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Travelers Speak Up With Chat Bots And Voice Technology

Posted June 18, 2018


The dynamic impact of technology on travel is a topic that always seems to be relevant, and the speed at which change is happening in this space is remarkable. That’s why it’s one of the subjects WEX and Mastercard surveyed US travelers about for the recent Travel Trends 2018 report.

Specific to the awareness and use of travel bots and chat bots, the survey found “4% of respondents anticipate booking a trip through a travel bot or chatbot,” and “only 22 percent say they’re even aware” of travel bots. Seventeen percent of that group expects to use bots to book trips this year. Not surprisingly, use and awareness differ by age. “Fifty percent of millennials who are aware of travel bots, use them regularly or occasionally to book travel. Only 16 percent of Boomers are aware of the existence of travel bots. “

While the WEX and Mastercard report found limited awareness and use of chat bots in the US now, the industry is expecting that to grow.

Some travel companies are using Facebook’s Messenger app to connect their chat bots with travelers. Customers can request boarding passes, check flight status, and, in some cases, book flights. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was the first to partner with Messenger in early-2016, followed by Icelandair and, this April, Malaysia Airlines became the first Asian airline to offer the service.

In an article, Jon Glick, partner at PwC, said, “Automated chat services have been around for a while, but now the artificial intelligence has caught up with it and companies have had a decade to build their data and update their technology so that they can expose this content in a way that the automated chat bots can respond to it.”

That same post suggests that smaller travel companies brands looking to dive into voice “start — or continue — to invest in chat bots. When broken down to their core, chat bots, which have been around much longer than voice assistants like Siri or Alexa, use many of the same technologies and are much easier to implement.”

The WEX and Mastercard trends report foresees that, “instead of bots… the next big thing in travel tech will be booking by voice.” And many others agree.

In 2016 was just one of the groups predicting that travelers would soon go “beyond mobile,” reporting that “despite all the rapid shifts already caused by mobile, even bigger changes are on the horizon. That’s because three emerging interfaces, including voice search, artificial intelligence and conversational messaging, are transforming how travelers will interact with travel brands on mobile in the future.

Most recently, Oliver Heckmann Google’s vice president of engineering for travel and shopping said in a Think with Google post , “Over 1 in 3 travelers across countries are interested in using digital assistants to research or book travel, and they’re already searching for everything from hotels to flights, and things to do in-destination.”

The evolution of voice technology is a natural one. As Malek Murison wrote for earlier this year, “our voice--no matter how fast we can type – is still our most effective means of communication.”

Different sectors of travel are adopting voice features in different ways. For some, it’s primarily customer service and support and others have branched out into booking as well.

  • Kayak continues to make upgrades to its voice capability with both Alexa and Google. Since 2016, Kayak has offered the ability to “track and search for flights, look for hotels and discover new destinations on your budget” via Alexa. Last year, they added the ability to book hotels and this year have introduced a new “flight notifications” feature. A few months after launching Kayak through Google Home in January 2017, Kayak gave travelers access and greater flexibility via the Google Assistant app for Android and iOS phones.
  • Trainline is one of the company’s highlighted in a three-part series for Phocuswright’s that takes an in-depth look at voice. Mitra Sorrells writes about the retailer that sells tickets for 144 train and coach lines in Europe and launched a Google Assistant app late last year. She quotes Dave Slocombe, product director:  “It takes about 26 seconds to do a journey search from London to Manchester for this weekend on our app – to launch the app and tap between screens - and it takes about 10 seconds to do it by voice. Any technology that is that much faster than the preceding technology will win.”
  • Marriott International brands have been using voice technology in the guest services area for a while. In 2016, according to Brian McGuinness, global brand leader, Aloft Hotels was the “first hotel brand to bring voice-activation to our guests in this way, using Siri to control room temperature, lighting and more during their stay.”
  • InterContinental Hotels Group trains its Alexa “virtual concierge by listening to calls that came into the customer call center.”

As travel companies test new ways to incorporate chat bots and voice into their operations and customers’ experiences, there will be a wide range of obstacles, opportunities, considerations and choices they’ll have to contend with.

In Phocuswire’s look at voice and travel, Matthias Kelley, Kayak’s chief scientist, shares his thought on the current state. “I think it is what mobile was 10 years ago. Mobile showed up and it was very small, and today the common industry number is 50/50 split [between desktop and mobile]. I guess it would be a long way before it’s becoming one-third/one-third/one-third with the new piece of the pie being voice, but voice right now has a tremendous amount of motion behind it with these devices being integrated into every object you can imagine.”

And Skift’s 2017 Digital Transformation Report, sponsored by Adobe and Epsilon, predicts “Whatever the interaction model that travel brands choose in the future, be it voice or intelligent chatbots one thing is clear, typing text into tiny boxes in a mobile web browser is no longer going to cut it in tomorrow’s mobile-first future.”

Download the full 2018 Travel Trends Report.


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