Janet Semenova of Boutique Travel Advisors: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Slow Integration: We developed and launched our internal chatbot called Iris about a year ago. However, we didn’t force our advisors to use it immediately. Instead, we allowed them to take their time and begin using it whenever they felt comfortable. While some team members started using it immediately and found it beneficial, others are just beginning to see its advantages. The professionals in our industry have different levels of experience and knowledge. Younger workers tend to adapt to new technology quickly, but some of our more experienced staff may need more time to get used to it.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Semenova.

Janet is the co-founder of Boutique Travel Advisors. She has diverse work experience in healthcare and business and holds an advanced degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from Rush University. She loves to help business owners and travel advisors elevate their professional services and find greater fulfillment in their jobs and careers. When she’s not working, you can find her running on the beach, hiking with her dog, and, of course, traveling.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thank you so much for having me here. My professional journey began in healthcare, where I dedicated over a decade of my life to pediatric pain management as a nurse practitioner. This challenging yet fulfilling career allowed me to make a difference in the lives of children facing severe trauma, terminal illnesses, and chronic pain. However, while this career was gratifying, I felt a growing desire to channel my creativity and passion for travel and pursue entrepreneurship. In 2018, my partner Angela Rice and I founded Boutique Travel Advisors (BTA) to share the power of travel with others.

The initial years of building and growing a business were hard and we quickly discovered the stark realities many entrepreneurs face. We struggled to balance financial gains and business growth with personal well-being and family commitments. The pandemic magnified travel agency owners’ challenges in running a small business and pushed many to close their doors. For many months during the pandemic, we did not know if our company would survive. We had to navigate a landscape of unprecedented uncertainty, financial difficulties and a collective sense of anxiety. It was like we were holding our breaths, waiting to see what the world would like on the other side. However, rather than give in to our sadness and give up on our dreams, we decided to be proactive and help other entrepreneurs facing similar struggles. We established a sister company called Centered CEOs, which aimed to empower business owners to navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship without compromising their health or happiness by offering a unique curriculum and group masterminds.

This journey from healthcare to entrepreneurship makes me want to help other small business owners redefine what it means to be a travel advisor in the modern world. By fostering a community of like-minded professionals, I believe we can elevate the luxury travel industry, ensuring it remains relevant and connected in our rapidly changing world.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

During the pandemic, my co-founder Angie and I recognized that if we wanted to continue being entrepreneurs, we needed to restructure our business and redefine our version of success. We decided to implement what we call our MAPS framework to rebuild BTA intentionally and sustainably to avoid the mistakes we had made early on when re-launched post-pandemic.

Our innovative MAPS training program, which stands for Mindful Marketing, Assertive Management, Profitable Business Ownership, and Sustainable Success, can help employees and independent affiliate advisors succeed while maintaining work-life balance and job satisfaction.

As we navigated the landscape of the luxury travel industry post-pandemic and specifically over the past year, I became acutely aware of how fragmented it had become. Traditional travel agencies often hesitate to integrate new technologies, fearing it may undermine the bespoke service their client’s value or simply not understanding the value and time savings for advisors and support staff. Conversely, newer agencies eager to capitalize on every new technological advancement sometimes overlook the essence of travel advising — the human connection. To elevate our profession and industry, we need to create a balanced approach that combines the efficiency of modern technology with the personal touch that defines luxury travel.

When we intentionally applied our MAPS framework, we discovered a newfound sense of purpose and fulfillment in our work. Recognizing the transformative impact of MAPS on our lives, we want to share this knowledge with our team. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), there are over 160,000 travel advisors nationwide, and 98% of travel agencies are small businesses. In 2022, the market size of the travel agency sector in the United States was over $48.5 Billion. The sustained post-pandemic boom in travel means that the travel advisory profession is growing and adapting.

