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article imageInterview: Travel sector being disrupted by AI Special

By Tim Sandle     Dec 7, 2017 in Business
San Fransisco - Artificial intelligence is disrupting the travle sector, changing the way businesses and individuals organize their transportation and connections. Absolutdata provides some insights.
There are several drivers for the growth of artificial intelligence in the travel sector; these range from cost saving for travel agents to a preference by millennials to work with artificial intelligence and chatbots. As to what artificial intelligence can deliver, this ranges from answering questions about amenities, services and local attractions through to managing the booking process.
To gain a clear insight into how artificial intelligence is being applied and what future disruption has in store, Digital Journal caught up with Anil Kaul, CEO of Absolutdata (a consulting-oriented Analytics & Research firm based out of San Francisco, California).
Digital Journal: What are the major trends in the travel sector?
Anil Kaul: There are many. First, the rise of business and leisure travel, or (as it's affectionately known around here) "leisure", is a favorite topic among tourism experts this year. It's predicted to be a very lucrative trend for tour and activity providers in 2018. For generations, people have been extending their business trips into leisure travel, so we this will always remain in trend
Secondly, through virtual reality (VR), travel marketers will take locations to potential tourists and travelers. The trend of taking the location to potential travelers gained some traction in the past year mainly using VR technology. In the past, Delta airlines have used VR to showcase new cabin features to potential travelers to convert them, or to make them upgrade their chosen flight cabins. Amongst others, Virgin Holidays have demonstrated the potential of this tech by creating virtual experiences for potential travelers of the locations that they plan to visit.
Third, this has been then year of travel bots on messaging platforms. The year before, the travel industry saw the introduction of messaging bots from hotel chains, airlines, ridesharing services amongst others. These travel bots are powered by artificial intelligence and they are programmed to anticipate and answer travel related questions that clients or potential travelers might ask.
The bustling lobby of The Strand Palace Hotel. Large fish tanks keep the guest interested while they...
The bustling lobby of The Strand Palace Hotel. Large fish tanks keep the guest interested while they wait for friends or wait at reception.
Something goes wrong on a holiday – perhaps a hotel room has been double booked, or an excursion has been cancelled at the last minute. During these times, what you want is an instantaneous response from your travel agent. You want answers quickly. This is where there is huge potential for tourism companies. The moment that customer service becomes as responsive and personalized as any other WhatsApp conversation you have with a friend or family member, travelers are going to be happier and far better served.
But don’t take our word for it. It’s already happening. Airlines and hotels are starting to get involved. Hyatt is on Asian service WeChat; Shangri-La uses the same platform for content marketing purposes. Airline KLM has tested WhatsApp for Dutch customers with positive feedback, and is considering further moves into instant messaging.
Fourth, increased users on Over-The-Air (OTA) platforms. Despite the predicted push by top hotel brands to cut out OTAs, it is expected that OTAs worldwide record a surge in their clientele as internet becomes more available worldwide and cheaper too. There will be an expected push for direct bookings by chain hotels. Top hotel brands that have several chains of hotels under them and lots of capital are expected to attempt to cut out OTAs by aggressive marketing targeted at the travelers themselves.
Fifth, an upsurge of robots. This is an exciting one, but we’d be lying if we pretended to know exactly where the robotics trend will take the travel industry. On the face of it, robots and travel don’t seem to have that much in common. But when you consider the potential applications in terms of customer service, robots helping with translations, check-ins, tours and even food service, might not be too far away. the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, has already become the world’s first hotel to be completely staffed by robots.
The Musio robot wants to be your  curious new friend  and is capable of advanced machine learning
The Musio robot wants to be your "curious new friend" and is capable of advanced machine learning
From receptionists to food service waiters, guests rely on robotic friends for their every need. And while this is in no way indicative of a sudden sweeping trend, others in the tourism industry are beginning to take notice of the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence.
DJ: How complex is it to arrange travel? Does this differ for national and international travel?
Kaul: Planning a long trip can be a daunting task. Where do you begin? Questions such as destination, length of the trip, Tickets, hotel bookings, activity planning, food, insurance, currency leave you over-whelmed. Researching on all of the above and then making decisions leave you over-whelmed and confused.
DJ: What advantages does artificial intelligence bring to travel bookings?
Kaul:We know that our booking and travel experiences has evolved. We may be in a time when social apps may be the only thing we need to book our entire holiday. Artificially intelligent chatbot could be the answer. Thanks to modern technology, travel businesses can now communicate to new and regular customers through bots using chat apps.
By taking inputs like date of arrival and departure and preferred location a chatbot can suggest hotel destinations. Once a user is presented with a list of hotels to choose from he can them book the room and make payments from the bot itself. This can make the task of booking simple and sophisticated. These travel bots can search through hundreds of sites to provide best deals to the user.
Booking companies have come up with many interesting solutions along with the above basics. Such as “Route tips” by Skyscanner which shows the cheapest or the busiest weekday to travel, or the “Inspire me” option on Cheapflights. One example of AI is Hopper, which uses a variety of artificial intelligence to power its site and booking engine.
A team of scientists developed Internet Atlas  the first detailed map of the internet’s structure ...
A team of scientists developed Internet Atlas, the first detailed map of the internet’s structure worldwide. The lines represent crucial pieces of the physical infrastructure of the internet that billions of people rely on.
University of Wisconsin–Madison
That includes machine learning to analyze pricing data and suggest the best times to book a trip to a destination, a system that alerts you when ticket prices drop, and a “conversational chatbot” that understands written queries and generates relevant results. Conversational chatbot capable of understanding queries and offering relevant search results.
With huge amounts of data on previous customers and travel trends, AI can easily spot patterns in booking behaviors and highlight how and why certain demographics book the trips they do. This information can allow travel companies to tailor their outreach going forward, for example by going through a specific customer’s preferred digital platform with messages that have been proven to resonate in the past.
There are obvious benefits to taking this kind of targeted approach. Instead of trying to appeal to the majority or flying blindly with broad marketing and outreach campaigns, travel brands can save time and resources by working smarter. If automated, this kind of outreach could target a customer that booked a trip in May last year through a tablet in response to an email offering a discount. That same sequence of events can be set in motion once again, automatically, making the same result far more likely. AI combined with a human touch offers the best of both worlds. An example of this would be upsells offered to guests during the check-in process at a hotel.
Armed with data saying that a family of four is arriving and has previously booked adventure activities, a hotel receptionist can offer trips nearby that fit the mold. These personal touches are based on data gathered prior to the meeting but come across as genuine, enhanced customer service.
DJ: Are there any other benefits?
Kaul: Yes, by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to collect data to track personal preferences and travel histories, build individual user profiles, and make smart recommendations—and therefore, present travelers with options that make sense for them—travel management companies and corporations can encourage bookings within their program.
There are also personalized offers through such technology. For example, Adelman Travel, a travel services provider specializing in corporate travel and expense management, sees the value of offering customers accommodation offerings that match their personal preferences. Adding personalization features and sentiment across millions of data points fuels a level of customization we’ve been working toward for a long time.
We expect these innovations to boost our hotel attachment rates by up to five percent. Better, more relevant content powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning doesn’t just improve the travel experience for the business traveler—it helps all parties involved in the managed travel process. This leads to a faster, more convenient booking experience for the traveler, more control for the travel manager, increased efficiency for travel management companies, and the ability for the supplier to generate more revenue.
In a follow-up interview, Kaul explains the services that Absolutdata provides and how these can be of benefit to the travel sector.
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