Can The Travel Planning Industry Ever Be Fully Automated?

10/17/2016 10:46 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2016

The tourism industry is a juggernaut. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council the global impact of tourism is $7.2 trillion, and that number is climbing rapidly.

Ever since ships and trains began connecting faraway places, people have packed their bags and taken holidays on beaches all over the world. But the last fifty years of development has changed tourism from a pastime for the affluent to an industry that saw 1.1 billion people travel internationally last year.

Global air travel and international hotel chains standardized the means of going and staying. Then travel agencies began to develop online booking tools, which further grew the industry. Today, social media is fanning the flames and pushing more people to book exotic getaways. But the rapid explosion of this industry and the injection of highly profitable businesses has resulted in unintended consequences, one of which is the lack of personalization in trip planning and enjoyment.

Zach Smith, CEO of Anywhere and travel tourism expert, says that trip planning automation has come at a cost. “Today, you can book flights and hotels and make dinner reservations all from your mobile phone. But what they cannot do is offer expert recommendations from locals who know the local culture, cuisine, and attractions.”

Zach Smith, CEO of Anywhere
Zach Smith, CEO of Anywhere

This is a problem Smith is trying to solve with Anywhere, a company that merges booking automation with a global network of experts. I wanted to know more about this hybrid model and how the tourism industry itself is evolving.

Q: What segment of the tourism industry is still looking for the human touch? And is that segment growing?

Smith: Even with all the technology that exists, we have found that real human communication is still highly valued and a key element in trip-planning, no matter what age. Whether you’re a young professional, a retired couple, or a family, when it comes to travel, the human touch is important to everyone. Working with all varieties of clients over the past decade, we’ve learned that at one point or another, people have been overwhelmed with researching their trips online and ultimately, disappointed with the travel choices they’ve made. Our job is to completely eliminate stress, regret and disappointment, because we know vacation time is precious.

Q: Very few people use travel agents anymore, but they used to be ubiquitous. Is your business model the modern iteration of the travel agent?

Smith: For decades, brick-and-mortar travel agents were the gatekeepers to airline tickets and accommodations. Agents had exclusive access to a private network that authorized them to accept payment and confirm reservations with wholesalers throughout the world, and the internet made that network public. The transactional side of travel was ripe for disruption, but there is so much more to travel than just the basics of booking. Our model blends the online convenience of booking travel with a robust in-country network of local experts to help provide guidance and information on each destination. In a way, we are the next-generation of travel-agents, but in the digital-age. Using technology as our tool for processing transactions and providing informative content on each country, but adding human interaction as a way to trip plan and provide swift adjustments for any trip disruptions, such as potential weather changes, missed or delayed flights, sickness and any number of issues that come up during an international trip.

Q: Almost everything can be booked online and the tourism industry is moving towards automation. Why add people back into the mix?

Smith: We have embraced technology from day one, and will continue to use automation and many other powerful time-saving tools. However, booking online can be frustrating with all the information that’s out there, so a real dialogue with an expert ultimately saves time, reduces pressure on the ones planning the vacation and ensures their trip is exactly what they envision. It’s hard for the mass online-booking companies to be responsible for much more than the transaction. With human interaction, we can ensure their trip is optimized to their needs, which we’re accountable for, whereas automated booking platforms cannot provide that level of service.

Q: What are trends you see developing in tourism in general? Are there trends that people might find surprising?

Smith: What we’re learning most from our clients is that travel-style evolves with age. Our service appeals to those who were the free-spirited, adventure-seeking backpackers in their younger, college years, who have now moved on to the professional world, started a family or reaching retirement, and are now a little more pressed for time, but still want to have that same free-flowing travel-style that provides a unique experience, allowing them to walk away from their trip with insight, perspective and an appreciation of the culture they visited. We’re definitely seeing this trend grow, where travelers continue to want that independent, free-flowing trip experience, but want to be efficient with their time, both in their pre-trip planning and researching, and their time spent during their travels. People are looking for a customized trip, they don’t want the cookie-cutter experience of mass-tourism like cruise ship travel or pre-determined tour packages.

Exotic destinations like Bali will soon be available through Anywhere
Exotic destinations like Bali will soon be available through Anywhere

Q: Anywhere works in Central and South America - are there plans to add more countries and continents soon?

Smith: Destinations within Central and South America offer visitors an amazing array of environments and culture, so we feel very good about our efforts in connecting travelers to these dynamic regions. However, there is much more to experience around the world, and our clients want more from us, so we’ve been staying very busy. We’ve begun development in Bali, Myanmar, Namibia and Tanzania. We’ve also recently debuted our Anywhere+ platform, which is a collection of alluring destinations around the world, where we provide a hassle-free and culturally immersive travel experience on set dates with our expert guides. Adventures to Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro were very well reviewed earlier this year, and these trips will be operated bi-annually. In 2017, we’re adding 5 more exotic Anywhere+ destinations. Planet earth is packed with amazing places, so our to-do-list is vast, but we’re excited to bring the world closer to travelers.

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