For travellers, recommendations can make or break a trip. Finding the right combination of hotel, restaurants and activities helps to create the kind of enduring experience that travel should be all about. By contrast, substandard accommodation, underwhelming meals and overcrowded attractions are no recipe for a dream break. But where do guests find the right sort of travel tips? Their friends and families? The newspapers and magazines they subscribe to? Or the technology they use?
Tech is looking to become the travel advisor that knows the travellers’ needs best; the concierge with the recommendations that can send them home happy. Personalisation has long been a buzzword in the travel industry, and recent Booking.com research shows that 59% of global travellers now want tech to propose ‘wildcard’ suggestions tailored to their tastes, introducing them to new and memorable experiences. Those moments, in other words, that make a holiday sing.
Except, of course, it’s not quite that straightforward – in travel, or any other industry. When Adobe surveyed 600 senior business decision-makers in late 2018, nearly all brands (89%) said personalisation was the key to success, but less than a third (31%) were delivering the level of personalisation needed. So what’s travel tech doing to tap into this opportunity?
Innovations and future-gazing
“Friends and family members have traditionally played the role of trusted advisor,” says David Chapple, Group Portfolio Director at annual industry event Travel Technology Europe. “But advances in technology such as AI [artificial intelligence] deep learning and eye-gaze plotting can now extract unstructured data from search queries, web behaviour, in-destination activity and more, then present recommendations based on these. It means that through technology, users actually become their own trusted advisor.”
After a while, he explains, the process begins to self-validate. “These recommendations serve to reinforce their own internal desires and predispositions – pushing them that much further down the sales pipeline towards purchase, which can only be a good thing for properties and the travel industry.”
But Barbara Parshall, CEO of California-based AI-based platform BaarbPro, stresses that not all tech companies are created equal. “For AI, it takes tens of billions of examples to build and train systems that provide unbiased human-like results, and there’s a huge gap between the small handful of companies that can do this effectively and the thousands who can’t.”
Advances are happening apace, however. “The future is already here,” she continues. “We’re seeing start-ups and enterprises pioneering travel planning in some exciting areas. Much of the impact of AI so far has focused on customer service and engagement. Chatbots, which are able to respond 24/7, will learn to enhance the entire travel experience, from reminders and itinerary changes to suggesting nearby entertainment and transportation options. New apps are focused on natural language search and voice-activated devices that understand what we want and instantly deliver results we care about.”
Adoption and efficiency
The success of these technologies, of course, will ultimately depend on their efficiency. A 2019 study by US software company Zingle found 57% of consumers still see human customer service agents as more effective at handling their needs, while 46% reported that they’d pick a human over a chatbot unless they knew the bot could solve an issue faster. “The travel and hospitality industry is built on service,” says Zingle’s SVP Marketing Jason Hekl. “Technology has the ability to help organisations across the industry reimagine the way they provide service, but if used the wrong way it will only erode trust.”
If used in the right way, however, tech can provide trip-changing advice not just to travellers, but travel providers too. “One area where we expect AI to play more of a role in the future is in service recovery,” Hekl explains. “In a recent study we found that only 1 in 4 guests will report an issue that (negatively) impacts their guest experience. While this might be a scary prospect for operators, it’s also an opportunity to harness the power of AI.”
AI’s ability to spot the moment when guest experience is going south ... will become a much-welcomed protection against churn
“By combing through millions – or even billions – of past conversations in real-time, AI’s ability to spot the moment when guest experience is going south and relay that information to their human counterparts will become a much-welcomed protection against churn.” All of which, of course, feeds into a more positive experience for guests.
For Travel Technology Europe’s Chapple, meanwhile, it’s clear what tech needs to be doing – and getting it right is simply a matter of the technology meeting its potential. “AI’s ability to determine sentiment and interpret unstructured data (can) offer options to travellers based on their social activity, search history, travel history, geography and more. Categorising travellers into traditional marketing funnels is no longer sufficient,” he concludes. “Unique customer journeys must lead the way.”
- Technology is advancing to the point where it can provide ever more personalised travel tips
- These recommendations rely largely on AI, which is improving exponentially as it gathers more data and examples to draw on
- Tech needs to gain the trust of travellers. If used in the wrong way, this trust can be eroded AI can also help properties and travel providers to identify when guests are having negative experiences
- Broad, traditional demographics are being replaced by ‘unique customer journeys’