“Booking by voice” is certainly a trending topic and one we included in the recent series of posts about our 2018 Travel Trends survey. The rate at which voice-activated devices are being adopted opens the door for more disruption in the travel industry. There’s considerable buzz and numerous references to booking by voice. But, what’s happening right now in the marketplace?
In Eye for Travel’s report Can Voice Change the Way We Travel? issued earlier this year, their analysts write, “It’s early days for voice technology, but it is an area that the travel industry will need to start planning for.” They convey an opinion shared by many others that consumers’ growing use of AI and personal assistants is “limited and largely functional currently,” but its expected impact on travel has led to considerable investment in technology and booking application development by major players like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Voice’s role in travel is evolving quickly, so there are varying opinions on consumer’s acceptance of it and limited data on adoption rates. But, the data that is available shows movement and great opportunity.
National Public Radio (NPR) and Edison Research have been studying voice technology as part of their “Smart Audio Report,” which includes three surveys done over the past year and a half. The latest survey, done this spring, found that 18% of Americans aged 18 and older (approximately 43 million people) own a “smart speaker.” The fall 2017 result was 16%, which was a 128% increase over January 2017. Gartner Inc., a technology research and advisory company, predicts that 75% of US households will have a voice-activated device by the end of 2020.
The NPR-Edison research found more women (54%) than men (46%) own a device and ownership is dispersed across ages. The highest percentage is for those 45-54 (24%), followed by the 55+ group (22%), 35-44 year olds (21%), 25-34 year olds (18%) and, finally, the 18-24 group (15%). The survey also found that “81% of smart speaker owners are open to skills and features created by brands on smart speakers.”
Expectations versus reality
At the Skift Tech Forum in June Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s vice president of loyalty and e-commerce, was one of many industry leaders who shared their thoughts on tech, including voice. Talking about the company’s skill for Alexa, Nasr said, “We actually see conversational commerce and voice as a user interface as probably what’s going to be the biggest channel maybe two to three years out to five years out for us.”
Hotel-online.com acknowledges that while search via voice assistants is growing, “there are limited capabilities to actually book.” Through its partnership with Amazon, Kayak.com offers hotel bookings, but customers can’t comparison shop. They get one “highly ranked result.”
In July, Michael Coletta wrote for Phocuswright, “Voice recognition has made huge strides in accuracy; natural language recognition rates have now surpassed those of humans. But planning, booking and servicing travel requires visual feedback and specific answers that are largely inaccessible through voice-only interfaces.”
On the other hand, WayBlazer’s CEO, Noreen Henry, observes that voice is an extremely easy interface for booking travel. In talking about the company’s AI-powered e-commerce travel platform, she notes, “Guests don’t have to interact with filters or dates—it’s more like talking to a travel agent.”
Travelers are interested, but not taking action quite yet
Research done by Phocuswright found that “more than half of US travelers are comfortable requesting general information using a voice-powered digital assistant. But when it comes to actual usage, only a fifth to a third of travelers are actively using voice for tasks like searching for or booking travel products.”
When it comes to booking, specifically, OAG’s Travel Tech Innovation Tech Report: The Future of Travel Booking and Payments reports: 25% of the 2,146 US leisure and business travelers surveyed in December 2017 and January 2018 “would be comfortable booking travel through mobile assistants like Siri or Okay Google,” and 18% felt the same way about voice-automated systems like Amazon Echo or Google Home. The report also found that “only 2% of travelers surveyed have actually booked through these devices.”
According to Mike Benjamin, chief technology officer of OAG, “While we don’t expect a major shift in the travel booking market overnight, the threat of new startups and major tech players radically simplifying or transforming the experience should not be discounted.” He added, “Convenience, speed and customer experience rule the travel ecosystem – and the booking and payment process is no exception.”
The importance of the customer experience is echoed by Elena Mogo, associate analyst for digital travel and tourism at GlobalData’s, when discussing the company’s recent Technology Trends in Travel & Tourism report, she stated, “Travel still revolves around meaningful human interactions. However, to be successful, companies need to create a balance between the technological innovations and the human element. Improving the customer experience must always be in the back of travel and tourism companies’ minds when investing in technology.”
As Expedia’s Chief Technology Officer Tony Donohoe said a the Skift Tech Forum, “Voice is definitely the future.” When is comes to gaining a significant portion of the booking pie, the question is how close is that future?