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IBM and Travelport want to Revolutionise Corporate Travel With AI

For businesses who regularly send employees away from the office to work with clients or abroad for meetings and conferences, the cost of corporate travel can be significant. Particularly when trips and accommodation are often organised at the last minute, and those tasked with doing so have to source information from a range of different sources.

Travel commerce platform Travelport and technology giant IBM have together launched IBM Travel Manager, an industry-first AI platform designed to help businesses manage corporate travel spend and take the guesswork out of organising travel.   

IBM Watson tracks and manages travel costs

So how does it work?

IBM Travel Manager is operated through IBM Cloud. The platform harnesses IBM’s resident AI, Watson, to intelligently track, manage, predict and analyze travel costs in one place.

In a bold statement, Travelport and IBM claim that their new capability will “fundamentally change how companies manage and optimize their travel programs.”

Annual global business travel spends are expected to hit beyond $1.2 trillion this year according to the Global Business Travel Association. With numbers like that, it’s easy to see what kind of impact a disruptive corporate travel solution could have.

It also means corporate travel managers are always looking for innovative ways to reduce costs.

Currently for businesses to get a full picture of travel patterns, a travel manager might have to sift through data from various travel agencies, cards, expense systems and suppliers. It’s the only realistic way to get a full understanding of spend and compliance.

However, the important part here is that this process usually happens after the fact, from a historical view rather than in real time.

Read more: Gap in the Market Volume 8: Corporate Travel

Using AI to Analyse corporate travel data in real time

The new platform features advanced artificial intelligence that combines cognitive computing with predictive data analytics. IBM says the technology uses “what-if”, hypothetical scenarios with integrated travel and expense data “to help travel management teams, procurement category managers, business units, finance and human resource departments optimize their travel program, control spend and enhance the end-traveler experience.”

In English, that means the new platform uses IBM Watson to gather travel data and cost information from a variety of sources, before analysing the most cost-effective outcome, assessing the bigger picture and making sure corporate travel managers book the right things at the right time.

IBM Travel Manager gives users complete, unified access to previous siloed information. But the real power of this platform potentially comes from the integration of travel data from the Travelport global distribution system (GDS). Together they offer real-time predictive analytics, recommending how adjustments in travel booking behavior patterns can positively impact a company’s travel budget.

“IBM Travel Manager, with Travelport’s data, is unlike any traditional travel spend reporting solution currently available today from travel management companies, suppliers, corporate booking tools or other third parties,” said Fiona Shanley, Travelport’s Chief Customer and Marketing Officer.

Read more: The Trump Effect is Real: US Travel Industry Slump in Numbers

“While other solutions only provide a fragmented historical picture, IBM Travel Manager combines and normalizes data from all key sources, allowing for more robust insights and benchmarking than other reporting solutions.”

“IBM and Travelport are using the power of AI to unlock previously unavailable insights from multiple internal and external data sources. Travel managers can use this information to proactively drive improved supplier negotiations via real time and holistic data, enable budget holders to understand and change spending patterns, and improve travel policy compliance monitoring,” said Elizabeth Pollock, IBM Industry Client Leader for Travel & Transportation.

So how will businesses find working with IBM Travel Manager? So far we know that it will feature “an interactive and intuitive dashboard that offers end-to-end visibility of travel spending, the ability to create alerts and notifications, predictive and pre-defined spending trend analysis, and natural language understanding to analyze text and uncover insights from structured and unstructured data.”

The product is expected to be commercially available to customers around the world through both IBM and Travelport.

Read more: Report Digs into Travel Technology Trends for 2018

Another tech giant enters the travel industry

We’ve written plenty about how Google has been slowly moving into the travel industry. Given the influence the company has over search results and new technologies that are changing the way we travel, from translation services to virtual assistants, the company’s potential impact shouldn’t be underestimated.

IBM’s partnership with Travelport – whose own travel commerce platform provides distribution, technology, payment and other solutions for the global travel and tourism industry – is another example of technology giants moving into the lucrative travel market.

The application of AI – and importantly the reams of data it will have access to through Travelport’s GDS – should give business travel managers more insight than ever before and empower them to make more cost-effective decisions.

There were other announcements in the corporate travel sector this week, including partnerships between a variety of travel management companies, global distribution systems, and airlines. American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, for example, are teaming up with Sabre and Amadeus on various initiatives.

Report Digs in to Travel Technology Trends for 2018

Technology is already changing every aspect of travel.

Tourism no longer starts with a trip to a physical travel agent, but through a search engine or social media platform. Research and bookings are now almost exclusively carried out online. We’re even starting to move beyond booking through conventional computers and towards the convenience of smartphones and other mobile devices.

