Aug 16, 2023

For many, “travel agent” sounds like an anachronistic job title, conjuring images of shoulder pads and strip malls, corded telephones and desktop computers with cathode-ray tube monitors. Indeed, ever since the advent of online booking, travel industry watchers have been predicting the demise of traditional travel agents. But in reality, travel agencies are still estimated to be a $72 billion industry in the United States alone, and upwards of $450 billion globally. Travel agents haven’t disappeared, many have just swapped the drab offices and chunky monitors for ring lights and smartphones.

Increasingly, influencers have become a new breed of travel agent, helping us decide where to go and what to do when we get there. On TikTok alone, the “travel” hashtag boasts more than 182 billion views. Over on Instagram, 695 million posts bear the same tag. Even search giants like Google are realizing that around 40% of users age 18-24 are looking to TikTok or Instagram first for inspiration.

All that content is great for general inspiration, but the industry is lacking some crucial infrastructure to make it actionable. Influencers still need an easy way to monetize their efforts, and travelers need the follow-on details to recreate their favorite influencers’ experiences for themselves. While tools exist for traditional travel agents, they are built for 1-to-1 transactions for trained travel agents rather than the 1-to-many interactions creators have while building a community and a brand. In response, a new generation of startups are creating tools to help content creators monetize their audience.  

Monetize those posts

The enduring problem for travel influencers is attribution. A typical traveler will scroll through social media, see a post from an influencer that perks her interest, then get distracted. Three months later, another prompt will get her excited again. She’ll build hype in the group chat, take another three months to pick a date that works for everyone and finally visit to make the purchase. For the creator who inspired this trip in the first place — armed, at most, with a geotag and perhaps a link to an online travel agency — how can they monetize that influence?

A number of solutions have emerged to help solve the attribution problem. For example, Curacity integrates into both a hotel’s property management system and an influencer’s follower list to understand which customers were driven by content engagement. At the same time, they’re increasing occupancy rates and generating targeted user-generated content by pairing influencers with unused, cut-rate hotel rooms. NaviSavi takes a more direct approach and capitalizes on the enduring popularity of video content with a tool — available via its own app or a Meta partnership — that enables customers to book directly inside an influencer’s video flow.

Finally, there are the companies upgrading the “link in bio,” a favorite among influencers with previously untapped attribution potential. Startups like wndr build a customized landing site that feels like a familiar OTA for the user but allows influencers to showcase specific hotel recommendations and targeted discounts. Thatch takes a more bottoms-up approach, where influencers create boards populated with recommendations for an area, then pull in location and other metadata to enrich their recommendations.

Turning followers into clients

Some influencers are taking their business a step further than simply monetizing their content by turning followers into clients, becoming full-blown travel agents in the process. Platforms like Fora and Tern equip influencers with all the tools they need to become an agent, including licensing, payment rails and training, as well as marketing support and a supply of perks and upgrades for their followers. Meanwhile, ad hoc travel entrepreneurs who want to professionalize can use TravelJoy to organize and grow their own agency.

Connecting IRL

A growing cohort of creators want to be more than an arm’s length inspirer and facilitator. Instead, they’re looking to build a stronger community with their followers and bring their online content to life in the real world. To that end, several startups have emerged to help influencers craft bespoke trips that are relevant to their audience, providing surveys to understand followers’ interests, landing pages to manage the trip, and tools for budgeting, cash collection and guest communication.

Unlike platforms that target generic travel content, these tools are best suited for influencers whose content caters to a specific niche interest or community, with loyal and highly engaged followers. For example, TrovaTrip helps influencers like Kacie Rose and Renee Hahnel curate and then accompany followers on trips of their choosing, like a trip through the Italian countryside or an eight-day journey through Chile and Argentina. Similarly, startups like Dharma offer experiential vacations with passion-based influencers — think eight-day retreats in Bali with your favorite Instagram yogi, or a wine tasting expedition through Napa with your go-to sommelier. The result is a new revenue stream for influencers and more personal connections with their audience.

The AI question

In this new realm of creators-turned-travel agents, AI will likely play a crucial but supporting role — influencers can rest assured that they will remain the star of the show. AI tools that create high-value solutions for community building and power up their agents rather than replace them will ultimately win.

In the short term, AI tools will likely offer a simple customer support chat interface for communicating preferences in the pre-booking process and logistics in post-booking. This may be tuned to the voice and style of the creator to offer a pleasant experience for the traveler and take some workload away from the creator. In the medium term, AI agents may help execute the bookings and any changes through a combination of large language models and robotic process automation, working on top of a metasearch aggregator or an OTA with extensive coverage.

In the long term, AI agents will require less data from the creator while producing highly individualized outputs for the fans. From a single creator video from their trip, with the help of AI, a creator will be able to generate and book a bespoke trip, complete with exact accommodations, restaurant reservations, excursion opportunities and flight options, all optimized for price and timing and tailored to individual preferences surmised from a fan’s public profiles. In the longer-term, will our travel be inspired and booked fully by AI influencers powered by AI agents?

In a world awash in information, the way we discover, plan and book our travel experiences is changing and, just like shoulder pads and cathode-ray tube monitors, many of our existing tools are no longer fit for purpose. For the right teams with the right technology, opportunities exist to create better solutions for travel providers, influencers, travelers and even travel agents.

Source: phocuswire