AI, NDC, ChatGPT: acronyms that are rapidly becoming part of the travel management lexicon.

Yet are we about to witness an evolution of artificial intelligence in travel management to such a degree that there’ll be less need for humans working in the sector?

Our webinar ‘Humans and Technology – why we need both in travel management’ – in partnership with Festive Road – sought to begin answering this question.

Reed & Mackay’s Learning Specialist, Global Fares Jo Shilling and Global Client Success Manager, Groups, Meetings & Events Mat Browne were joined by clients Beazley Insurance Head of Facilities & Travel Management Simon Robinson and NYK Group Business Administration Manager and Interim Travel Manager Annie Uelese.

In the webinar the panel discussed the impact of machine learning on travel and the reasons why corporate travel needs to combine advanced technology with the human touch for maximum impact.

Airline management – where can tech help humans?

A poll at the start of the webinar showed almost half of participants (47.5%) wanted to see AI used in identifying cost savings in airfares.

Shilling explained one way technology is doing this is with New Distribution Capability (NDC) and how it can deliver a huge amount of choice in the air fares world. In particular, that it will allow TMCs to fully personalise trips and match what clients need in terms of fares, flexibility, advance bookings, baggage etc.

“When everyone’s set up with access to NDC, this will be a huge step forward in cost reduction and means tightly fitting a client’s brief rather than giving them the air fares we can get hold of,” Shilling explains.

Where Is AI helpful in travel?

Shilling highlighted the main advantage with tech advances in airline management has been the level of automation that’s been brought into the travel booking process.

That, in turn, saves a business travel agents’ time, which can instead be used to interact more closely with clients and deliver better customer service.

“However, while tech can be programmed to search for a particular booking and find areas where that booking might be improved, it’s the emotional intelligence of our consultants that determines if what the tech comes back with will suit the client. The tech does the legwork; consultants enable the best customer experience,” she says.

The client perspective

Beazley’s Simon Robinson agrees it’s the combination of consultants’ emotional intelligence combined with utilising the tech the TMC has invested in that makes everything quicker and stress-free for the traveller. 

“For example, if a traveller’s missed a flight or connection, or there’s a security incident, you want your TMC’s systems to be fully integrated with advanced AI, so those systems have already found various new options. Then the agent sense checks the best option for the traveller,” he says.

“It’s dealt with by one push of a button and the traveller isn’t inconvenienced. The process is quick and intuitive and, the next thing the traveller knows is they’ve been sent a new boarding card on their app.”

As a shipping firm, changes to NYK Group’s travel plans are frequent, adds Annie Uelese; having humans interpret fares the technology sources has led to cost-savings for the business. “When you have to change a flight last minute, it’s a cost businesses have tended to accept,” Uelese says. “Yet when we go through Reed & Mackay’s pricing team, they can find better fares for flights that are also suitable for the traveller – this is the real value of a TMC.”

Humans = reassurance

If travellers are overseas and are hit by strike action that cancels their flights or trains, particularly out of hours, knowing you can pick up the phone to talk to a Reed & Mackay consultant, who will get the traveller on another train or flight, is fundamental, Uelese believes. “The consultant will automatically know whether the traveller needs a hotel and transport to get there, or access to an airport lounge,” she says.

And, Uelese adds, when it comes to multicultural organisations, it’s crucial to have consultants help make the decision for the traveller if they’re stressed or under pressure. The consultants will understand the different needs and terminology used by travellers from different countries. “Reed & Mackay understands us as a client and how our business works, ensuring the support is bespoke, which gives our travellers peace of mind,” Uelese says.

Robinson believes that, for these instances in the future, one of AI’s advantages is it will eventually start working out when the next available flight is. It will also automatically recognise if the traveller needs a hotel room as a result, providing options in advance. That technology will perhaps hold a room for a traveller and even book a taxi, therefore greatly speeding up the solution being offered and reducing the number of touch points between the traveller and agent.

However, Shilling points out that while AI may be able to do this in the future, it’s still a consultant that will know if a 5am flight is appropriate for a client.

So how should business travel consultants work seamlessly alongside the AI-powered tech of the future?

“We need to train AI technology and certainly use the speed with which it can pull together information,” Shilling adds. “Yet we know our travellers; we’re proud of our high-touch service, we deliver the high-end travel experience. Even if AI does produce the quickest option, we don’t want clients to come back saying that option doesn’t work for them, we want them to be immediately happy with the choice the consultant has made from the information tech provides.”