One day, artificial intelligence (AI) may replace me. And quite honestly, it’s probably going to be much better at my job than I am.
In the past few months, AI has been a subject of great debate, from the water cooler to the Supreme Court. And it’s time to pick a side. At Arival 360 Berlin — a conference for the tours, activities and attractions sector — keynote speaker Marc Mekki urged attendees to embrace the AI revolution rather than ignore it.
“This toothpaste is out of the tube, and it will only accelerate in the coming months and years,” said Mekki, a travel industry veteran who now helps organizations understand and adapt to tech innovation. “Generative AI will creep into almost every aspect of our working lives, and pretending it’s not there will just give your competitor a tremendous edge. AI won’t take your job, but someone leveraging AI will. Make sure you’re that latter person.”
This toothpaste is out of the tube, and it will only accelerate in the coming months and years.
Imagine automating the parts of your job that you dread and finally having free time to generate leads, network with tour operators and hoteliers, revamp your marketing plan and spruce up your social channels. What if you could scale your business without having to hire more personnel? Remarkably, that day is finally here.
What is Generative AI?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, AI is the “ability of a computer or computer-controlled robot” to complete tasks typically associated with humans. For years, AI has been a part of our everyday lives. It’s been in the background analyzing and categorizing data that, in turn, operates our Teslas or vacuums our floors so we can get dinner started (thanks, Roomba). However, generative AI takes it all a step further — using prompts to scan existing content and produce something completely new, such as audio, imagery and text.
In November 2022, generative AI made a huge leap that the average person didn’t see coming with the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and apps such as Lensa by PrismaLabs. It suddenly seemed like everyone was using these new tools in some fashion, whether to avoid writing a tedious proposal or wow their Instagram followers with flattering AI-generated fan art.
“The biggest holdup right now is the time it’s taking humans to understand what is possible,” said Christian Watts, founder and CEO of Magpie Travel, which recently launched a content-generation tool for the tours and activities industry. “In my space, the biggest immediate changes will be in the content teams, as they work out how they can produce 10, 20 or 50x more content with the same people.”
Keeping Tabs on ChatGPT, Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 Copilot
Microsoft-backed ChatGPT is perhaps the most recognizable generative AI tool on the market. It has made remarkable strides in achieving language understanding, and the innovations continue with OpenAI’s latest incarnation, ChatGPT-4. Launched on March 14, it offers improved functionality that the company is calling more creative, reliable and capable of handling nuanced instructions.
On the same day, Google announced new AI-powered features coming to the Google Workspace suite of products. New features can take notes and create action steps during Google Meet video calls, catch you up on a lengthy Gmail conversation or draft personalized thank you notes to your entire client list in Sheets.
Days after Google and OpenAI’s announcements, Microsoft followed suit, unveiling Microsoft 365 Copilot for Outlook Calendar, email, Excel and more. With simple prompts, it can translate Word documents into a PowerPoint presentation, complete with relevant stock imagery. Imagine never having to build a deck completely from scratch again — it is, in a word, exhilarating.
“With the new Microsoft Copilot suite of tools, it is a breeze to generate trips, collateral and content that is highly personalized, branded and well-written,” Mekki said. “It’s a game-changer, if you use it.”
Generative AI Is Just Another Tool
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, think of generative AI simply as a tool to supercharge your travel business. Use it to give older content on your website a refresh, effortlessly add detailed descriptions to your itineraries, knock out a month’s worth of social media captions in an afternoon or craft empathetic emails to clients when things don’t go as planned. When you have generative AI working for you, there’s finally time to look at the big picture, reassess your goals and adapt your business model to the changing landscape.
Traditional travel counselors have survived and prospered by learning the balance between what a client does on their own and what the advisor can provide as added value. The balance is changing with generative AI, but customers still need the travel agent’s expertise to help sift through all the information to make sure they are making the right choices.
“If you talk to any TravelAge West reader and ask them how they survived in the age of the internet, they’ll tell you that they use the internet as a tool just like their customers do,” said Norm Rose, president of Travel Tech Consulting and senior analyst at Phocuswright, a sister company of TravelAge West. “Traditional travel counselors have survived and prospered by learning the balance between what a client does on their own and what the advisor can provide as added value. The balance is changing with generative AI, but customers still need the travel agent’s expertise to help sift through all the information to make sure they are making the right choices.”
How AI Can Help Travel Businesses
Everyone has to start somewhere. Think about your typical workflow and make a list of what only you can do and what you could conceivably automate. Start small, testing out one task, simply getting acquainted with the tool.
