In October 2020, Robin Lawther took a post managing Expedia’s Travel Agent Affiliate Program (TAAP). He was no stranger to the company — he’s been with Expedia for eight years, always on the B2B side — but it was a “low point” for the company and the travel industry as a whole as the pandemic raged, Lawther recalled.
Despite the volatility at the time, Lawther, today the vice president of Expedia TAAP, still saw the promise in a segment of Expedia’s business that serves travel advisors.
“We’ve always looked at this business and said, ‘Actually, we think this business should be a lot bigger,'” Lawther said. “We’ve always thought there was a lot of potential in it, we just never, up until that point, made the investment necessary in the business that it really deserved.”
Now, Expedia (No. 2 on Travel Weekly’s 2023 Power List), is changing that. In the past year, the company has upped its investment in TAAP both in terms of staff and technology, Lawther said. He called it a “foundational year” in terms of technology, with a number of features set to launch in 2024.
Expedia Group’s overall B2B business has continued to grow in recent years. The segment is primarily composed of Expedia Partner Solutions, under which TAAP falls.
During the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November, Expedia CEO Peter Kern said B2B revenue was up 26% year over year in the quarter.
“We anticipate continued strength from B2B going forward, driven by our continuing push into the addressable market, along with the advantages that our platform improvements will bring to the B2B business, whether in core technology, the application of AI and machine learning or in service and payments,” Kern said.
Today, TAAP’s booking platform for advisors looks similar to what a consumer might see on Expedia.com, Lawther said.
“That’s been great up until now, but it can only take us so far,” he said. “Advisors are similar to consumers in how they shop [on the site], but also different. We’ve got to recognize that we needed to build more things on top.”
That includes a new user interface and new payment capabilities, expected to roll out this year. Lawther said TAAP is also examining the consumer-facing booking experience to see what capabilities or features might benefit advisors.
That could include generative AI. Expedia has been an early adopter of the technology, which is capable of creating content, such as text or images. For instance, with Expedia, a ChatGPT integration can help users plan travel itineraries by asking questions in natural language.
But is generative AI right for travel advisors in the context of TAAP?
“We’re still on the fence on that for TAAP and still figuring out exactly where we want to go,” Lawther said. “Clearly, there is a question as to how does that play with the role of an advisor. That’s often what customers go to them for. That’s often where their expertise is.”
However, Lawther said, TAAP is investigating generative AI’s role as a complementary tool that could be helpful.
TAAP is used by more than 35,000 travel agencies and over 100,000 advisors in some 30 markets. Lawther said 2023 has been “tremendous” in terms of growth, particularly in the U.S.
Its users range from leisure to corporate agencies, Lawther said, describing a “fascinating” breadth of agents. Some have luxury clients spending upward of $40,000 per booking. Others focus on niche corporate travel, like media or sports.
In the U.S. in particular, many of TAAP’s users are advisors who just joined the industry in the past five years.
TAAP has taken notice of consumer demand for travel advisors. Lawther pointed to research from ASTA in recent years indicating more consumers want to plan travel with an agent.
And investment in TAAP to serve that community will continue.
“We recognize that, hey, this is a part of the travel community that is very important, has shown, coming out of the last few years, that it can be incredibly resilient and is starting to see even more demand,” Lawther said. “It’s just a part of the business that we will keep putting more and more support and emphasis behind.”
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