And that’s before a trip has even started. That’s not even encompassing the travel part of travel, or everything that’s going on behind the scenes that travel companies are working on to make every part of the experience smoother, safer and more reliable.

Changing the way we OTAs interact with customers

Chief among these transformations is the way that technology has changed the way companies interact with their customers – something that isn’t exclusive to travel of course.

In part that’s because travel companies are working hard to meet their customers’ evolving expectations. But it’s also the case that different technologies are helping to take operational efficiencies to the next level (which is conveniently where our own software solution comes in).

‘Customer interactions’ is a pretty broad term. We can take it to mean any point in the travel experience that companies and their products or service come into contact with travellers.

Here are a few ways that 2018’s technology trends are going to shape those interactions.

So what types of technology look set to change the travel landscape in 2018?

According to a report from GlobalData – ‘Technology Trends in Travel & Tourism’ – there are six foundational trends that look set to keep travellers engaged, informed, enthused and loyal over the next 12 months.

The headline statement is that travel remains an industry reliant on authenticity, from trips themselves to the human interactions that shape them.

Elena Mogoş, an Associate Analyst for Digital Travel & Tourism at GlobalData, said, “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 on the back of travel and tourism companies’ minds when investing in technology.”

So let’s delve into these trends and talk about why they are so important.

Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR)

Read more – Survey: Virtual Reality Tech Not a Threat to Travel Industry (Yet)

First up are the closely associated technologies of Virtual and Augmented reality. Both of these are a good example of technology being adapted to fit a problem, rather than being developed specifically to fix one.

There’s no doubt that the ability to overlay images onto our view of the world is an exciting one. The same goes for being able to step into another world entirely using VR. But figuring out useful ways to apply these to travel industry problems has been a challenge for travel companies.

but we’re getting there. In the past few years AR and VR adoption in travel has slowly been on the rise. As the technologies develop, there’s no reason why that trend won’t continue.

Currently, AR and VR are mainly used for marketing purposes. Because travel choices are driven by our perceptions and are always visually orientated, immersive VR and AR content marketing is the most obvious application. That’s including showing off hotel rooms in advance, taking a virtual walk through a ski resort before booking or even exploring whole national parks from your own home.

These are niche applications in VR might help boost ticket sales and booking numbers, but there’s no reason to think that these technologies will revolutionise the travel experience in the same way that, say, wearables could and will.

The one argument would be that eventually, VR will become so realistic that travel is rendered obsolete. But that’s an awfully long way off, both in terms of the technology and in terms of the authenticity travellers are always striving to achieve.

Augmented reality, when combined with wearables, could have many more practical applications for travellers. To an extent, Google’s translation of text is already an example of that. It’s easy to imagine smartphones becoming a platform for more of these kinds of uses. Live translation is one, but what about augmented directions, opening times and closing times overlaid onto your view of the world as you walk past a restaurant, or tourist information that pops up on your smart glasses as you wander through a historical site?

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Artificial Intelligence is probably the biggest buzz word in the world of tech. It’s thrown around all the time by companies wanting to appear on the cutting edge, even if most people struggle to define what it really means.

But, t give credit where it is due, AI is behind many evolving technologies and innovations in the travel and tourism sector.

We can subdivide AI into a few categories to get a better idea of how it’s being applied in travel. The first is machine learning, which can be applied to all sorts of things to automate tedious processes and speed up bookings, check-ins, customer service and more.

Read more: Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Travel Industry Forever

AI promises to speed up processing times, make fewer mistakes than humans and decrease costs for travel companies. Good examples of that might be automatic recommendations based on where you’re flight is heading or what hotel you are staying in, dynamic pricing systems that react to the market or sentiment analysis on social media.

Aside from those kinds of intelligent, automated systems, two other aspects of AI being applied in travel are robotics and virtual assistants.

Robot concierge and check-in services are a little creepy, but they definitely represent a potential future. Given that hotel chains are always looking to cut costs and provide a more efficient service, robotic room service might not be so far away.

The real potential though, lies in virtual assistants. Home assistants from Google, Amazon and Microsoft are growing in popularity. Taking them with us on our travels is the next logical step, one that’s made easy by their easy integration with smartphones.

These virtual assistants could also end up being the link between us and many of the other technological trends listed here. Perhaps they could one day make booking decisions, search for the cheapest flights, control our wearables, optimise our journeys and more.

Read more: Are Robots the Future of the Travel Industry?

Internet of Things (IoT)

The burgeoning Internet of Things is a phrase used to describe a world connected devices, where sensors, computers and systems are increasingly integrated, operating with minimal supervision and generally making things better and efficient place.

IoT technology encapsulates many of the technologies on this list, from robotics to smart assistants to VR.

