The Grill: Kathryn Akerman

A 24-year veteran of the industry who worked as a travel agent before moving into IT, Akerman says technology can help the travel planning process, but it can't replace human experience.

The Internet has changed how people plan their travel needs and book reservations, but that doesn't mean they are completely sold on using technology to do all the work on their own. A 2010 study by Forrester Research Inc. found that 28 per cent of U.S. leisure travelers who booked their trips online would be interested in going to a good traditional travel agent. That statistic doesn't surprise Kathryn Akerman, CIO and part owner of Hurley Travel Experts in Portland, Maine. A 24-year veteran of the industry who worked as a travel agent before moving into IT, Akerman says technology can help the travel planning process, but it can't replace human experience.

Do you take along any IT gadgets when you travel? I never leave home without my iPhone.

What's the most interesting place you've been? Costa Rica. My husband and I honeymooned there. Interesting culture, great country, and fascinating people.

What's your dream destination? Sailing along the coast of Croatia is on the top of my list.

What do you do in your spare time? My biggest passion right now is stand-up paddling. And raising my 4-year-old and traveling as much as we can.

Are you seeing customers return to travel agencies after using online booking sites? We've had clients who went out, tried to do it themselves and came back to us because they realize that travel booking is complicated and their time is a valuable asset. They're looking to us to put those pieces together for them rather than going to different sites to put together their own itinerary. If they come to us, it's one e-mail for them and then we put together the options they need.

What are the most important technologies you provide to your employees? We just made a huge investment in new computers for all our agents. We took advantage of a dual screen for our corporate agents, which allows them to work so much more efficiently -- to have an e-mail on one side and booking travel on the other. And the midoffice quality-control system is hugely important for us. It has made our agents much more efficient, so they can focus on customer service. Our agents can work with the customers rather than deal with those formatting steps that a computer can do for them. So once we finalize [travel plans] with the customer, we can push that reservation through to the technology and take care of those redundant steps, issuing the ticket and the quality control -- making sure the seats are correct, [checking] the date continuity, e-mailing the customer with confirmation.

As an industry insider and CIO, how do you characterize how technology changed the travel industry? It allows the customers to be so much better informed when they come to us. But one of our biggest struggles is the way we book travel. There are these antique legacy systems that the airlines created long ago that were purchased by other entities. They require a lot of technology integration.

How do you use technology to allow your company to better compete with online travel booking sites? We do offer faster and more complex booking interfaces than customers typically see on those online sites. But we also have that personal service that helps our clients save time and money. We're also helping corporations to streamline their expenses [and improve] visibility. These businesspeople want to book online, but the CFO wants to know where they're spending money. So by giving them that online tool with those discounts, they have that visibility.

Your Web site talks about travel being a people business. How do you make sure agents have the capabilities they need but keep the technology from getting in the way of that personal touch? We really make such a concerted effort to get the booking done behind the scenes. We're focused on the fact that you're coming to us because of our hands-on experience. We want people to know we have up-to-date technology and an up-to-date Web site, but I don't know if technology will be the driving factor in why they come to us. It's still our people and the experience they have.

I understand you're updating your Web site. It's a full rebuild. We had what was really just an online brochure. But we want people to go into our site and have a feel for who we are. And with today's different generations -- baby boomers to Gen Y -- I think they're all reached so differently now. If it's the baby boomer who still wants to have the brochure and see that person's face, that's there, too.

So, what are the priorities as you rebuild? To have up-to-date information accessible at all times. So whether it's how to reach an agent [or] to be able to do a little bit of research -- to know that an agent who is traveling to Africa is blogging, and that's where you're planning on going next year, and you can follow her and see how it's going; to open up a video of a trip that an agent just took to Greece and get a feel for how the hotel was from her perspective -- it's still that human element, but adding technology to have that information at all times.

What technologies do your agency's clients want you to provide for them? Most clients just want to have access to us. They just want to know we're there. So it's providing phone service for emergencies, so when they're stuck at an airport, they have someone to call. On a CFO level, they want to see the reports. They want to have the travel-spend visibility and an online reporting tool to access the data we've pushed out. It's using voice over IP, so our agents can answer at home but have the phone ring as seamlessly as if the agent were in the office.

What remains your greatest challenge right now as CIO? To keep up with technology but not break the bank providing those technologies, and yet still allow us to retain that human element.

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