Technology like cloud services and chatbots can help you build a virtual travel agent, with fewer of the overheads that such businesses required in the past. This allows you to focus on offering unique travel packages, create a better personal service while focusing on growing a hyper-local or globe-spanning business, whatever you feel the need to provide.
The digital business era is an exciting time for all types of company in any market. Now, banks can exist entirely online, while your local coffee shop or bar uses an app to speed up ordering and improve loyalty. Even local and regional travel agents now do the majority of their business online, and new startups can use the power of technology to build their brand and attract customers.
Using cloud services, a startup can scale up faster than any traditional business ever could, hiring online freelancers or subscribing to automatic tools to handle what were considered key roles like HR, accounts and reception. These low-cost, always-on resources free up the business leaders to focus on the key aims of the company without worrying about the day-to-day operations side.
That’s an advantage for any type of company. So many people from the travel industry want to start out on their own, to work for themselves, or offer a better service, and technology acts as an enabler for that. It helps explains why so many new businesses are starting up, allowing them to focus on the product and service with a degree of focus that leaves old-time business leaders feeling both threatened and enthused by the prospects of what’s happening now.
The rise of the virtual travel agent
When it comes to travel agencies, digital creates a huge boost across the market. The same cloud and AI power that helps travel comparison sites make fortunes by scanning prices minute-by-minute around the world can also help the smallest niche or boutique agent. These can function at a level of scale and efficiency that can help them punch way above their weight.
Any business can deploy a number of IT tools to help grow the scale, reach and appeal of the business. Virtual assistant travel agents are one of the fastest growing ways to add value to the travel business, and are not to be ignored.
Apps and websites
Advertising traditionally will see most small, new and boutique travel agency ventures priced out of the market occupied by larger businesses. However, an app or website allows the agent to show their tours, trips or destinations in amazing detail with high-quality photos, videos and glossy content.
With good SEO, sites can attract the ideal customer to your travel agent site, online advertising is affordable and can be precisely targeted, all of which puts the key pieces of the business together, all you need is the right destinations, travel ticket sources and those key hospitality factors that will make your idea different or successful.
From bespoke tours of famous movie or TV filming locations to traditional package trips or voyages to the furthest-flung emerging destinations, you still need the idea to make your travel agency stand out, but marketing and promoting it has never been easier. And using technology means you can focus on the important details, with digital services, and an army of freelance online contributors or workers handling many tasks to help keep your wage bill and office footprint down.
Chatbots help take the business load
For any growing business, there are plenty of areas where a chatbot can help take some of the strain when it comes to internal management, customer service or communications. The key benefits is that along with the app and website, bots provide a 24/7 company presence, engaging with customers, answering questions and expanding the company’s presence across social media.
Bots using scripts or learning through artificial intelligence (AI) can help provide a customer service presence, lead generation or deal with basic queries, answering frequently asked questions and so on. They can help to build and sell travel packages, develop customer profiles if you need to find what they want, or help set the scene for a particular tour, cruise or event.
Using chatbots a business can operate with fewer customer service staff, or have them focus on serious sales queries, letting the bot handle introductions and the basic level of information. Bots can also help potential customers find the ideal trip or event they want, and then link them to a sales agent to complete the deal.
But, bots for many types of companies can now help handle the basics, create a package and complete the sales transaction. Bots can increasingly pass for a human agent, or be given a persona or character to make them interesting for customers to engage with.
Chatbots in the travel industry are already popular with airline chatbots, hotels and booking bots gaining in use and popularity, so travelers are used to the idea and happy to interact with them. While most bots started off with travel businesses that have high customer service loads, small and boutique firms can use them to help level the playing field against larger players, without losing any of their charm or personality. In fact, bots can be loaded with personality, made highly knowledgable or fun and engaging, depending on the brand you wish to build.
Within a growing business, this use of bots also helps the company save time and money, with internal bots increasingly used to help with tasks like human resources, helping with staff presence, their own time off, illness and so on. As bots become smarter, they can also link to other bots and services, such as helping talk to a rent a car bot from a partner.
As cost-effective solutions, bots are among the most valuable, easy to develop as a free or low-cost cloud service, through providers like SnatchBot, using chatbot templates to help build functional chat services. Or, they can be custom built with advanced features like natural language processing to provide a higher level of customer service.
Through social media tools like Facebook Messenger, travel bots are increasingly used to provide web check-in services, flight delay/gate changes and other useful information, while helping customers change their travel plans. Providing this type of information by bot helps the small travel company fit in with their customers as they travel, they don’t depersonalise the service, just make it more practical.
From beach breaks, cruises and island hopping to off-the-beaten-track travelogues, bots are a great tool to help a small business act big, to present adventures in new and interesting ways, with images, video and other content. They can help a company handle spikes in demand that would leave a smaller traditional business unable to cope.
Cloud services help you take off
As well as apps and chatbots, a travel agent functions better, faster and more smoothly using cloud services. These can include cloud-based sales, booking and payment services to improve the selling process.
Growing companies can also use cloud human resources, accounting and other tools to keep office costs down and allow staff to focus on building the best business possible. Office packages like Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 allow essential documents, spreadsheets and databases to be maintained live by staff wherever they are. That’s ideal for those who travel for a living, and make it easier to work with partner agencies and other parts of the travel industry.
Social media helps you dream big
The likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook help bring your holiday or touring options to the whole world. You can sell dreams and stories, using great photos and video to tell the tale, and get customers sharing their adventures to help build the business and tie into trending topics.
With bots running on social media, you can also be “there” even after office hours are over, getting people interesting in the latest travel destinations, offers you have, with bots handling customer questions and helping defuse any problems before they are posted over social media leading to negative sentiment.
Living the travel dream
Put all these technologies together and you have a way for sole trader, startup or small travel businesses to grow fast and reach a huge audience. With the rest of the travel industry increasingly using automated services, it helps them maintain independence or partner with other players as required, and with customers in all types of markets increasingly used to dealing with bots and automated services, there’s nothing big or scary about the use of technology now.
All of these tools and services are helping the next-generation of young travel agents build their business faster and quicker than ever before. Focusing on putting together a great tour roster or unique travel product, and not having to worry about managing (or even owning) an office is one of the huge benefits of operating in the digital business era, allowing you to focus on the heart of the travel company, not stressing about the details of business management.
Chris Knight writes about where technology will take us next, from the power of neural networks, artificial intelligence and chatbots, to the endless worlds promised by augmented and virtual reality. From the latest in gadgets and hardware to how digital businesses can use technology to grow, Chris makes the future clear and understandable to all.