Prepare for take off: innovating with AI in the travel industry

8 min read
Ai in the Travel Industry
Artwork by Tiago Baptista

The travel industry pioneered early large scale computing, particularly with the advent of airline booking systems, in the 1960s. Back then, these were hugely ambitious and expensive projects designed to coordinate bookings made by travel agents all across the US.

Today, the industry continues to rely on technology to keep travelers moving steadily along in their pursuit of business and pleasure. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is particularly helpful in achieving this objective. With the right AI tools in place, companies are able to collect data from users and present them with content relevant to their searches and future or past travels. They can also optimize business through AI pricing tools that can autonomously adjust prices of flights or rooms depending on demand, weather, and other factors.

There’s a variety of touchpoints that companies can take advantage of to collect data, which they can then turn into actionable insights and use to better tailor their services to customers’ needs. Whenever travelers browse, book, shop, fly or change their minds, those data are recorded somewhere. However, the data that each company gathers are isolated and limited to a portion of the traveler’s journey. By forging or expanding collaborations, the travel industry can use data to understand customer preferences and fine-tune their products and services.

In travel, the competition is fierce and companies can’t dawdle with differentiation. Savvy travelers are constantly comparing prices of flights, hotels, and car rentals to make sure that they get the best possible experience for their money. This means that to keep its edge, the travel industry needs to think about how to deploy the latest technology available. And there is huge potential for AI to make the travel experience faster, more efficient or more personalized than ever before.

At Travel Technology Europe (TTE) in London last month, I spoke to people from across the industry to find out how they’re playing AI to make sure that their technology offering is riding First Class.

Innovating with AI in Travel

Your new travel assistance

The key to delivering a great travel experience is understanding what matters to customers.

As described by Phoebe Rogers, in an article published on Econsultancy, by recognizing where people are on their customer journey, brands can pinpoint the moments where they can have the biggest impact by delivering relevant, compelling content to help make the experience easier and more enjoyable.

At TTE, Helen Maher, Director Market Management at Expedia, talked about their work with AI to make travel as convenient as possible by allowing customers to check their plans through Amazon Alexa. With the help of the Expedia Skill app, travelers are able to get information on their upcoming trips and flight details, or even book a rental car, with a simple voice command.

Travel agents such as ATPI are developing tools like Zeno by ATPI to provide a more personalized experience to customers. AI improves the booking process by remembering travelers’ seat preferences, usual departure airport, or favorite hotels, in much the same way a human travel consultant would do. If a user needs help, the Zeno chatbot is there to offer assistance or connect them to the customer service team.

When efficiency is the goal, AI, and tech can have a huge impact on speeding things up for travelers. A business traveler arriving at his or her destination late after a long trip may very well be thrilled to use an automated check in and collapse straight into bed. Marriott International, for example, is testing a facial recognition software in two locations in China, that reduces the average check-in time from three minutes to one. The technology was developed in partnership will Alibaba and will be rolled out to all global locations based on successful feedback.

However, other clients who have booked a suite in a five star hotel will expect a personal touch to ensure that every single need is taken care of. Most attempts to automate customer service or deploy a chatbot in these cases won’t be appreciated.

Similarly, a tourist who wants to be immersed in local culture may find this a huge let down. As Sienna Parulis-Cook, Communications Manager at Dragon Trail Interactive, points out:

When people get home from a trip, they don’t talk about the amazing interaction that they had with a machine.

Despite its clear benefits, technology has removed a lot of the personal aspect of an industry that once relied solely on human interaction, making it sometimes harder for companies to connect with and retain customers.

But even there, technology can help. Collecting data about travelers to later help them decide on a destination while they’re booking their next trip, or serving them the drink they usually have during a flight without their having to ask, help companies stand out.

Travel AI

More data, fewer problems

It’s not just travelers who create huge amounts of data; the planes, trains, ships, and automobiles they travel in do so as well. By using AI to effectively understand that data, several companies are improving how they maintain machinery to improve safety and minimise down time.

Boeing has been experimenting with augmented reality that allows engineers to see circuit diagrams in their planes laid over the real thing to find potential faults. Cruise ship maintenance teams have used AI and historic data to spot potential causes of engine failure up to ten months before the failure occurs. That kind of information prevents a lot of disappointment for travelers and saves a lot of money for operators.

A tragic cause of disruptions on rail networks around the world is suicide, and it is extremely difficult to prevent using barriers or human monitoring. Tests in Canada have used AI image recognition to monitor CCTV from metro stations and alert station staff if someone appears to be at risk, and are being conducted in other locations.

For some people, business travel means going to the world’s most dangerous places. While it’s still in its early stages, travel security companies are starting to experiment with AI tools that allow them to monitor social media in order to identify risks earlier and take measures to ensure that their clients stay safe.

However, when things do go wrong, there are AI innovations to help get things moving again.

Technology provider Cornerstone has developed software that allows travel agents to respond to crises and disruptions around the world by using their data to figure out which of their customers are affected, and working out the best way to get them home. Being proactive, rather than waiting for the customer to contact them, means that agents can make bookings faster and get people moving sooner.

Most disruption for airlines is completely beyond their control. A snow storm, ash cloud, or air traffic control strike can cause continental chaos at a moment’s notice, and is completely unavoidable. What airlines can control, however, is how they look after the affected customers.

At TTE, easyJet outlined how they have used Unbabel’s Customer Service Solution not only for their routine support operations, but have set up contingency queues in other languages. This means that if there is localized disruption in France, their customer support agents all over the world are able to help, rather than being idle as their French colleagues are overwhelmed with cases. It’s easy to forget the complexity of the systems that keep the travel industry going, until a glitch grounds thousand of flights and causes chaos.

The future of travel

A survey conducted by Amadeus shows that 43% of travel companies refer to “targeting and personalization” as the main priorities in their digital strategy. The industry doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and the number of travelers will keep increasing, particularly in emerging markets like China and India. Moreover, most travelers today are digital natives and expect the companies they choose for their travel experiences to have a good online presence that broadcasts innovation and boasts customized services.

There is no question that AI will keep shaping the way we travel in the future. Sometimes it will be obvious, as AI assistants help us book a flight, check in to a hotel or order lunch in a language we don’t speak at all. Other times, it could even come to our rescue and work out a complicated route home. But lots of times, it will be hidden in the algorithms that help to keep our planes, trains and automobiles running as smoothly as possible.

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