The days of making the trip to a travel agent to sit at a desk and go through booking options have all but disappeared for holidaymakers. Even researching holiday destinations with travel books can be seen as a little old fashioned or at best ‘quirky’. Researching and booking a holiday online, even directly on a smartphone, is now the norm.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is predicted to reshape – or at least refine – the customer experience for the travel sector as these solutions become commonplace in the travel industry’s digital offering.
Every customer cycle contains data points that can be stored and analysed and there are already systems in place to look at previous booking data, motivations for travel and personal information to provide travel companies with deeper insights into their customers.
Technology and travel have become even more intertwined and AI-based technology solutions are now vital to the travel industry’s future.
As the development of AI and how it handles customer data continues, we’re now seeing more innovative ways in which travel companies build relationships with their customers.
Chatbots are already widely used on various platforms in many industries and the travel sector is by no means a novice to these solutions.
By using technology powered by Natural Learning Processing (NLP), customers are already able to check flights, hotel room availability and book holidays using chatbots provided by companies such as Skyscanner through Skype or Expedia through the Facebook’s Messenger.
Evature – whose NLP technology is already used by Skyscanner – is able to provide travel companies with the technology to understand natural language and the context of conversations.
In addition, applying information such as age, interests, personal preferences and location data, returning customers who interact with NLP-powered chatbots over a period of time, can instantly receive relevant, personalised offers and promotions in addition to flight and hotel requests without providing any additional information.
Korean Air is currently exploring technologies which could see chatbots adopt a more persuasive and integrated role in our lives when travelling in the future.
Using a wealth of data including customer preferences and even social interactions, chatbots could provide travellers with real-time, on-the-go travel information and local recommendations while on holiday via their smartphone or wearable tech.
This type of NLP technology not only has the potential to improve the actual holiday experience but could also benefit local businesses in the tourism industry – especially those that have optimised their sites using local SEO.
IBM Watson, WayBlazer and Hilton World are currently collaborating on a pilot project called “Connie” – the world’s first Watson-enabled hotel concierge robot.
Positioned to work side-by-side with Hilton staff members, the interactive robot is built with Watson’s cognitive learning abilities to assist with guest requests including, finding restaurants, local attractions, room service, booking taxis and local directions.
Watson helps Connie learn from each guest interaction, builds guest knowledge and helps understand and respond naturally to requests from each Hilton customer.
While interactive displays promoting onsite-amenities and local information aren’t uncommon, interactions performed by Connie also provide a wealth of valuable customer insights to Hilton staff members – essentially enabling the hospitality brand to optimise their customer experience by analysing the data collected by Connie.
For example, if a guest on a business trip requests coffee and a newspaper when checking-in on multiple occasions, data collected by Connie could alert room service that coffee and a newspaper should be sent to that particular guest’s room automatically when they are due to check-in on their next visit.
Big data and personalisation
Marketers have already been using automated solutions to curate highly-tailored recommendations and promotions based on customer preferences and travel history through recommendation emails and push notifications.
But incorporating deep learning algorithms could benefit travel companies by analysing customers online behaviour in more detail.
Analysing images, videos viewed and even social media behaviour in addition to pages visited on their websites, could help travel companies leverage themselves against competitors by understanding their customers better.
For example, knowing that a customer usually goes on holiday at a particular time of the year, has liked multiple images of Thailand on Instagram and has left comments relating to their desire to visit the country, could prove useful for a travel company or airline to target the customer with a personalised recommendation or offer.
While adopting this type of technology may be beneficial in creating hyper-personalised recommendations, it’s also important for marketers to be aware of alienating consumers.
Younger travellers are more conscious than ever about digital advertising and are accustomed to seeing display and social media ads featuring content they’ve recently browsed on online.
Algorithms that have the ability to understand the context of online activity would be at an advantage when targeting travel customers with relevant ads.
We could also see AI benefit business travel in the future according to Jay Walker, CEO of business travel startup Upside. While leisure travel is considerably more focused on discovery, business travel is consistently more structured, repetitive and predictable.
This ultimately makes machine learning the perfect tool to optimise the booking processes within a business, reduce costs and optimise employee expense procedures.
Expedia is also presumed to be the next major player to adopt AI technology to target businesses by using leisure travellers as an entry point to build their future AI strategies.
Voice technology and virtual assistants
Virtual assistants have the potential to change the way consumers make travel plans as they increasingly become the conduit between customers and online information.
Currently, virtual assistants access external online sources (Google and Bing) to provide information on flight schedules, local events, weather, traffic, hotel availability and traffic conditions.
But in the future, we could see virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Google Home identify events that require travel by scanning the user’s calendar and offering to proactively book taxis, train tickets or flights with a pre-registered credit card by using previous booking behaviour and travel preferences.
As voice recognition technology matures and devices like Amazon Echo start to become commonplace, we could see more hospitality brands develop partnerships with technology companies to experiment with voice tech.
There are already hospitality systems on the market such as ICE Bedside, which provide guests with an instant, direct line to hotel and concierge staff without picking up a phone using tablet devices.
However, voice recognition technology could help the hospitality industry quickly gain insights into customer preferences, add value to the customers stay, lead to cost savings on concierge services and reduce the number of phone operators.
Of course, these devices aren’t perfect for all guests and hotels. Hospitality business will need to evaluate if adopting AI-powered solutions would be a genuine benefit to their business strategy in terms of value to their business, corporate image and value to their guests.
As customers – whatever the demographic – continue to research and book holidays online, the stack of data held by travel companies opens the door for more AI-based solutions to be adopted and refined.
The ability to manage customers expectations and predict consumer behaviour can only help further to unlock new opportunities for marketing and revenue growth.
But with Google preparing to turn its sights on package holidays – with big data comes big responsibility. The travel industry will need to nurture the right balance of tracking and prediction with a human touch in order for customers to continue to receive a positive travel experience.