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These Robots Have Serious Travel Industry Potential

Ah, robots. We meet again. For an industry so reliant on customer service and authenticity, you’d think travel companies would steer clear of employing too many non-human workers.

But no, the race to innovate never stops. Particularly when adaptable robots can provide easy customer service, free labour and, in some cases, an extra security measure.

Here are three travel industry robot stories that have caught our eye in the past few months.

Meet Eurostar’s newest recruit: Pepper the robot

Eurostar is deploying Pepper robots to help with customer service on train platforms

If you’ve ever dared to venture out into the world and use the trains in a major city, you’ll know how easy it is for your well-organised plans to be derailed. Particularly if you’re planning to travel between countries in Europe.

Racing to get to the train on platform 3, travellers can often realise too late that a grave mistake has been made. Platform 3 does not have the train they thought it did. If only things could be made easier. If only things could be more accessible.

Well, high-speed rail operator Eurostar is aiming to make that a reality. The solution? Robots.

When we talk about robots, it’s easy to think about a huge warehouse. Thousands of machines crammed in doing the same monotonous task over and over again. On the plus side, they never need to stop for a toilet break. On the downside, they’re not known for their people skills.  

Few robots are known for their approachable personalities. Most are more likely to calculate the chances of you having a good morning than say ‘good morning’.

Eurostar is aiming to break that stigma with Pepper, a humanoid robot made by SoftBank robotics.

Read more: Report Digs in to Travel Technology Trends for 2018

Pepper enters the fray

The train company, which connects the UK to cities in mainland Europe, is introducing Pepper to give travellers information and assistance.    

London’s St Pancras is the first station to host the new Eurostar scheme. Pepper will give information on train times, platforms, prices, and more. Eurostar hopes that technology on platforms will improve their customers’ experience.

A customer service agent that’s always happy to serve?

Pepper has an in-built tablet that lets customers access an interactive map of St Pancras station to more easily find their platform. It also includes train-specific information to give customers an idea of what’s to come on their Eurostar service.

Pepper uses a camera, microphone and no small amount of computing power to help it understand different facial expressions, speech and even body language. The ability to adapt to your behaviour could enable Pepper to respond to even the trickiest of customer situations. And if you for some reason are not in a rush you can even take a selfie with Eurostar’s new recruit.

For many travellers, the idea of getting journey information and advice from a robot might be a strange one. But the European rail giant believes this is a step that will raise the bar for customer satisfaction, as well as providing customers with young children extra entertainment on the platform.

Eurostar’s head of digital, Perrine Allain, said, “We are always looking for new ways to innovate, and explore technologies that can help enhance the overall customer experience.

“Pepper offers a fun way for customers to find out more about their journey and destination, and we look forward to hearing the feedback from our customers so that we can continue to improve their experience.”

Eurostar is launching the Pepper pilot at St Pancras to begin with. The company has confirmed plans to move the robot to another of their destinations in the new year.

Read more: Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Travel Industry Forever

Robot security guard to patrol Tokyo station for Olympic Games

A robot security guard ready for the tokyo olympics

Another robotic train station assistant has been unveiled – this time in Japan’s capital of Tokyo. But this one is focused on security rather than customer service.

Perseusbot is the joint creation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute, Seibu Railway Co, IT firm Nihon Unisy, and AI computer vision developer, Earth Eyes. The robot is due to join Japanese railway staff in 2020 for the Olympic and Paralympic games.

The project is being implemented to help preserve the peace and ease the burden on security staff during what will be a busy time for Japan’s capital.

With terror attacks on the rise around the world and tensions heightened at large-scale public events, Perseusbot will form part of additional security measures at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Read more: How to Choose a Travel Marketplace Niche

A robot to protect and serve

Perseusbot is 167.5 centimetres tall. Its aim will be to assist railway staff once the games begin. The robot will patrol station platforms and combine security camera footage with an onboard AI to detect and report suspicious people or objects.

Perseusbot will also send alerts to the smartphones of security guards. It’s being trained to recognise items that have been left unattended and aggressive movements made by travellers.

Earth Eye’s AI technology has been used in the past to spot shoplifters. The company website explains how the technology can be used alongside video feeds as a security measure, to “detect and notify suspicious behaviour as soon as possible… it shows the deterrent effect of preventing crime in advance.”

