Top Priceline exec says ‘virtual travel agents’ are the future of travel

Chief Tech Correspondent
Yahoo Finance
Priceline Executive Vice President Glenn Fogel at London’s Unbound technology conference. Source: Unbound
Priceline Executive Vice President Glenn Fogel at London’s Unbound technology conference. Source: Unbound

Priceline Executive Vice President Glenn Fogel envisions a time in the not-so-distant future when booking a trip can be done with virtual assistants like Amazon’s (AMZN) Alexa and a simple voice command.

“We see things like Alexa or Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Home, this idea of just talking out loud and getting what you want,” Fogel told Yahoo Finance in an interview this week at London’s annual technology conference Unbound. “And the question people ask is, will we be able to do travel like that? I think probably ‘yes.’ Over time, will people say, ‘I want to go to London,’ and the device will do everything, and you won’t have to do anything.”

At Priceline (PCLN), Fogel serves as head of worldwide strategy and planning, as well as oversees mergers, acquisitions, and strategic alliances. As Priceline continues the search for a permanent CEO, reports suggest Fogel may be next in line.

The Harvard Law School graduate proved instrumental in the 2004 and 2005 acquisitions of Active Hotels and Bookings B.V., which became the popular accommodations booking site Booking.com — one of the largest drivers of Priceline’s annual revenues growth.

Fogel, who spends a significant amount of time in his role thinking about how the online travel industry is evolving, references the all-but-extinct travel agent when talking about how travel could be improved.

“What was so beautiful about that was that the travel agent knew you,” he explained. “You had a relationship with that person. They knew who you were. They knew your family, your income, what types of things you liked, what types of things you didn’t like. That person made all of that decision based on the history of how you’ve traveled in the past and other elements of you.”

What Fogel would like to see eventually is that same booking experience performed by artificial intelligence: a virtual travel agent, if you will.

“Because if you have a family of four, and you’re trying to book travel all by yourself, it’s still a time-consuming event, particularly if you have to go to an airline you’ve never used before, because you have to re-key in all of your family’s data, all of your personal identification data, your passport, your birthdates, your address, etc.,” Fogel explained.

Such pain points, Fogel explains, contribute to what he likes to call a problematic “high-friction” experience. Other ways travel could be improved: try making the airport overall more efficient, he suggests — a move that would require government cooperation. How many times have you gone to a passport control point and waited an hour, or simply idled in line, waiting to pass through security?

“Those are friction points that need to be taken away as quickly as possible,” Fogel added. “… But we need to do it in a way that speeds up the process. Because the amount of time wasted just sitting in line for those things is just unfortunate. We need some more efficiency in that part of the world.”

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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