Our mission at BTA is to mentor and support travel professionals, both new to the industry in our Future Leaders Program and experienced advisors looking to elevate their practice in attaining profitability while maintaining balance and avoiding burn-out. We are so grateful for our fantastic team, who helped us refine, improve, and test-pilot all our different concepts and ideas. They are indeed the secret sauce for our business. By advocating for the thoughtful use of technology, we aim to enhance service delivery while keeping sight of the personal connections that make travel experiences genuinely exceptional.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

If I had to narrow it down, I would say the three character traits that have been instrumental to my success are grit, resilience, and empathy.

Grit means having determination and perseverance to overcome obstacles and achieve long-term goals. When our business was still in its infancy, only two years after launching, we faced the COVID-19 pandemic. We had just started to experience sustainable growth and profitability when the pandemic began, and it all came crashing down. Like many others in the industry, we felt uncertainty and financial strain without the experience of having lived through prior downturns that more senior travel agencies had learned from. However, instead of giving up, we dug deep, reassessed our strategies, pivoted where necessary, and remained committed to our mission.

Resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back from setbacks and adversity. I’ve encountered numerous setbacks and moments of doubt throughout my career journey — from nursing to travel advisory to business ownership. Transitioning from a stable career in healthcare to the unpredictable world of entrepreneurship required a significant leap of faith. There were moments when the challenges and stressors of starting and growing a business and then rebuilding it from scratch post-pandemic seemed insurmountable. Yet, the thought of giving up was more terrifying than staying the course. Rather than fall victim to the hopelessness many of our colleagues suffered, Angie and I reframed our mindset to view the setbacks as opportunities for growth and valuable lessons that ultimately contributed to our company’s success.

Empathy is a crucial trait in the luxury travel industry and life. It enables us to understand and share the feelings of others and connect with our team members, employees, colleagues and clients authentically and meaningfully. We founded Centered CEOs, a platform dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs in navigating the complexities of business ownership while prioritizing their well-being with empathy and heartfelt concern for our colleagues. We hoped to create a supportive community where we could share ideas, collaborate and succeed. After pausing this concept for a few years once the vaccine became readily available, we are now expanding it to help new professionals launch their successful businesses and become future leaders.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

When discussing AI, we must be careful to differentiate between traditional AI and generative AI, as each has unique benefits. Traditional AI applications in travel, such as dynamic pricing algorithms, streamlined the booking processes and helped large corporations enhance their profits and expand their reach. However, these applications have historically been cost-prohibitive for small businesses and, therefore, rarely used by luxury travel agencies.

Generative AI, on the other hand, tips the scale, enabling luxury travel companies to elevate the bespoke travel itineraries they excel at without investing significant capital in developing custom tools or subscribing to expensive software. Companies like OpenAI, Anthropic and Gemini, are creating game-changing tools for small luxury travel agencies seeking to elevate their service offerings and cater to the discerning needs of luxury travelers. While AI will never replace the human connection luxury travelers desire, it can be a valuable ally for travel advisors, enabling them to work more efficiently and provide exceptional service to their clients.

By leveraging generative AI, small luxury travel agencies can streamline operations, quickly access information, and create custom and unique travel experiences for clients in less time but with just as much nuance. For example, while a travel advisor may know the best shops, galleries and restaurants in a specific neighborhood, AI tools can assist in creating a tailored self-guided walking tour based on the client’s physical abilities and personal tastes. By filtering through vast amounts of data, AI helps luxury advisors curate bespoke itineraries that resonate with clients on an individual level.