The team responsible for the robot will need to be careful that prejudice and bias don’t infect the AI’s training data. We’ve seen that happen before, most notably with Microsoft’s ‘Tay’ – arguably the most dramatic example of AI gone bad.

The bot was connected to social network Twitter to learn through conversation with the public in order to learn from its interactions. However, it ended up being taken down after a number of inappropriate tweets.

Clearly, Tay lacked the neutral input required for its training data and was quickly shut down by an embarrassed Microsoft. With Perseusbot the risks are higher.

This is the real world and the diplomatic costs of racial profiling, for example, could be significant. If the system is predicated on biased training data, the AI  could pick up some bad habits and do more harm than good in 2020.

Alibaba’s Space Egg steps up to the plate

alibaba space egg for hotel room service

Alibaba is also entering the domain of robot customer service. But this time our mechanical friends won’t be assisting travellers in a train station, they’ll be rolling around hotel corridors instead.

Alibaba’s ‘Space Egg’ offers a glimpse into the future, one in which human porters are obsolete and replaced by indefatigable AI-powered robot servants. The Space Egg was revealed in mid-September in Hangzhou, China before being put to work in October at a hotel in the same city.

On the face of it, the Space Egg has been designed to replace traditional porters and represents the latest step in the hotel industry’s bid to automate roles previously occupied by human workers.

But Alibaba says the robot can take over menial tasks, trundling room service from the kitchen to guests’ bedrooms, for example, allowing staff more time to spend on keeping guests happy.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

The Space Egg works by connecting to the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, the kitchen and a dynamic ordering system. It receives an order from a smart device found in each guest’s room.

The robot then knows where to collect it from – usually the kitchen – and how to navigate around the hotel. The Space Egg uses built-in directional lasers to communicate its intentions and moves around while avoiding obstacles and people. It can even tap into the hotel’s Wi-Fi network to open elevators, and has facial recognition software that enables it to make small talk with travellers.

The rollout promises to take the jobs of low-skilled hotel staff, which could, in turn, maximise the profits of hotels and improve efficiency – something that’s been the driving force behind projects like Japan’s Henn-Na, a hotel entirely staffed by robots.  

Lijuan Chen of Alibaba AI Labs stated that the robot will “bridge the gap between guest needs and the response time that they expect. The robot will be the ultimate assistant for hotel guests who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips.”

Final Thoughts

So there you have it: rail operators, hotels and transport authorities around the world are exploring how robots can improve and, in some cases, protect, the travel experience.

Which is an interesting concept. You’d normally associate brands like Eurostar and any traditional hotel with an appreciation of the value of human contact. It’s often the little things, the friendly words and small gestures, that make a trip memorable and help to instil that sense of loyalty.

But ultimately the benefits of robotics can’t be overlooked. Whether that’s in terms of performance: a robot that can recognise crowd safety issues in a flash; or through relentless drive: the ability the provide customer service and intra-hotel delivery without sleep, food or pay.

Perhaps the wave of travel industry robots is just a matter of time.

Why the World Cup is a Unique Travel Industry Event

Ah, the World Cup. It only comes around every 4 years and is always over far too soon. This summer’s tournament is no different, with 32 national teams from around the world heading to Russia to compete in beautiful game’s greatest spectacle.

Like so many international sporting events, the World Cup brings together people and cultures that wouldn’t normally mix. It’s a festival atmosphere that somehow manages to drag everything into the mix. That explains why there are various sponsors from all over the world – including an ‘official beer partner’ – and every conceivable brand is seeking to get involved with the action.

This World Cup’s FIFA Partners include Adidas, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai/KIA, Qatar Airways and VISA. But aside from the huge multinationals, individual nations are also looking for ways to boost tourism as a result of the tournament.

Travel Industry Stories From the FIFA World Cup 2018

As we reach the end of the group stage and discover which countries will be facing off in the first knockout rounds, it feels like as good a time as any to look at how travel industry players are making the most of World Cup.

Here are a few examples.

Russia, Obviously

As the host nation, Russia has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of football fans from all over the world.

In fact, more than 1.5 million foreign tourists are expected to visit Russia during the World Cup, the head of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, Oleg Safonov, said.

