now – we’re getting back to the same levels of capacity we had in 2019.

“We want to hold our prices and not get involved in a race to the bottom.”

Adopting AI

The panellists all agreed artificial intelligence would play a crucial role in the future of their businesses and in the sector generally. But they said firms should think carefully about how the technology can benefit them before they adopt it, to ensure it’s done correctly, rather than rushing the process purely for the sake of it.

Goldsmith said Virgin Atlantic is using the tech for pricing efficiencies, which is “really adding value”, while Parton said it is “assisting us [Celestyal] with personalisation”.

Simon Powell, chief executive officer at Inspiretec, said AI is “like nothing you’ve seen before”.

“Thirty-five years ago, we were wondering how we would ever adapt to the internet,” he said. “Last week, one of our clients took a booking worth £186,000 entirely online.

“We would never have thought that a customer would spend that kind of money without talking to someone, but they have. And it’s happening more often.

Nobody in our industry as it stands will be a winner with AI – it will be a new entrant without any of the baggage

“It shows how quickly the internet has matured. Fast-forward that to AI and the rate of change is off the scale. It’s developing like nothing you’ve seen before.”

Powell added that, currently, the adoption of AI does not mean guaranteed success for a company. “In terms of how it will affect travel, nobody in our industry as it stands will be a winner with AI – it will be a new entrant without any of the baggage,” he said.

“Just look at the likes of Expedia: they came into travel because they felt they could disrupt the industry and did. It will be the same with AI. Venture capitalists are already investing hundreds of millions in companies with models based on AI. They know it can’t deliver perfectly on the front end yet, but are betting the farm it will in a few years’ time.

“So the winners will be those who come into the industry without any baggage, not those tinkering around the edges.”

Adding value

However, Powell encouraged all firms within the industry to adopt the technology when they have the capacity to do so.

“We should still embrace it,” he continued. “It can still help us all. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste of time; it has to add value – either helping you sell more, helping you operate better, or making processes more efficient.”

Simon McIntyre of agreed, saying: “We have to ask what problem it can solve, rather than just shoehorning it into our businesses. We need to be asking how it can be used to deliver faster, richer data post-booking.”

McCreadie echoed their views, saying: “It has to be handled right – it has the potential to be as transformative as the telephone.”

Lancashire offered a word of warning, saying AI can sometimes generate incorrect information, which “is an issue in our industry, where we base our credibility around expertise”.

However, Derek Jones of Not Just Travel suggested: “It has to get things wrong now so it can learn and get better.”

And Powell said: “Most first drafts of what you get back from AI is 90% of what people want. It’s not perfect, but it’s good and it returns it in about three to four seconds. And it gets cleverer and cleverer every time. It’s now even writing its own code.”

He went on to say the current “prime leader” in the use of AI is, which is using the technology for customer-facing and back-office functions.

He warned that if the travel industry misses out on introducing AI in the right way, “we do so at our peril”.

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