Paul de Villiers
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“For me, the travel consultants are a “human CRM” and can determine the needs and preferences of their customers far better than any technology.”

We chatted to Paul De Villiers, Vice President, Africa at Amadeus IT Group, about the exciting technological innovations and evolutions that are still waiting for us during the next 30 years. Paul promises us that with the speed of evolution of technology, our dreams have become limitless.

What have been the main changes in the way people travel 30 years ago and now? 

Travel has become a lot easier and a lot more affordable. We have evolved from a model where the passenger had very little information, to a model where there is more transparency than ever. This has happened primarily thanks to technology and the evolution of the Internet. A lot of manual and slow processes have been automated and digitalised – for example from search, to book, to buy, to check-in: totally paperless.

What are you missing about the ‘good old times’ of travel 30 years ago? (the good, the bad and the ugly)

To be honest, I do not miss it much at all. Maybe one thing: when one travelled for business in the old days, you used to “fly business class”. That is no longer the case as many companies have firmed up their travel policies in order to reduce costs. Now flying business is only allowed for flights longer than five or six hours. There are also companies that require their employees to fly tourist class on long haul flights. That then raises the question of productivity.

What are you definitely not missing?

The smoking flights. As a non-smoker, it was a real drain to sit through an 11-hour flight, even if you were sitting in the non-smoking section of the aircraft. I am pretty sure the airlines don’t miss it either. They have saved a lot of money in cleaning and maintenance after flights became non-smoking as a rule. Another thing I do not miss, are the long queues at check-in, even if you were only carrying hand luggage. Thank goodness today you can check in online and go straight to the gate – wonderful!

Which three technologies have made the most impact on travel in the past 30 years? 

The internet with all the underlying technology including mobile, online payment solutions, and the technology which supports P-2-P operations in the sharing economy.

How has the role of the travel agent changed over the last 30 years?

The agent’s role has evolved from ticket issuer or dispatcher to a personal travel consultant. For me, the travel consultants are a “human CRM” and can determine the needs and preferences of their customers far better than any technology. At least until today. With the development of AI and predictive methodology, it seems that “the machines” will be able to determine our personal travel needs faster and more accurately in the future.

What were the biggest fears in the travel industry 30 years ago? How has the industry dealt with these fears? 

The first fear that I would point out is security – primarily operational as this was before September 11! After that tragic event, security has become an even bigger concern due to terrorist threats. This has still not been resolved – just look at the long queues and the awkward process one needs to undergo to get through security at airports.

Secondly, the cost of fuel and aircraft efficiency. The cost of fuel fluctuates a lot and has a major impact on the profitability (or losses) of an airline. However, the industry has progressed a lot with modern aircraft which are far more fuel efficient than 30 years ago. It’s interesting to see that Airbus and Boeing have taken different strategic routes to address the challenges of efficiency.

A bit more about yourself: where were you 30 years ago? What were your dreams at that time? Have you accomplished your goals? What are your dreams for the next 30 years? 

Thirty years ago, I was studying Engineering in Stellenbosch and the most obvious future seemed that I would be working in the mines. Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would end up with an international role in the leading Travel Technology Company – Amadeus – based in Madrid. I always tell people that travel is “fun” and technology is “dynamic”, so working in Amadeus where we are wedged between technology and the travel industry, it is like having “fast fun.”

Nowadays, with the speed of technological evolution, our dreams have become limitless. My most important wish for the next 30 years would be that my twin girls will grow up in a secure and exciting world and be able to travel – most probably doing jobs which do not yet exist today.

Where do you see travel and yourself in 30 years? (industry, travelling, etc.)

 At my age, I would rather not speculate about “where I will be in 30 years” (ha ha). But I envisage two developments that will change the way that we experience travel even further.

When it comes to flights and aircraft manufacturing, at some point there will be “flying containers” (with passengers and cargo) and there will be separate “flying machines” that will transport these containers. That will allow for several things to happen: different sized containers can be used depending on demand, hence optimising load factor and efficiency. Secondly, the flying machines can be standardised, bringing efficiencies in maintenance and operational scalability. And more importantly, the amount of time saved at airports could be tremendous and reduce total travel time all together. Just compare the experience of boarding an aircraft vs. a high-speed train.

Today we live in a world of “free” things: sugar-free, alcohol-free, caffeine-free… just imagine if we could go places “travel-free”. If you were to combine video game technology and virtual reality, together with wearable sensory feedback suits and modern technology that is able to digitalise the “smell and taste of things” – then you would be able to virtually attend a Thanksgiving dinner with your family in the USA, without ever leaving your home in Europe. Who knows – we may see this become a reality in the next 30 years …