But at its foundation IoT is about connecting devices to networks in a way that previously hasn’t been possible. One great example is Lufthansa’s smart baggage tracking solution. With a few connected tags, passengers can track their baggage via a link found on their mobile boarding pass in the Lufthansa app.

All of the stress and confusion that comes with lost luggage, gone.

Voice Technology

Read more: The Growing Influence of Voice Tech in the Travel Industry

We’ve written before on the emerging influence of voice search and voice-enabled assistants in the world of travel. As well as being a novel way to get help on the go, voice tech will also soon shape our lives outside of travel.

Intrinsically linked to the rise of virtual assistants, voice tech could shape the way we interact with the Internet of Things in the future. Our voices will always be a more convenient and effective way to communicate with machines, devices and, of course, travel agencies. It’s just a case of making those receptacles smart enough to understand and engage with the quirks of natural language.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that more and more hotels have started experimenting with voice-activated devices. Among them are W Austin of Marriott International, Kimpton Alexis Hotel, and Westin Buffalo.

Wi-Fi connectivity

It’s certainly not the most advanced technology on our list, but Wi-Fi connectivity is fast becoming a must for travellers – even those in search of remote adventure still want to be connected to home and social media.

Wi-Fi is also the foundation that allows travellers to connect to other useful technologies, whether that’s voice searching Google maps for a nearby site, getting directions or translating a menu.

Until 5G comes along and takes the travel experience to a whole new connected dimension, Wi-Fi is the way forward.

Wearable devices

Read more: How the Travel Industry is Using Wearable Technology

Wearable technology is yet another way that travel companies can streamline and improve the experience of their customers.

On the one hand, RFID tags allow companies from Disney to cruise liners to personalise customers’ experience. For example, connected bands can be used on theme park infrastructure, hotel rooms and as payment devices. That kind of deployment can lead to lower waiting times, while tracking guests’ locations and activities to enable smarter decision making.

We’ve also seen the evolution of smartwatches from the likes of Apple and Fitbit – as well as being fitness and GPS trackers, many of these devices can run applications to help travellers on the go.

And finally, there are smart headphones, which could completely turn the travel experience on its head. When merged with voice assistants, smart headphones offer real-time translation, like that of Google’s Pixel Buds.

Some of these wearables have the potential to revolutionise the way we travel, while also posing a threat to the authenticity of that experience. Tools that can translate a foreign language in real time are groundbreaking – but how far will we allow technology to creep into those magical moments that make travel so memorable?

Technology trends in 2018

It’s clear that 2018 has plenty of promise for travel technology. From artificial intelligence to the rise of voice search and travel wearables, the industry is ready to embrace all of the latest gadgets and trends to keep customers happy, loyal and streamline services.

Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Travel Industry Forever

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.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

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.

The hotel industry’s automated future

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.”

Customer service, revolutionised

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.

Is AI and artificial intelligence going to benefit travel?

If the bartender knows what drink you’re going to order before you’ve even arrived, is that wonderful or creepy?

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.

Smarter CRM

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.

There is a wrong way to harness AI

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.

Disruption in the Travel Industry: Seven Trends Worth Keeping an Eye On

Plenty is going on in the world of technology at the moment, and it’s only logical to assume that much of this will have some, if not a huge impact on the travel industry. Tech trends are already changing customer behaviour and expectations, and over the next decade or so these effects are only going to grow more pronounced. With a little help from a recent London School of Economics report into the future of travel distribution, this week we’re going to delve into what’s causing disruption in the travel industry…

Disruption in the travel industry

First of all, let’s take a look at seven disruptive factors outlined in the report, which are all set to increasingly influence travel sales across the next decade.

Disruptive factors in the travel industry – Now and in the near future

The way that customers make travel bookings is facing a range of disruptions, and it goes without saying that agencies are going to have to re-examine their business models if they want to stay ahead of the game. The LSE report identified five major disruptive factors. These are:

Changing traveller expectations

Consumer expectations have changed dramatically in recent years. ‘Change’ might even be the wrong word. Expectations have grown. Advances in technology, the proliferation of social media and the increasing ease with which goods and services can be purchased online, have all made the travel industry more dynamic and high pressure. Agencies are fighting to attract customers suddenly exposed to a huge amount of choice, and frictionless purchasing, inspiration, and personalised services are now all becoming the norm. If this isn’t going to change the way travel agencies do business, we don’t know what will.

An upsurge in mobile

The portability and increasing ease with which users can research and book trips on the go is causing a huge change in the way travellers interact with the industry. On top of that, it’s driving demand for 24-7 bookings and customer service. Mobile is also seeing significant growth in emerging markets, where it’s fast becoming the way to book over more traditional methods.

