AI in the Travel Industry
- Chatbots and virtual assistants
- Improved Search
- Smart Cruises
- Data, data, data
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the dynamic of many industries and one of those at the very forefront is travel. As businesses seek to improve their efficiency and create more personalised customer experiences, travel is one sector that has the ability to generate a lot of investor excitement.
Chatbots and virtual assistants
Conversational bots, sometimes known as virtual assistances are becoming very important to the travel industry. Bookings are a major problem for hotels with reports suggesting that only one in twenty potential reservations are actually being taken up. Chatbots are trying to buck the trend. Applications like Hijiffy which is using the Facebook Messenger platform allow users to ask questions and get instant responses. For example, they can ask about the destination, available services and even book a room, all through the popular messaging app. The beauty of a chatbot is that they can learn from interactions. For example, if it is asked a question it doesn’t know the answer to, it tracks how the customer behaves to know the right answer for next time. This is the core of artificial intelligence, doing what humans do and then trying to improve on it. In providing real-time, accurate a conversational support, hotels are able to reduce abandonment rates and improve conversion via a platform their customers are familiar with. Similar technology can be used in the hotel room by responding to guests’ questions. Imagine having an Amazon Alexa or Google Home in your room as standard for example. IBM Watson is trying to take this even further as you’ll see below. Chatbots are also a great way for collating customer feedback that they would not have proactively provided.
Hilton hotels have deployed Connie, a robot concierge to help visitors at the front desk. It has been developed using the IBM Watson technology. Guests can ask Connie questions about where to go, where to dine or how to find something at the hotel. This means there isn’t a need for somebody to be on the desk 24/7 and provides a great cost saving whilst maintaining customer satisfaction. In time, as it learns, Hilton hope that Connie has recognise the faces of guests and remember previous conversations, taking it to the next level of artificial intelligence. If it can truly delight the customers in this way, it will be revolutionary for the travel industry. If a flight has arrived later, IBM have the power to recognise that and offer specific services. The same applies to behaviours like offering breakfast or treats to guests proactively.
Through the popularity of sites such as TripAdvisor as well as social media, recommendations have become highly important within the travel industry. It would be very unlikely for somebody to book a holiday without looking for reviews of some kind first. Research from Booking.com has shown that one third of customers would now be comfortable in letting a computer plan their next trip based on information from their travel history. Using this data, travel brands can create very tailored recommendations based on unique preferences. Going a step further than that, Utrip (powered by TUI Group) can recommend a full itinerary for trips based on user preferences. It can filter through millions of potential combinations to accomplish this.
Online travel agents are using a technology known as computer vision to improve search mechanisms on their site. They do this by optimising the tags used within their listings. For example, a hotel might tag their property as having a “beach view” and any searches will return them in results. Tagging is very important for remaining competitive. This is truer as consumers edge towards voice search over traditional typed text searches. Travel sites need to consider what comes will be searching for in a voice context which can be very different to text.
Carnival cruises have developed a solution based almost entirely on AI for their trips. The company operates more than 100 ships and travels to over 740 destinations across the globe. On the cruise ships, they are using wearable technology to create a seamless customer experience. The project is led by John Padgett who was responsible for bringing similar innovations to Disney, allowing visitors to quickly find and see their favourite characters. The wearable technology, called the Ocean Medallion, relies on 7,000 sensors placed on the ship and hundreds of miles of cables. Passengers are connected to all of these things to display personalised recommendations and experiences. Across the ship there are over 4,000 digital interaction points. Investment into these devices will no doubt extend to other companies given the overwhelming success of Carnival.
Almost everything in travel creates vast amounts of data. As well as travellers, planes, trains, ships and cars are generating data through an enormous number of sensors every single second. Understanding that data can help to improve efficiency, remove processes and eliminate costs. For example, Boeing is using augmented reality so that engineers can see circuit diagrams placed over planes to find possible faults. Cruise ships are using data to find possible engine failures as early as 10 months before they even happen. As well as ensuring safety, it helps to avoid traveller disappointment and cancellations. AI applications are using data to create alerts for areas where security could be a problem. Travel apps can tell travellers about dangerous places or image recognition in CCTV can ensure people avoid certain areas. As we gather more data, the process efficiency in travel will continue to improve.
AI is changing the entire ecosystem of the travel industry right now. Chatbots are taking over bookings and assistance, planning platforms can generate personalised itineraries and guests are getting a truly unique experience. On top of this, operational improvements are making AI a very investable technology for those involved in the travel industry. The key to success will be in using AI wisely. It is designed as an aide to human interaction and not a replacement. Those who can best work out how the two compliment each other will be the ones who succeed.