Although our agency is currently investing significant capital to subscribe to software and build custom tools, we believe they will ultimately optimize efficiency, personalize client interactions, and elevate the overall quality of service provided to our clients. This will, in turn, help our bottom line.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

For many years, the technology available to travel agencies was extremely stagnant and limited. To this day, many advisors use filing cabinets, take notes with pen and paper and store sensitive information in their homes. Considering this is a multi-billion dollar industry, the inefficiencies are staggering. However, over the past several years, new tech companies have entered the space, and now it feels like each one is racing to be the first to transform how travel agencies operate. Currently, AI is being introduced slowly, and many products that tout their AI functionalities do not truly integrate generative AI features. That said, I believe that companies that automate advisor workflow and commission tracking for agencies, such as TravelJoy and Sion, will have the most significant long-term impact.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

The pivotal moment when we recognized the profound impact of generative AI occurred shortly after the launch of OpenAI’s Chat GPT. We witnessed the capabilities of this technology to simulate human-like conversations and understand complex questions. Once I logged on to Chat GPT for the first time, it became apparent that generative AI would fundamentally transform how we approach luxury travel, marketing, operations and even daily life.

This realization prompted our agency to proactively explore the possibilities of integrating generative AI into our operations.

As a small business, we were astounded by how accessible it was for us to start implementing these tools through incremental investments of money and time. By embracing this technology early on, we positioned ourselves at the forefront of innovation in the travel industry, laying the foundation for future growth and competitiveness. Investing in customized tools tailored to leverage generative AI reflected our commitment to staying ahead of the curve and our willingness to take risks.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

As we prepare our workforce for the integration of AI, we recognize the importance of taking a strategic and gradual approach. We want our advisors to view AI as a valuable tool rather than an existential threat or technological burden. The key is encouraging and incentivizing our advisors by providing adequate training and incrementally integrating the components into their daily lives.

Additionally, we emphasize the importance of soft skills such as adaptability, creativity, and empathy, which remain essential in delivering personalized and exceptional service to our clients. We believe it is imperative to learn how to embrace technological advancements and alleviate the fears and uncertainties many professionals feel when conversations around AI arise. We want to empower our team to feel prepared for a future where AI is widely available and integrated into our daily lives while maintaining the human touch that defines luxury travel.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

While AI presents numerous opportunities for efficiency and enhanced service delivery, it also poses challenges, particularly for advisors accustomed to traditional methods of operation. We can help ease their anxiety by providing training and support to our team, equipping them with the necessary skills to adapt to and effectively utilize AI tools. This includes training using platforms like BTA’s custom AI chatbot, Iris, to streamline communication and enhance efficiency.

This technology empowers advisors to focus on what truly matters — building meaningful client relationships and curating unforgettable travel experiences. In this way, generative AI can play a role in improving the profitability and sustainability of small businesses in the luxury travel industry.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

Our agency is dedicated to sustainability, philanthropy, and ethical travel practices. Therefore, we look for partners who are mindful of the impact of technology on their workforce and local communities. The travel and tourism industry directly contributed $7.7 trillion in 2022 to the world economy. According to Bloomberg, travel is set to become a $15.5 trillion industry by 2033, accounting for more than 11.6% of the global economy. This industry provides jobs and livelihoods for millions of people worldwide.

Luxury travelers value human connection and relationships, and while AI can enhance the workforce, it should not threaten or replace it. We wish to work with companies committed to improving people’s lives in their communities and protecting their employees. While AI may replace some easily automated jobs, it is the responsibility of companies to retrain their workforce and offer opportunities for advancement into new roles.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

Open Dialog: Travel industry leaders should engage colleagues and foster conversations about how transformative technology is reshaping luxury travel and the steps they should be taking to enhance their operations. Agency owners must recognize the implications of AI across all sectors of the travel industry and learn how to harness the benefits without sacrificing the personal touch. When we understand a new technology, implementing it into our daily lives and businesses becomes more practical.

In February 2024, I was invited to the annual Forbes Travel Guide Summit in Las Vegas, a prestigious gathering of the world’s top hotels, travel professionals and industry experts. Among the myriad of topics explored, a session on the impact and progression of AI within travel garnered considerable attention. As we delved into the intricacies of AI integration, it became apparent that this topic elicited varying perspectives and emotional responses from the audience.

