TORONTO — “Hello, I would like to book a vacation this summer. Do you have any recommendations?”
This was the first question I asked ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot that’s taken the tech world by storm since launching in November 2022.
Knowing full well that I was interacting with a ‘robot’ and not an actual person, I suppose opening with “hello” was completely unnecessary. However, it was hard shedding the good manners I was raised with, and besides, everything I had read about the AI entity up until that point mentioned its incredible life-like qualities.
“Certainly!” it replied in the chat box, almost instantaneously. “I can provide some recommendations based on popular vacation destinations and activities during the summer season.”
After warning me of COVID-19’s ongoing risks and recommending that I stay up to date on local guidelines, GPT (as I like to call it since we’re now on a first-name basis) entered into the chat box a list of popular travel styles for me to consider, from beach vacations to city breaks and road trips. All very generic stuff, so I typed in more pointed questions on my computer.
“What are the most affordable destinations for a family of four?” “Where in Europe has the most affordable flights from Toronto?” “What are the newest all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean?”
For the most part, GPT answered with some fairly decent recommendations (Portugal, Thailand and Costa Rica for affordability, and Dublin, Reykjavik and London for cheap flights from Toronto), and it even composed a three-week, self-drive itinerary in Europe for me, when prompted. But the biggest downside was its inability to provide the most up-to-date information since its cut-off date, as a language model, is September 2021. For example, its recommendations for new all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean included Sandals Royal Barbados (opened in 2017) and Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana (opened in 2016).
“The lack of up-to-date data is the biggest limitation – it’s hard to plan a trip without the knowledge of real-time availability and up-to-date travel options,” said Noam Toister, CEO and co-founder of Bookaway Group, an online platform for managing ground travel services from local transportation suppliers worldwide.
“Such data would have to be compiled externally and regularly updated in order to develop a reliable technology. That said, businesses with dense and global inventory will likely be able to mitigate this issue fairly easily,” added Toister.
Within the travel industry, Chatbots, which act as AI-powered personal assistants to help customers browse and book flights, hotels and other travel options, have been around for the better part of a decade. WestJet’s multilingual assistant, Juliet, comes to mind and has seen tremendous success; it launched in 2019 to help customers manage itineraries, travel documentation and ID requirements, and even answer questions about travelling with pets and luggage restrictions.
But the buzz surrounding ChatGPT is on a whole other level, which Toister says has been mostly positive among travel industry circles.
“While AI is usually aware of the popularity of various destinations and travel options, it lacks deeper, expert knowledge. But by training the AI to mitigate those issues, I believe the technology will soon be able to make fairly reliable recommendations. The emphases is on automation, so even if it’s not perfect, it’s still a very fast, cheap and mostly reliable way to recommend a trip itinerary to the user,” says Toister.
Of course, with every new groundbreaking innovation comes a period of disruption. In GPT’s case, travel agents are at the greatest risk of being negatively impacted and overlooked in favour of fast and concise AI-generated recommendations.
“Travel agents offering very basic, easily substitutable and automated products should likely be worried. But those who are able to adapt and adjust their offering to make room for the new technology will likely prosper – those who don’t will likely fail,” warns Toister.
So I put GPT to the test: If I asked whether I should book a trip online or with a travel agent, which way would it go? Would it lend its support to agents who can offer more personable, professional and up-to-date information, or, in solidarity with the tech world, would it favour online booking sites?
Here’s how GPT responded:
“Booking online versus booking with a travel agent can depend on a variety of factors, such as the complexity of your trip, your budget, and your personal preferences.”
It then listed the pros and cons of booking with both options. The pros for booking with a travel agent included: access to personalized advice and recommendations from a travel expert who can help find the best deals and options for every budget and preference; saving time and stress by having an agent handle the details of the trip; and having an advocate in your corner should flights get cancelled or itineraries see unforeseen changes.
The cons for booking with an agent included: paying a possible service fee; not having as much control over your itinerary as the agent may have their own preferences; and possibly needing to schedule appointments or working around business hours to communicate with the agent.
As for the main benefits of booking online, GPT cited lower prices and exclusive deals, the ability to book a trip at any time in the comfort of your own home, and being able to read reviews from other travellers to make more informed decisions. The biggest drawbacks included having to spend more time researching and planning, and having to navigate customer service on your own should any issues arise with the booking.
GPT, as it turns out, served as Switzerland on the matter, not picking sides and leaving it to the user to make up their own mind.
“Ultimately, the choice between booking online or through a travel agent depends on factors such as budget, preference for convenience or personal service, complexity of the itinerary, and level of travel experience,” it wrote. “It may be worth considering both options and comparing prices and services before making a decision.”
The verdict’s still out as to whether ChatGPT is here to stay (“It’s hard to say before we see what cards other big players might show in the coming months,” says Toister), but one thing’s for sure: travel agents should keep it on their radars and even learn how to use it to their advantage.
“The market will continue to change and users will expect increasingly personalized content,” adds Toister. “Travel agents who adapt to the changing landscape of travellers’ needs and use the technology to update and automate their offerings will surely prosper alongside this exciting new tech.”
To learn more about ChatGPT go to https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt.
Got a story idea? Reach out to Deputy Editor Cindy Sosroutomo at firstname.lastname@example.org.