When we think of artificial intelligence, it's easy for our minds to rest on those eerie dystopian blockbusters you see at the movies. In the Hollywood version, life with AI is the end of life as we know it, evil computers are ruling the world. Except it doesn't have to be like that. In many ways, it seems like AI has got a bad name before it's even got off the ground. That's why today we thought we'd take a closer look at AI and its potential applications in the travel industry.
That's actually a pretty complicated question. In general, a computer with AI is seen as being able to take on tasks that would normally require human intelligence. 'What's so special about human intelligence?' you might ask. Well, it usually consists of essential skills such as learning, reasoning, perception and the understanding of natural language.
Before we get bogged down in the philosophy of what constitutes artificial intelligence, let's just not even go there. Let's instead consider how a computer program capable of, say, learning, reasoning and effectively communicating could be applied in the travel industry...
Take a step back and consider the main challenges that startups in the travel industry face at the moment. These include attracting the next generation of travellers, retaining those customers, competing with established names in the industry and much more besides. And how are these challenges being taken on? Well, many startups are relying on the quality of their product and customer experience to shine through, others are employing the latest marketing and social media techniques to get ahead; some are targeting and communicating with their customers in unprecedented ways.
All of these elements, from marketing to customer service, experience and retention, could all be impacted by AI in the near future.
In the travel industry, every stage of the customer cycle contains data points that can be stored and analysed by artificial intelligence. Patterns can be established and acted upon. These include qualitative information such as the motivation for travel and numerical data like the booking date, along with personal information from birthdates to primary language and marital status. Trawling through all of this and coming up with valuable insights for travel agencies can be a daunting task, but intelligent algorithms can analyse them with ease.
In theory, having access to all of this data and the power to analyse it should give travel brands actionable insights into the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and information on how to target certain demographics. It can also be part of an automated system that's programmed to do certain things independently throughout the booking process and beyond. Let's take a closer look.
A recent report from Skift, titled 'The hotel industry's automated future', outlines the role that AI could play throughout the customer journey with hotels and travel platforms.
To begin with, there's marketing and outreach. With huge amounts of data on previous customers and travel trends, AI can easily spot patterns in booking behaviours and highlight how and why certain demographics book the trips they do.
This information can allow travel companies to tailor their outreach going forward, for example by going through a specific customer’s preferred digital platform with messages that have been proven to resonate in the past. There are obvious benefits to taking this kind of targeted approach. Instead of trying to appeal to the majority or flying blindly with broad marketing and outreach campaigns, travel brands can save time and resources by working smarter.
If automated, this kind of outreach could target a customer that booked a trip in May last year through a tablet in response to an email offering a discount. That same sequence of events can be set in motion once again, automatically, making the same end result far more likely.
It goes without saying that this will save travel brands time and money on big marketing campaigns and instead shifts the focus of their efforts toward each individual.
If this all sounds a bit heartless and devoid of genuine connection between travel provider and traveller, the key takeaway from the report is that AI combined with a human touch offers the best of both worlds. An example of this would be upsells offered to guests during the check-in process at a hotel. Armed with data saying that a family of four is arriving and has previously booked adventure activities, a hotel receptionist can offer trips nearby that fit the mould. These personal touches are based on data gathered prior to the meeting but come across as genuine, enhanced customer service.
Cendyn chief sales and marketing officer Tim Sullivan points out the following: Brands offering upsells and extras en masse to potential customers could be alienating them before a booking has even been made. Why are you offering a childcare discount to a young couple on a romantic holiday? “AI doesn’t mean humans can be totally hands off,” says Sullivan. “The promise of this technology is about man/machine symbiosis. Using the massive computational power of artificial intelligence to enable humans to be more efficient, productive, and insightful."
We can't have a conversation about AI in the travel industry without considering the way it could impact customer service in the near future. Marketing is one thing, but is it realistic to expect complex interactions to take place between traveller and computer in a travel setting?
The short answer is yes. Smart personal assistants such as Microsoft's Cortana and Apple's Siri are growing in popularity. And they are doing so because they work. They offer insightful and relevant information, more often than not directly related to your query. In a travel setting this kind of assistance can be convenient and vital, whether you're looking for directions, restaurant recommendations or things to do nearby.
Did you know there's a hotel in Japan that is fully-staffed by smart robots? In theory, from check-in to room service, AI-powered machines could take care of the menial tasks, leaving humans to offer more bespoke and personalised customer service than ever before.
The obvious advantage that AI can bring to customer service is the notion that intelligent computers will be able to predict what you want before you want it. They can then ensure that a.) it's ready for when you eventually request it, or b.) make it available before you even ask. This could apply to anything from towels to train tickets.
CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. Could the power of AI boost loyalty for travel brands? Well, if we combine elements of the two areas we've covered so far, marketing and customer service, it quickly becomes clear that the answer is yes.
Customer Relationship Management, at least in the travel industry, is all about data. To develop long-lasting relationships with clients and travellers, tourism operators need to know as much information as possible about customers. This data could cover everything from their age, gender and dining preferences to their interests and profession.
All of this information can be used during a customer's trip to keep service at extraordinary levels, as well as being applied between bookings to lure travellers back in the right way. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to make this possible with a few simple clicks with a mouse. CRM managers will have never had it so good!
AI promises to bring to light valuable insights and patterns that travel operators will never have had before. This, in theory, should lead to improved customer service, better quality marketing and a boost in loyalty to brands who apply this wave of information in the right way.
With great personal data comes great responsibility. Travel operators will need to find the right balance between predicting and tracking customer behaviour in a way that makes their experience more positive on the one hand, and coming across as digital stalkers obsessing over tiny details of irrelevant information. They key will be in how things are presented. Sure, a hotel guest might be interested in a return visit to the spa for a discounted price. But they won't want to be reminded at what exact time they visited before, or how long they stayed in the jacuzzi for.