While they were stuck in quarantine and isolation, would-be travelers everywhere fantasized about the day when COVID-era travel restrictions would eventually be lifted.
Although the pandemic rages on, that time for many people has finally come. After all, closed borders are opening and vaccines are now a grateful reality. And yet, even the most “wanderlustful” travelers remain mired in uncertainty thanks to persisting confusion about COVID-19 protocols and bookings. They desperately want passport stamps – and peace of mind. Perhaps that’s why The Washington Post recently predicted that 2021 would be “the year of the travel agent.”
The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the travel industry. After over a year of staying at home, however, the traveling public is anxious to get on the road again. The same travel industry that has been devastated by the coronavirus is now on the verge of a major comeback in the wake of it.
Travel agencies have seen a bump in business as a result. Take travel agency network Viruoso, which says it has seen a 50% increase in the number of people seeking out travel advisers since January 2021.
“Advisers have always acted as advocates for their clients, and it was no more apparent than now,” Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso, told The Washington Post.
But modern travel agencies aren’t like the ones you might remember from before the internet: fluorescent lights, drop ceilings, sun-faded brochures. Since then, they’ve undergone a major tech revolution. Newly powered by data analytics and cloud computing, they’re anxious to shed their old, stale reputation. As a result, the future of travel agents might be brighter than it’s ever been.
Embracing Uncertainty and Data
Lillian Rafson, founder and CEO of Pack Up + Go, is used to dealing with uncertainty. She built her company – an online travel agency that plans surprise trips for travelers to destinations across the United States – on the idea that travelers are, too.
“Our travelers come for the excitement of a surprise destination, but stay for the service because we are the ones dealing with all the stresses of travel,” Rafson says.
Travelers fill out a quick survey about their budget and the type of vacations that interest them. Pack Up + Go takes care of the rest. Travelers don’t even know where they’re going until the morning of their flight. Founded in 2015, when she was just 23, the bootstrap startup was “extremely low-tech,” according to Rafson, who says she knew the business had to scale its tech when she began accruing repeat customers and referrals.
“We’d been using a series of spreadsheets to manage all of our past travelers, and there was one day when it just became too much,” Rafson said. “We never wanted to send a traveler or their friend to the same destination twice. We needed to scale to ensure the best customer experience.”
Just before the pandemic, Pack Up + Go hired Pittsburgh-based software company Truefit to help it harness its data.
“We are really lucky that we have five and a half years of data [about] what our travelers loved about their trips based on their interests, their ages, things like that,” explained Rafson, whose team still plans travelers’ trips, but now relies on insights from customer data and technology to automate routine tasks like weather reporting.
“Now we can streamline our decision-making process, and we can take this data and use it to build partnerships with hotels and activity providers based on all that feedback,” Rafson said. “It’s a balance. We still want everything to feel like it has a human touch, but now we have the data to help back it up.”
Head in the Clouds
The travel industry has a trust problem.
So suggests a recent study of more than 10,000 travelers across the globe, only 46% of whom say they trust the travel industry.
Travelport, which conducted the study, says the sentiment reflects a gap between what consumers get when they’re making other types of purchases – personalization, relevance, convenience and price transparency – and what they get when they’re purchasing travel.
“Our industry has been slow to adapt,” Jen Catto, Travelport’s chief marketing officer, told PhocusWire in a June 2021 interview.
According to Catto, Travelport is working to regain travelers' trust by embracing technology and investing in a public cloud solution. The firm’s digital platform, Travelport+, connects travel agencies with deals and data from travel service providers—e.g., airlines, hoteliers, car rental firms—to ensure a safe and stress-free trip, with fewer delays and cancellations.
In 2020, the company migrated to a public cloud to grow its portfolio of serverless solutions, which allows it to process streaming data four times more cost-efficiently than it had been able to do with its previous on-premise infrastructure.
Like Travelport, IT teams across the travel industry are investing in cloud-based solutions to improve customer service and ensure smooth transitions back to travel for road warriors who were sidelined during the pandemic.
“One of our main goals is to improve the customer experience. We want to get to know our customer better – what their wants and needs are, and how we can make them happy,” Diego Parra, director of the Houston Airport System’s IT program management office, said in an April 2021 interview with GovTech.
“We’re constantly exploring how we can leverage technology to ensure they’re successful in traveling through the airport. As an industry, we want to make people feel safe and let them know they can travel again.”
In 2019, the Houston Airport System, which comprises Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport and Ellington Airport, welcomed more than 60 million passengers. But it lacked real-time data with which to understand aircraft taxi times, arrival and departure rates plus flight delays. During the pandemic, the company invested in a public cloud solution that has helped it streamline operations, make faster decisions and create a touchless passenger experience.
Prepare for Takeoff
Powered by data and the cloud, the travel industry is ready to make a comeback. From data analytics to ensure a safe trip to touchless ticketing at the airport, it’s investing in solutions to earn trust and entice weary travelers to set their sights once again on new adventures. At the center of it all: modern-day travel advisors, whose presumed extinction has given way to a new era of importance, appreciation and esteem.
Jacob Gedetsis is a contributing writer. His work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Post Standard and The Plain Dealer, among others. Find him on Twitter at @JacobGedetsis.
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