Robots at dawn… will journos and agents survive?

So I just read yesterday that Google is funding a new software project that will automate the writing of local news. Hmm.

As a newly signed up blogger and, ahem, travel writer, I thought to myself: ‘John, you’ve got really poor instincts when it comes to timing; just as you launch ‘Travelling Man’, along comes a damn robot to do the job for you.’

You think I’m joking? Not at all.  The Guardian newspaper reports that the Press Association and Urbs Media will set up ‘RADAR’ – Reporters And Data And Robots – to produce thousands of stories each month. They’re quoted as saying: “Radar allows us to harness artificial intelligence to scale up to a volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually. It is a fantastic step forward for PA.”

Well, maybe it is a fantastic step forward for publishers, in terms of churning local news without having to pay for a human writer, but it seems to me that what will be missing is the connectivity with readers that is the hallmark of all great journalists. Even a robot flush with algorithmic genius is not going to have that instinctive sense of community or the curiosity, creativity, fearlessness, honesty and passion that is inherent in a dedicated reporter.

So that got me thinking about parallels in the world of travel.

Travellers are often fulfilling long held ambitions and aspirations when they go through the process of conceptualising, planning, booking, dreaming and then travelling on their gap year journeys, bucket-list adventures, once in a lifetime grand tours or milestone celebrations with partners, family and friends. The experience will likely be life-changing as they will discover much more than just ‘the destination’. They’ll observe life first-hand, meet locals, learn new ways and, better still, make the world a better place through forming opinions that will repudiate myths and misconceptions. Cool.

To get there, they can click through to a plethora of automated online services providing algorithm driven travel solutions, which may be fine if you just need an airline ticket, hotel or car rental. But perhaps not if you need more complex advice and recommendations…

In nearly 40 years in the business I’ve realised that there is still nothing out there that can replace human intervention and services of a great Travel Agent, and they display many of the same qualities as good journalists.

Integrity is critical. Top agents have amassed a lifetime of experience and training in all things travel, and are answerable to the information they supply.  Their recommendations will always based on a genuine assessment of the best solution for their customer. If they get it wrong, unlike a robot, they’ll face the music.

Travel agents are observant and know their customer base. Apart from asking the right questions, they’ll pick up details from meetings that help give richness to the travel experience they offer: the expressions on the face of the customer, the style and demeanour; if the enquiry is on the phone, then the voice and type of music playing in the background. And much more over time. Not every detail will make its way into the product offering, but knowing the nuances will help them tailor best solutions for the individual.

Agents are industrious too. I really don’t think many consumers understand the true value they are getting from all the hard work that goes into the research and planning of the recommendations an agent will make.  Hours and hours. Days sometimes. Checking information online and offline, talking to other people to clarify and validate what is or isn’t possible, following up on contradictions and locking down arrangements.

Accuracy is also a vital characteristic. An entire trip can revolve around connecting multiple dots in a seamless sequence. A good agent verifies all the details and accuracy necessary for travel planning: names, dates, times, passports, visas, addresses and venues. If just one transfer or flight is out of kilter, even a spelling error, then your trip can go pear-shaped very quickly…

I speak from experience on this one. On multiple occasions, against my own advice, I’ve gone online and grabbed a quick flight and hotel for a meeting, only to find that the two don’t tie up because I clicked on the wrong date for arrival or misread a timing.  I once stood on the Unter-den-Linden in Berlin, in the February snow at 7.00 pm in the evening, with no hotel and no chance of a room anywhere, all due to my calendar error.  Not great.

Then there is the personal back-up you get from an agent.  If you get caught up in a ferry strike, an Icelandic ash-cloud, a flooding or a even a terrorist incident, so long as you are booked with a travel agent and their reputable tour operator partner or supplier, then they’ll sort you out.

together-2450081__480There is a saying: ‘Without a travel agent you are on your own’. So true.

In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for new competition on the blogging front.

Perhaps we’ll see the appearance of a super-blog titled: ‘Travelling Robot’ .

Fortunately, I don’t think it’ll be anytime soon.


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