ASATA Column: Will virtual assistants replace travel agents?


Raise your hand if you haven’t heard or read somewhere in the past few months that robots will take over the job of the travel agent or TMC soon. Advanced robotics, combined with artificial intelligence, are rumoured to make the role of the travel agent obsolete… once again.

Siri, Alexis and Lola all promise to effortlessly and instantly book your travels at the click of a button on your smartphone or smartwatch. These virtual assistants even claim to now ‘understand’ your travel intent.

But, will these virtual ladies be able to replace the travel agent? Will they be able to leverage their long-standing supplier relationships to secure you the very best seat on the plane?

Has Lola ever tried to navigate Lagos airport? Can she tell you where to get the best suja in Lagos and, because she knows how much you hate to queue, give you personal advice on how to get through immigration seamlessly?

No matter how hardened a road traveller you are, will you be satisfied with the metallic voice of a virtual assistant in times of emergency? Wouldn’t you rather know you can reach out to a human being 24/7 to assist you with professional advice?

It is true that virtual assistants are becoming increasingly ‘intelligent’. They are now said to be able to retain information about your personal preferences, such as whether you prefer a window seat or an aisle seat on the airplane. However, the role of the ASATA travel agents stretches far beyond knowing whether you like chicken or beef.

TMCs handle the delicate task of balancing the travellers’ personal preferences along with the business goals of the company. An ASATA travel agent understands the context of the traveller and the company and is able to help the traveller and the company make informed decisions and travel with peace of mind. And that is something no virtual assistant can offer you.

Otto de Vries