How ‘hidden automation’ is a game-changer for travel agents

By Kulpreet Singh, managing director EMEA & APAC, UiPath Robotic Process Automation

Think automation and travel and no doubt your mind will be drawn to robot butlers in hotels, usually in Japan, or maybe a robot (in some form) flying you to your destination.

As every other industry seems to be embracing automation, installing shiny new robots and machines, travel and hospitality still seem immune, bar a few high-profile exceptions.

This is understandable, the industry – including travel agencies, hotels and airlines – is highly personal, relying on the human touch to attract and retain customers, and so most firms need to strike the right balance between the personal touch, and providing efficiency and speed (plus lowering costs). Hence no robot butlers anytime soon.

Singh: Automation software will help travel agents save time and costs

However, while physical robots may have to remain unemployed a bit longer, automation software – Robotic Process Automation (RPA) specifically – could potentially save the industry millions, and significantly improve service outcomes.

RPA applications in a travel agency
RPA, while often referred to as robots, is actually software that automates many of the repetitive, rules-based tasks that are carried out by white-collar workers in almost every industry, including travel. The software employs computer vision, and mimics human interaction with a computer. The technology is able to automate tasks that previously would be done by a human, especially in work that involves the same action done repeatedly.

For instance, travel agencies have many high volume, transaction-based processes. They routinely have to deal with multiple airlines, from legacy carriers with decades-old IT systems, to newer low-cost carriers. This means that staff regularly interact with different management systems, styles of invoice, itineraries, processes and data, further complicating things and raising the likelihood of human error. This is just with airlines, but add in hotels, cruises, car-hire firms and the many other stakeholders and the complexity just grows.

The inefficiencies it creates costs time, money and affects staff morale – I can’t imagine many travel agency employees entered the industry due to their love of paperwork and administration…

Real benefits for agencies
In an industry that has been and will continue to be buffeted by the disruptive effects of the Internet, as well as changing traveller habits, such inefficiency can make the difference between profit and loss.

Each time a travel agent makes an error to a booking, and wishes to change it, the agency will be charged. When the agent is making dozens, if not more bookings per day errors can – and will – creep in. The same can be said for regular changes to itineraries. A study in 2015 calculated that a travel agent uses up 24.5 minutes per hour – that’s 41 per cent of their time – cancelling flights, re-booking on the same or different flight altering the class, date or route.

RPA is able to automate many of the processes currently performed by travel agency staff, freeing them up to do better, higher-value work. The many hundreds or thousands of invoices that arrive can immediately be opened, logged and stored in the correct place. Much of the activity involved in flight and hotel bookings can be automated, leaving the human to only make the final checks and decision.

Not only would this reduce time and cost for the agency, but it would allow the company to redirect staff to more frontline, customer-facing roles.

More RPA developments
The technology is also becoming more sophisticated. UiPath is developing ways to incorporate Artificial Intelligence into our RPA technology, potentially enabling us to handle even larger amounts of unstructured data, quicker and at much lower cost.

By reducing the time it takes to complete repetitive, rules-based tasks, and all but eliminating human error in such processes, RPA can provide the travel agency sector with a significant competitive boost. This would allow them to cut costs and become more competitive, reaching out to more travel segments, serving a wider range of hotels, airlines and other service providers and generally making travel more accessible.

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