During this session, I had a memorable encounter with a fellow travel agency owner who shared her apprehensions about AI, attributing her hesitance in implementing AI tools to her agency’s exclusive focus on ultra-luxury clientele. In her view, the personal touch and bespoke service her advisors prided themselves on rendered AI applications contradictory to the value her business provided clients. It seems that for many of my colleagues, even the mere mention of AI evokes visible discomfort.

However, after further discussion, it became clear that she simply did not understand how AI could enhance her agency’s operations and elevate the service provided to her clients without detracting from its exclusivity. We discussed the transformative potential of AI in streamlining processes, optimizing customer experiences, and empowering staff members to work smarter. Spending less time on complex behind-the-scenes logistics would free up more time to actually interact with clients and provide the high-touch services they excel at. Rather than take away from the client’s experiences, implementing AI tools could enhance them. While I do not believe she will fully embrace it any time soon, we started a dialog and found common ground on this divisive topic.

Slow Integration: We developed and launched our internal chatbot called Iris about a year ago. However, we didn’t force our advisors to use it immediately. Instead, we allowed them to take their time and begin using it whenever they felt comfortable. While some team members started using it immediately and found it beneficial, others are just beginning to see its advantages. The professionals in our industry have different levels of experience and knowledge. Younger workers tend to adapt to new technology quickly, but some of our more experienced staff may need more time to get used to it.

Education: Providing education is crucial to encourage advisors to embrace new technologies. Everyone learns differently, so investing extra time in providing the right tools is essential for long-term benefits. Our approach is to discuss small changes advisors can make during our weekly team meetings and then create loom videos demonstrating how they can use AI to perform simple tasks and reduce the time required to develop complex proposals and itineraries. These videos present information in bite-sized pieces that are easy to try without feeling overwhelmed.

Acceptance: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming integral to our lives. Just like the Industrial Revolution and the internet transformed our society, AI will also significantly impact our lives. As a result, business owners and luxury travel advisors must acknowledge that while AI poses some risks, it also presents incredible potential and value. Despite initial hesitation, travel advisors ultimately adapted to the internet, navigated the challenges posed by large Online Travel Agencies (OTA’s), and accepted the new landscape post-pandemic. Now, we must also learn to accept that, eventually, AI will fundamentally change how we conduct business.

I believe many agency owners are reluctant to implement AI because they are simply overwhelmed by the rapid technological advancements and perceived complexities involved while fearful of the consequences of relying on such technologies. By addressing misconceptions and demystifying the potential of AI applications, we can empower agencies to embrace technology as a catalyst for growth and innovation.

Patience and Grace: As a business owner, it’s essential to be patient with your staff. Luxury travel professionals should also give themselves grace. It’s natural to feel frustrated and discouraged when adapting to new tools. However, it’s also important not to abandon them because they seem overwhelming and instead take the time to adjust slowly. This approach will increase the likelihood of success in the long run.

I continue to learn this lesson. One AI-enhanced tool we introduced to our team is Grammarly. We purchased a premium subscription and encouraged our advisors to install the Chrome extension to quickly quality control and improve all their communication with clients and suppliers. I believed it was a no-brainer. Grammarly checks for spelling and grammatical errors in blog articles, complex client itineraries and emails in real-time. I (incorrectly) assumed that everyone would immediately install and begin using it.

A few months ago, however, I was working in person with one of our best luxury advisors when I saw she did not have the extension installed and jokingly told her it was a “fireable offense.” She became visibly upset and expressed frustration about using technology, which she did not entirely understand. It was a great learning moment for me. At the time, I did not realize that this seemingly simple tool was causing a member of our team significant anxiety and stress and that we did not provide enough education when rolling it out. We must remember that technology is advancing exponentially, and each of us has our own internal gauge of how much new information we can handle. While I thought we were helping the team, they viewed it as an added stressor. When employees have a negative mindset about technology, the likelihood of compliance and adaptation decreases.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