“Say you’ve got a bid for a couple who wants to visit five different European countries in a two-week period,” Rose said. “Ask ChatGPT or an equivalent to create an itinerary, see what it does, and understand what its strengths are and where it’s weak.”
Just for fun, I entered Rose’s prompts into ChatGPT.
The results, while generic, were a decent starting point for brainstorming. They have our peripatetic duo flying into Amsterdam to experience “its canals, museums and nightlife” and then taking the train to Berlin, Prague and Vienna for two nights each. Before heading home, the clients would fly to Barcelona to “spend three days soaking up the sun, sights and cuisine of this lively coastal city,” including the Gothic Quarter, Park Guell and La Sagrada Familia.
Using the same prompts, Microsoft Bing suggested I check out two related travel blogs while also suggesting three different itineraries — none of which included five countries. However, Bing took some of the guesswork out of the exercise by serving up pre-written responses such as, “I’m interested in the French Riviera-Monaco-Milan itinerary.” Click the prompt, and Bing fetches more specifics on which museums to visit in Nice, France, and where to catch the sunset in Florence, Italy. Sounds like we’re sending lovebirds to stroll the Ponte Vecchio at dusk. Not bad.
“Advisors should have as much familiarity with these tools as they can,” Rose said. “Whether they’re launched by OTAs or by search engines, they’re going to be all over the place.”
The Cost of ChatGPT Plus, Frase, Jasper and More
Both free to users, Bing’s AI chatbot and the newly launched Google Bard leverage the internet to provide users with more comprehensive answers. The free version of ChatGPT, on the other hand, relies primarily on its own software and user feedback. With any generative AI tool, users should always verify and cross-check other sources for accuracy.
While waitlisted at the time of writing, ChatGPT Plus costs $20 per month and includes faster responses, access during peak hours of use and new features as they are rolled out, including use of GPT-4. Some of ChatGPT Plus’ new features represent a huge opportunity for the travel industry. In particular, Expedia and Kayak plugins are now available for ChatGPT Plus and allow users to book flights, activities and accommodations in their network.
There are plenty of other generative AI tools that can scale your business at various price points, too. Starting at $14.99 per month, Frase enables users to research, write and optimize SEO content in minutes instead of hours. It can also show how your website content ranks against your top competitors.
It’s fine to use them as creative sparring partners and to draft outlines, but don’t just use what they put out verbatim, because these systems have a tendency to ‘hallucinate,’ which is to say they make up facts at random and don’t care about accuracy, only about coherence.
Starting at $24 per month for 20,000 words, Jasper is an AI writer with a Google Docs-style editor and live chat support. It can make website copy more engaging, generate compelling email subject lines and write catchy captions for your Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest posts.
Organizing a theme cruise that would appeal to past clients? Copy.ai can help craft high-converting emails to resonate with your mailing list. Users are not only able to automate follow-up emails, but also streamline tasks with 90-plus tools and templates. Copy.ai offers a free version for up to 2,000 words per month and a pro version for $36 per month.
You might want to take what you generate with a grain of salt, however. Mekki warned against using ChatGPT and similar tools for writing long-form content such as SEO articles and blogs.
“It’s fine to use them as creative sparring partners and to draft outlines, but don’t just use what they put out verbatim, because these systems have a tendency to ‘hallucinate,’ which is to say they make up facts at random and don’t care about accuracy, only about coherence,” he said.
Will AI Replace Travel Agents?
While accuracy and ethics continue to be topics of debate, it’s fair to say that we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift. It’s thrilling and frightening at once. So where, exactly, will it leave travel advisors? Only time will tell.
Those travel advisors will experience a golden age as these tools will funnel more people to them, which they can serve faster, better and in a more personalized way than ever before thanks to an AI toolset they can leverage.
“There will always be a place for the elite of travel planners,” Mekki predicted. “But the overwhelming bulk of travel planning will shift to natural language tools, which in the next five years will know more, think faster, offer more diverse and up-to-date information and streamline the process beyond the capabilities of many advisors. The next generation of travelers will natively understand and expect these tools, and they won’t wait around for you to reply to an email.”
Mekki’s hot tip is for advisors to become true niche specialists as fast as they can, and aim to be perceived as the best in that niche.
“Those travel advisors will experience a golden age as these tools will funnel more people to them, which they can serve faster, better and in a more personalized way than ever before thanks to an AI toolset they can leverage,” he said. “Embrace it all, and win.”