Conquering the Seemingly Mt. Everest of the Travel Industry  11th Oct 2018

When Sibusiso Vilane took to the stage to recount his history making journey to conquering the world tallest mountain, Mt. Everest, little did he know that his would be the inspiring story that travel agents attending the 2018 Travelport Live event needed to lift their spirits.

The event, held at the Arabella Hotel and Spa in the picturesque Hermanus region of Cape Town, South Africa had been convened by Travelport for its African customers to explore the emerging travel technologies under the theme "Embracing the new normal in travel tech." 

Sibusiso’s story is extra-ordinary. He defied all odds to become the first ever black African to seat on the roof top of the world. Not even the lack of funds, tools, experience or worse still the worries of a mother losing his only son could stop him. Neither did the severe storms he encountered on the way to the summit that severally forced him back to the base camp even when the peak was within reach. He remained steady and focused on the ultimate price. Conquering Mt. Everest.

The travel industry is currently facing perhaps its greatest turbulence in history due to the rapidly changing technological advancements and innovations. The disruptions are coming fast and furious leaving many confused and uncertain of what the future holds. In an effort to prepare travel agents for the future amidst all these uncertainties, Travelport regularly holds the Live events for its clients across the world. The 2018 event brought together more than 200 participants drawn from travel agencies across Africa.

Speaker after speaker at the Cape Town event spoke of the opportunities that the technological innovations were bringing into the business and allayed fears that the travel industry faced a bleak future.  Herman Warren of The Economist kicked off discussions by sharing key economic data that clearly pointed to the growing investment opportunities on the continent while at the same time highlighting political risks that could slow down growth. “The tourism industry (in Africa) has been relatively resilient and appear to be a significant opportunity to increase its share in a relatively underpenetrated Chinese market,” he concluded. 

Ulrich Homann of Microsoft declared digital as the 4th industrial revolution that is affecting the very essence of human experience and transforming the business models of each and every industry. He named the Internet of things, Artificial intelligence, Mobile, Cloud, Big data analytics, 3D printing, Blockchain, Cognitive systems as some of the technologies enabling the travel industry. According to him, platforms have become systems of intelligence, citing the examples of Uber, Facebook and Airbnb. “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles, Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening,” he retorted. 

Perhaps, the session that elicited greater interest going by the questions filed by participants was the one on NDC facilitated by Travelport’s Ian Heywood, Global Head of Products and Marketing. NDC has become a hot topic among travel agencies since airlines began implementing it a few years ago but gained prominence last year when more airlines such as BA, Air France and America Airlines announced the switch to NDC. “Let’s be clear, NDC is a standard not a technology, “he clarified. It’s no longer a question of whether or if but how NDC will impact the industry. He spoke of the IATA leader board of 21 airlines that seek to have 20% of their sales by the NDC API by 2020. Questions from the audience were as interesting as they exhibited the concern and suspicion of the travel agents. “How will NDC affect the existing commercial models? Who funds IATA in developing and maintaining the NDC? Even though it is presented as a channel to provide enhanced content and services, is it not just about airlines reducing their distribution costs?

Heywood’s response to agents is philosophical: “NDC is here to stay. Build relationship with airlines and ask relevant questions. Embrace change and be open to experimentation. Never lose sight of your customers and the traveler and allow yourself time for change and adjustment.” 

Some travel agents such as Rashida Pereira, MD of Fourways Travel and Henry Maburi, Director at Maniago Safari are skeptical. “What we are hearing is how technology will make us irrelevant in future. Everything is being automated by use of robots, artificial intelligence and all these technologies. Should we really be in this industry?” However, Julie Scott, a veteran in the industry and the Managing Director of Bunson Travel believes the industry will weather the storm. “In the late 90s when ticketing was computerized, critics began writing the obituary of a travel agent.  This was followed in quick succession by the removal of commissions by Airlines. We have heard so many things said about the death of travel agents but we are here stronger and growing. The future looks so bright," she emphatically said. 

"After many years of listening to stories about Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in conferences, I have finally seen today how this new technology works and how I can apply it to my business" said Hassan Hamisi, the Managing Director of FCM Charleston Travel after visiting the exhibition stand of Tata Technologies. 

 

According to Sydney Ngaru, “the digital world is here with us, we cannot not afford to be in a slumber, the world has changed and we are not in an island. We should start thinking of digital tools in travel industry. Thanks to Travelport for exposing us to this new reality.”

 

Asked why Travelport had organized the event, Nita Nagi, Managing Director Kenya said: "We are bringing our supporters from across the continent to expose them to the world of innovation in travel industry. The Travelport Live event contributes to the discourse on the future of travel and we are glad that our agents are seeing value in the work that we do.

 

Nicanor Sabula

CEO, Kenya Association of Travel Agents (KATA)

 

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