Many misconceptions exist about AI in the travel industry, specifically among travel advisors. Addressing them is crucial. Firstly, there’s a belief that AI isn’t practical for agencies focused on high-touch service for luxury clients. However, generative AI, like Chat GPT, enhances personalization by allowing advisors to create even more tailored itineraries and experiences by combining their deep knowledge of destinations and understanding of their client’s needs with the data aggregation of AI. Secondly, the misconception that AI is expensive and challenging to integrate persists. Yet, AI tools, including Chat GPT, are becoming more affordable and user-friendly. Lastly, there’s concern that seasoned staff won’t embrace AI. However, with patient education and gradual integration, even experienced advisors can benefit, maintaining the human touch while boosting efficiency. By dispelling these misconceptions, we can pave the way for AI’s positive impact on luxury travel.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill, my favorite historical figure, embodies qualities such as intellect, perseverance, grit, humanity, and courage, which I find incredibly inspiring. His resilience in the face of adversity and his unwavering determination to lead his country through the darkest times resonate deeply with me.

Churchill understood that success and failure are not endpoints but milestones on life’s journey. Despite experiencing setbacks and defeats, he never allowed himself to be defined by them. Instead, he possessed the courage to persevere, to learn from his mistakes, and to press on with unwavering resolve. In my life and career, I strive to remember that success is fleeting and failure is not the end of the road. It is the courage to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and continue moving forward that truly matters when we weigh the measures of our life’s accomplishments.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

While I am a business owner, I am a mother first and foremost and deeply concerned about technology’s potential impact on future generations. Although today’s youth have unprecedented access to information, data, and global connectivity, we also see a devastating trend toward increased isolation and loneliness. Communication and social media tools like Snapchat, Facebook, and TikTok are widely prevalent and should, in theory, provide more avenues for connection. However, they also foster superficial interactions and dependence on this technology can ultimately contribute to feelings of loneliness, especially in young adults who spend more time on their devices than they do with friends and family. Moreover, the rampant spread of misinformation online perpetuates prejudices and biases, distorting our perceptions of reality. It has also become increasingly difficult to discern material generated by AI from material written and created by actual human beings.

It’s important to remember that while technology has its benefits, it cannot and should not replace human interaction. While a chatbot may be able to answer questions and imitate conversation, it can’t compare to the experience of having a face-to-face conversation with a friend or colleague over a cup of coffee. Similarly, while a chatbot can provide travel itinerary suggestions, it can never replace the knowledge and storytelling of an experienced tour guide.

In an age where we are increasingly disconnected, distrustful and isolated, I believe travel is an antidote for loneliness. When we step outside our comfort zones and explore new destinations we are reminded of our shared humanity. By immersing ourselves in diverse cultures and communities, we gain perspective, challenge stereotypes, and forge meaningful connections that transcend geographic, political and social boundaries.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to initiate a movement where every traveler takes a pledge to understand the impact of their travel spending on the destinations they visit and how the travel companies they choose to do business with are utilizing their money to improve the lives of the local people in their communities.

By promoting ethical and responsible tourism, we can positively impact the world. Prioritizing the welfare of the environment and local communities can be accomplished by ensuring the money brought in by travelers is reinvested locally to promote education, increase the standard of living and protect natural resources. Destinations like Rwanda that safeguard local gorilla populations, companies like Abercrombie and Kent that reinvest in the communities to provide education, healthcare and conservation and hotels like Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle that help rescue and protect elephants set incredible examples of the transformative power of travel when used for the common good. However, it is essential for all stakeholders in the travel industry, including travelers, tour operators, and governments, to work together to ensure that the sector operates sustainably and responsibly.

With trillions of dollars spent on travel every year, I firmly believe we can create a much greater positive impact by holding companies that do not practice ethical and responsible business methods more accountable.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Our website is www.travelbta.com

We are also on Instagram and Facebook

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.