Big data and Artificial Intelligence

The huge amount of customer data at the disposal of travel agencies is allowing for more in-depth predictions and behavioural analytics than ever before. Not only that, modern-day computing power is also developing to deal with traveller requests in real time. Intelligent virtual assistants are increasingly being integrated into mobile devices and messaging apps, making truly on-demand service a genuine reality, not to mention a key driver of disruption in the travel industry.

Regulations

It goes without saying that regulators and governments have the power to influence the way the travel industry works. Whether it’s through enforcing laws on competition to restrict the burgeoning power of the sharing economy, or dealing with huge search engines that effectively control the flow of information. Over the course of the next ten years, the extent to which regulators intervene and limit the dominance of huge airline carriers and mega online travel agencies (OTAs) will be hugely important to the chances of success for smaller startups.

Risk and uncertainty

Terrorism and disruption in the travel industry

Security in Paris during Euro 2016

It’s no secret that traveller behaviour and ultimately bookings are impacted by wider global events. These include natural disasters, terror threats or attacks, and currency fluctuations. For a look at how politics affects the travel industry you only need to look at the fallout from Brexit or the recent terror attacks in Paris. Although risk and uncertainty are among the most difficult-to-predict trends in travel, what we can say for sure is that certain destinations will continue to be affected. North African hotspots such as Egypt and Tunisia have both been hit hard by terror attacks in recent years, while political crises in Turkey has cast doubt over the safety of another usually popular destination. As a result, we may see demand rise in traditional low-risk destinations, as well as a boom in staycations.

Virtual Reality and Robotics

How will virtual reality cause disruption in the travel industry

It might sound like a case of technology interfering where it has no business, but it turns out that virtual reality and robotics could have a big part to play when it comes to disruption in the travel industry over the coming years. Virtual reality is allowing agencies to effectively transport potential customers to their destination of choice, take guided tours of hotels from thousands of miles away, and immerse themselves in prospective accommodation. Robotics, on the other hand, is heralding in the dawn of a new age of customer service. When robotic tourism assistants can speak multiple languages and have access to all the information a tourist could possibly want, where will that leave traditional staff?

The Sharing Economy

It looks like the sharing economy is here to stay. If anything, traditional travel agencies are going to need to accept further losses in revenue to individuals taking the power of travel into their own hands. Startups that successfully integrate the sharing economy into their products and customer propositions will be able to get on board and ride the same wave in the coming years.

Disruption in the Travel Industry: The Continued Rise of the Gatekeepers

Something we touched on in the previous section was the rise of the Gatekeepers, the tech and industry giants that have and will continue to dominate search traffic and customer targeting online.

This trend, if left unchecked, will continue to play into the hands of the big players and those that work with them in the years to come. There are two ways that tech giants’ domination and continued growth will impact the travel industry. First of all, we’ve got the development of virtual assistants. We all know that virtual assistants have the potential to make the travel booking process easier for customers. Search times will be reduced and bookings will be more personalised. This in turn will be perpetuated by the huge amount of customer data that the tech giants will have. More data means smarter suggestions, more targeted advertising and a better experience for the customer in the long run.

It’s also likely that bookings will become more intertwined with social media sites. We already search for second opinions and share holiday snaps like they’re going out of fashion, so it’s only a matter of time before travel services become increasingly integrated with instant messaging and social platforms.

With tech giants such as Google and Facebook having so much power in terms of directing traffic, targeted advertising and data collection, airlines, hotels and travel agents are going to have to work harder than ever before, possibly seeking collaboration with peers or even with the big players themselves. New business models will need to be explored, and working with, instead of against, the gatekeepers may be the best way forward for ambitious startups.

Build a travel marketplace that can stand the test of time

In case you didn’t know already, here at Travelshift we build travel marketplace software that takes ambitious startups to the next level. Our custom-built solution allows you to setup a travel marketplace capable of dominating your chosen niche. All you have to do is aggregate suppliers and bring in potential customers.

That might sound pretty simple. Well, that’s because with Travelshift it really is. Our marketplaces are community driven. This means that you can harness the power of a passionate traveller community to produce and publicise truly engaging content that attracts your target customers. On top of that, our host of proprietary SEO features helps you rapidly grow a marketplace that’s discoverable, scalable and ready to take on big competitors from day one.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our software solution, get in touch today.

Are Robots the Future of the Travel Industry?

Robots travel industry future

There are a few cliches in the world of travel. Service with a smile is one of them. The customer is always right is another. But what if the day comes when robots undermine all of these go-to phrases? What happens when customer service is turned on its head, and instead of a person falsely smiling behind a desk, a robot is sitting there with a blank expression? And the customer won’t be able to always be right, because robots won’t be in a position to empathise and anyway, to my knowledge, don’t make mistakes unless they’re programmed to…

Read more