The future powered by AI: Meet the travel manager

14
igor-omilaev-eGGFZ5X2LnA-unsplash (1)
4 min read

JOHANNESBURG – Artificial intelligence is barging into pretty much every business out there, whether it’s law, creative work, search engine optimisation – you name it. As machines get smarter and more data-driven, they can bring huge value across industries. Now, corporate travel is hopping on the AI train.

Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG) recently launched its own AI Centre of Excellence to explore this tech. The challenge? How could AI be a co-pilot to support FCM travel managers? They brought on Adrian Lopez as Head of AI to spearhead things. So what can we expect from this new initiative? Lopez’s vision is to build a virtual travel manager brain that revolutionises flight search and booking while preserving human expertise.

“I want travel managers to have tangible help from AI. Any information needs to be readily available at their fingertips,” explains Lopez. This is the future he envisions, where AI assistants support managers by automating repetitive, low-value tasks like policy checks, freeing them up for high-touch customer service.

It’s all part of Lopez’s mission of driving AI integration across the company. “I want people to be using AI. I’m in the process of preparing training materials, tools, internal chatbots,” he says.

Lopez recognises some customers will have concerns though, and he’s committed to rolling out AI ethically and securely. “We apply a lot of restrictions. The process is a lot more comprehensive than just typing some things into ChatGPT,” he points out.

Starting with the low-hanging fruit

So how is FCM putting AI into action? Lopez and his team are starting with “low-hanging fruit” projects aimed at streamlining behind-the-scenes workflows before exploring more disruptive applications.

First up is AI-powered email triage. Machine learning will analyse inbox messages and automatically classify them by priority. This helps managers focus on high-priority bookings first. According to Lopez, its already being piloted and will soon reach customers.

“If we start saving a few seconds on every action for travel managers, we’re going to end up saving a lot of time,” he notes. With half a million emails to parse monthly, even small individual time savings add up.

Virtual travel managers – preserving expertise

Looking ahead, Lopez wants AI to help close an imminent knowledge gap. Many senior travel managers are nearing retirement, taking decades of expertise with them. “How do we make our travel consultants as good as the most senior ones?” Lopez asks.

His vision is AI travel assistants that soak up all that collective knowledge, creating a “virtual travel manager brain” for the next generation. Junior managers could tap into these AI tools to match the skills of their most seasoned colleagues.

AI would also enable easy knowledge sharing across FCM’s 97 global markets. Local insights from one region could instantly benefit managers worldwide through the AI assistant. It’s the ultimate travel manager training programme.

Revolutionising travel search and booking

Further afield, Lopez aims to transform the flight search and booking experience with AI-driven personalisation. Think Google Flights on steroids. By understanding individual traveller preferences and company trip policies, AI could surface the most relevant options and predict the best flight.

“I want to work on this so we give travellers the option of one or maximum two flights,” explains Lopez. This tailored pre-screening by a virtual assistant would save endless scrolling through irrelevant results.

Lopez feels traditional online booking tools fail business travellers with information overload. But AI promises to reduce the stress of travel planning by quickly zooming in on the optimal flights. It’s a frictionless, personalised booking experience travel managers could only dream of before.

The human touch remains key

Some may view AI as a threat, but Lopez believes it will augment human strengths rather than replace managers. AI excels at rapidly analysing data to automate simple tasks. This leaves managers free to focus on emotional intelligence – building relationships, reading preferences, and providing a human touch.

“The booking part is almost a commodity. We need to make it seamless as possible. The value is the extra experience,” says Lopez. He sees AI as a collaborator working behind the scenes so managers can be present in the moments that matter most to travellers.

The future of corporate travel?

AI is gaining momentum in consumer travel, but FCM aims to become a pioneer on the corporate side. Lopez’s passion for innovation is driving real change that will soon touch customers, whether it’s AI-enhanced workflows or virtual assistant features.

It’s still early days, but the travel experience could look radically different thanks to AI. Lopez is committed to rolling it out responsibly and securing traveller trust. One thing is certain though – travel will never be the same again.