It’s a brand-new year. I had some doubts that the last one would really ever end. But now, it’s a new year. We’ve had our holidays to relax and
rejuvenate, and we’re ready to do
battle once again in the profession
that few of us ever leave.
But there are some new wrinkles out
there, an uneasiness that, somehow, our
mastery of the travel stars is being threatened by some box that has enough intelligence to serve as a travel agent. After all,
how much intelligence does that really take?
But then we keep hearing that all of a
sudden, we agents are back in vogue, so an
experienced travel consul-tancy with intelligent staff
who can communicate
might actually find that its services are in
We are the world’s only highly trained
consultants whose services are largely
complimentary. But we’ve been just plain
lousy at communicating that fact to travel
purchasers. We have not gone on the attack against those who charge a customer
the travel agent commission while not
performing most of the services a skilled
consultant would provide. It happens, and
we say nothing. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced much will change on that front going forward.
But we’re hot right now. People have
stopped asking why we haven’t gone out of
business. More often, we get questions related to how we are able to handle the number
of clients who wish to use our services.
This new year arrives on a headwind led
by a charging stock market and, more importantly, a number of respectable prog-nosticators who observe that the economy
is showing no signs of slowing down.
The new tax cuts will certainly bolster the
market’s feeling that the U.S. is where you
want to be invested, at least for our potential clients: those who invest in the stock
market and also hold a valid U.S. passport.
What is interesting about that percentage
is that, being in the mid-30s, it is close to
the portion of U.S. voters who backed and
identify with President Trump.
The president’s supporters tend not to
be heavily invested in the stock market,
and they certainly don’t hold a majority of
the U.S. passports issued. Our clients aren’t
them, so while we feel the political winds,
they won’t necessarily slow us down.
The stock-owning, passport-holding,
overseas-vacationing client now has some
tax breaks coming that will add up to more
discretionary spending. So that is all looking positive. This is going to be a great year.
Everyone says so. The figures all support it.
Of course, there’s that geopolitical thing.
A country we don’t really talk with has missiles pointed at us. And then there is the
rather disturbing growth of far-right political parties in central Europe.
In addition to weather challenges, po-
litical extremism and the belief that we are
safer staying home, there’s that box. The
travel industry seems to operate under the
assumption that someone in Silicon Valley
or Seattle is going to invent that box and
make us redundant. Despite strong finan-
cial performance, we just don’t seem able,
as a profession, to relax and enjoy our suc-
cess. The internet, many believe, is poised
to devour us.
Of course the travel industry is the third
leg of the internet stool; gambling and por-
nography are somewhat bigger, which is in-
teresting because they are both under regu-
latory pressures that make it really tough to
operate. But between Bovata, Sports Betting
or Betonline, large portions of our popula-
tion spend time engaged in online play.
After a few hours of that, they turn to
pornography, which thrives because of
ease of use. Place four letters in the Google
search box and you are instantly connected
to tens of thousands of
pornographic videos, free,
with no need to register.
Any child who knows the four letters gains
access to this world.
Then, of course, there’s us. Travel makes
up the third-largest category of internet
searches, with the top two travel search top-
ics having to do with flight options and ho-
Google has made some key purchases,
and it now has a fast, efficient way to search
flight options. If you want to try it, just go
up to the top of your open browser screen
where the address box appears. Quickly
erase the whole thing, including “http://,”
etc. Everything. Just swipe it and get rid of
it. Then quickly type Jan. 10 JFK-Athens.
No need for dot-anything. Boom! Options
We knew years ago that the major web-
sites would be getting better at delivering
search-engine travel data. But we wondered
how good they would ever be at disrupting
the collaborative booking process that ex-
ists between a travel seller and a client.
All of which leads me to my new inven-
tion, tentatively called “Murray,” a travel
agency consumers can open in their own
homes. Why Murray? I thought it might be
a nice counterpoint to Alexa. Let me set the
stage a bit.
I am not talking about a home-based
travel agency model. I am talking about giv-
ing every adult in America his or her very
own travel agency designed to fit on a shelf
in the living room.
You will order Murray from Amazon.
Within an hour of its arrival, you should
have a fully functioning travel agency in
your home. Here is how it would work:
After plugging in Murray, you will be
able to choose from several design/color
options for your agency. The box, about
the size of a 32-inch monitor, will have
a front window showing travel vid-
eos. It will also be programmed
to stream movies filmed in lo-
cations you’re considering.
After designing your agency,
you will be able to interview
each with a
ity and approach
to business. You
will select the one with which you feel most
You will then fill out a long list of pref-
erences, including specifics regarding your
travel history. Your virtual agent will ask
any number of questions designed to de-
liver optimal, personalized search results.
Murray will have the latest artificial in-
telligence, including software installed in
the office of your miniature travel agency,
which will update its intelligence from time
to time. As you use Murray, it will become
more and more intuitive. Unlike the rest of
us, it will actually get smarter as it ages.
Murray works 24/7. It never gets sick or
goes on vacation. You can replace it with a
different avatar anytime you choose.
Murray knows safety data, and it can
quickly calculate how safe your planned
travel destination is compared with where
Then there are “Murray’s friends.” It
turns out that your agent, the one living
in that miniature box in the living room,
knows just about every hotel manager and
concierge in the world. It can also request
dining reservations. What’s more, it will
print you a detailed proposal or final itiner-
ary in a design format of your choice.
Murray will be able to make bookings for
virtually any kind of travel, including those
transactions that would normally carry
huge fees from live agents. Murray doesn’t
mind booking local trains in Bangladesh. It
likes it, because Murray doesn’t work on a
time schedule. It is your travel agent. Yours
alone. When it’s not working on your travel
plans, it’s watching you watch TV.
I must admit that Murray is not perfect
yet. Its tiny backup generator is still on the
drawing board. If the power fails, so does
Murray. And we have not yet overcome one
of the biggest challenges to augmented re-
ality technology: placing virtual reality im-
ages with real ones so they meld perfectly
on the same screen.
I don’t think we’ll really have to worry
about Murray anytime soon. There is still
a lot to work out. But as we go forward
into a new year, it might be wise to think
about Murray from time to time because,
in some strange way, perhaps it is our
challenge. The technologies to do what I
have proposed already exist. If someone
figures out how to monetize it, every home
in America can have its own travel agency
in a box.
We flesh-and-blood agents just have to
be better in so many ways that no one seriously proposes carrying through on the
concept. I don’t want to get rich on Murray.
It would bother me.
Senior contributing editor Rich-
ard Bruce Turen owns Churchill
& Turen, a luxury vacation-
planning firm based in Naples, Fla.,
and is an owner and editor of the
Churchill & Turen Media Group.
He has been named the top-pro-
ducing adviser in the Virtuoso
Network and a Travel
Superstar by Conde
Nast Traveler. He can
be reached at rturen@
Is ‘Murray’ really the endgame?
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