Anyone who watched IBMs Watson defeat 74-game Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings will know that artificial intelligence (AI) has the capability to transform all aspects of our lives. And corporate travel is no exception.
Norm Rose, author of a report for PhocusWright and Egencia (an Expedia company) says a new generation of smarter travel bots is beginning to arrive. Online travel agencies are increasingly exploring machine learning and natural language processing to make complex reservations and to provide a level of personalization and customer support that may have been available only to the biggest corporate clients in the past.
The technology. Most of us take natural language processing a bots ability to mimic human conversation for granted (think Siri or Alexa). But some travel bots have become amusingly chatty. When told youre booking a flight to London, Cheap Flights Facebook Messenger bot may just respond London m so jealous! And Hipmunk responds to a request for the shortest flight time with, Sweet! I love finding people the least agonizing flight.
But those are just bells and whistles. The more important consideration is whether a travel bot uses machine learning to gather, analyze and react to data, adding personalization to the process.
The more sophisticated travel bots on the market aim to help you plan travel ahead of time, come up with targeted recommendations for hotels and flights, and send you notifications and suggestions for rerouting if plans go awry.
Help with planning. If you were to, for example, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org about upcoming travel plans, it will do its best to figure out where youre going and when, and reply with hotel and flight suggestions to take the pain out of planning. If it needs more information (maybe you didnt include the departure point), it will ask for it.
Heck, if you give permission, it will even scan your Google Calendar for info regarding upcoming trips and then email recommendations on its own. It understands the context of your conversations as well. If you type I like to fly Vancouver to Seattle next weekend, it will fill in the dates.
On the negative side, it doesnt remember your favourite airlines or hotel chains, so every planning session starts as a blank slate. And really, the thing that sets the best travel agents apart from anonymous online agencies is their familiarity with your likes and dislikes.
Personalized service. Enter a new breed of travel bots. HelloGbye, still in beta testing, asks for information up-front on which airline you like to fly, what fare class, refundable or non-refundable, and preferred hotel chains and star ratings. It then provides targeted suggestions for flights and hotels.
If you are willing to pay a subscription fee ($19 for individuals or $199 for business teams of 25 or less) you can get additional benefits including no change fees, preferred hotel rates and cash back on hotel bookings.
Great so far. But when I ask HelloGbye to find me a room in Las Vegas for a conference at the Wynn Resorts Hotel, it tells me there are no rooms at the Wynn and offers up a single choice: the Days Inn Las Vegas instead at a reasonable US$50 including taxes.
Is this hotel close to the Wynn I type. No response. I try again Why did you pick this hotel for me Again, no response. So I look up the distance between the Wynn and the Days Inn and discover its three miles, which means I will either be wearing down my shoe leather or grabbing a cab.
Fair enough, but it would have been nice to get a few suggestions and to be told why the app had chosen them for me. Thats the kind of service you did expect from a human travel agent.
Combo models. Some other recent arrivals in the marketplace (Pana, Mezi for Business, Lola, Claire and Carla) try to remedy those insufficiencies. They back up the data-gathering capacity of travel bots (logging travel preferences and analyzing patterns) with traditional flesh-and-blood travel agents, who can help with travel delays and rebooking and often answer questions that go beyond the basic booking process.
Ask Lola (currently available by invitation only), launched by Kayak co-founder Paul English, about the security wait time at JFK Terminal 5, and she comes back with: TSA is posting a 21-30 minute wait And both Carla (Carlson Wagonlits bot) and Claire (30SecondsToFly) can help business travellers book trips that comply with travel policies.
The bad news: most of the new apps are still in beta testing and the jurys still out on how well they work. For now at least, nothing beats the human touch, particularly for frequent travellers and complex itineraries.
Ultimately, says Rose, bots are just machines that can perform a task independently of programming. We are not at the point where machines are smarter than human beings or have sentient thought or anything like that.
Source: Financial Post