“Artificial intelligence is expected to have its most definitive impact on the travel industry yet in 2019.” This is one of the conclusions in the 2019 Travel Trends Report by WEX and Mastercard.
The annual survey of US travelers found that more than half are comfortable requesting general information using a voice-powered digital assistant. However, only a fifth to a third actively use voice to search for or book travel. Nearly a quarter (23%) of respondents, among all age groups, agree that a digital assistant would improve their booking experience.
Awareness of travel bots saw a slight increase from 2017 to 2018, and 21% of those surveyed would be comfortable booking a trip by voice (e.g., with Alexa or Google Home). Not surprisingly, usage is highest among Gen Z (24% sometimes use bots) and Millennials (22%).
Writing about 2019 hotel trends, Benoit Jolin, Senior Vice President, Global Product and Marketing for Expedia Group explains, “Demographic shifts, driven by Millennials and Gen Z, will continue to speed up the trend of technology adoption. If hotels want to appeal to these generations, they’ll need to provide an experience that maps to these increasingly savvy and sophisticated travelers, using technology.”
More and more travel-related companies are moving toward bots. Travelbots from household-name OTAs, such as Expedia and Booking.com have helped move bots into the mainstream and normalize them for booking. Recently, WEX and partner AI.io launched the first app for booking hotels and flight strictly through voice. Called Halo Travel, the app is powered by Priceline Partner Network, offering their entire inventory, including Booking.com. Halo Travel can be used by anyone who has internet access, via Google Assistant. WEX virtual payments technology facilitates the payment from Halo Travel to the Priceline Partner Network.
Consumers are looking for tech that makes things easier more so than the shiny new thing. At last year’s Skift Global Forum. Ian Schrager, a hotel and real estate developer, shared, “I think technology is the future, but not mood boards in the lobby and not iPads in every room, but technology that really makes every transaction at a hotel easier, or cheaper, and there’s a reason for it.”
Writing about 2019 travel trends for The Washington Post, Christopher Elliott wrote, “With technology, the ultimate outcome is to offer a fully personalized experience. The chatbot recognizes you, predicts what you want and then creates a trip that’s perfect for you.”
Madhusudan Mathihalli, Co-Founder and CTO at Passage AI, cites the many real, practical benefits of AI applications for travelers and concludes, “the beauty of these AI bots is that they’re accessible 24/7, support different languages and give immediate response to queries.”
So, what will move the needle on usage of bots? “The value of AI as a travel assistant will increase as travelers use it, as will their dependency on it,” said Microsoft Travel Technology Manager Steve Clagg. “That will prompt them to use it more, and with that performance will improve. And so begins the cycle. Somewhere in there, trust will have been established.”
Looking ahead to where AI is going in travel, Mathihalli describes chatbots that can use facial recognition to decide when you’ve had enough and need to talk with a live booking agent or “reference-based dialogue” that allows bots to “recall all the relevant previous context” to book travel you talked about yesterday.
The potential applications are staggering and something seemingly out of science fiction. With the rise in consumer travel bot services, increasing awareness and demand point, the untapped market potential is equally staggering.