“We believe that about 1.5 million people will visit us. The figure may be even revised upward,” he said.

Eleven Russian cities are hosting matches throughout the tournament: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg and Sochi. The host nation hopes that, contrary to Russia’s international reputation, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will have a long-term positive effect on Russia’s tourism industry.

moscow, russia - how is the fifa world cup impacting the travel industry

It’s too early to say what the long-term benefits will be to Russia, but it’s likely that cities including Moscow and St. Petersburg  – currently the main fan hubs – will see increased numbers of tourists following the positive experience of many international visitors. Market research company Euromonitor believes the World Cup could put Russia on the map for more tourists after the tournament ends.

“The number of inbound arrivals in Russia is expected to record a compound annual growth rate of 4 percent by 2022, reaching 37.5 million trips,” Euromonitor’s sports industry manager Alan Rownan said. In fact, Euromonitor forecast a 1.4 percent increase in the number of total arrivals to Russia in 2018.

“However, negative factors, such as lack of mid-tier accommodation facilities, safety concerns, relatively high visiting costs and burdensome visa regulations for non-ticket holders will have an impact on the incoming tourist flows,” said Rownan. “Furthermore, the recent political tension between Russia and UK is also likely to undermine tourist flows from the latter.”

Given the billions of dollars Russia has spent preparing to host the tournament with infrastructure investments, it’s unlikely that those funds will be reimbursed overnight or even within a matter of years. The World Cup is being framed by Putin as a longer-term project to improve facilities in the country, not to mention the international prestige that comes with hosting.

There have been fears that foreigners have been put off making the trip for a variety of reasons. These range from strained diplomatic ties between Russia and the West, to threats of football hooliganism and discrimination against minorities.

But speaking to Skift, Varvara Topolyanskaya, general manager of Australian Russia tour operator Discovery Russia, said the World Cup is a chance for fears and doubts to be eased and reputations to be restored.

Her company is bringing more than 1,000 travellers to the World Cup.  “We’re hoping for a completely different image of the country after people watch the matches on TV,” said Topolyanskaya. “We’re always asking our clients of their first impression of Russia and the number one response we get is that Russian people are so friendly.”

She added: “I think we have a lot of brainwashing right now in the media on what Russia is like, but that’s not what Russia is.”

Beyond the Hosts – A Chance for Smaller Nations to Build a Reputation

One of the best things about the World Cup is the platform it gives smaller nations to make a name for themselves.

At Euro 2016, for example, the Iceland football team captured the imaginations of people around the world – both on the pitch and off it. As well as making it through the group stage and beating England in the last 16, the team’s fans became famous in France for their passionate support.

The easiest way to understand is to watch the video above.

Sure, the ‘ThunderClap’ doesn’t directly make Iceland a more appealing destination. But its popularity says something about the nation to the wider world: that despite being the smallest country in terms of population at the World Cup, it’s going to have its say no matter what.

In fact, according to Bloomberg, Iceland’s tourism industry is expecting its football team to drive further interest in the country’s tourism industry.

Which is handy, because by Icelandic standards the country’s tourism boom has plateaued…

tourism and the world cup

However, the chance to shine on the global stage is an opportunity to bring back some spark. “Iceland is stepping on the big stage this summer,” said Skapti Orn Olafsson, a spokesman for the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, so “we surely have a clear shot on goal to use the attention in a positive way.”
No puns intended, of course.
Yet there is real hope that an injection of footballing interest in Iceland will stretch beyond the smallest nation in the tournament becoming many fans’ second team. It could drive more visitors, too.
On the flip side, it might turn out that the appreciation of the Icelandic krona (it has strengthened by more than 40 percent against the euro since 2009) – one factor thought to be contributing to the slowdown in growth – is a blessing in disguise. Although it has turned Iceland into the most expensive tourist destination in the world and led to Landsbankinn to declare that “the tourism boom is over,” there have been worries about the sustainability of Iceland’s tourism growth.

An Influx of Chinese Tourists

Anyone working in the travel industry will know how lucrative it can be to tap into the Asian markets. Across the continent, there is a real demand for international travel experiences – no more so than in China.

Incredibly for a country whose team hasn’t even made it to this summer’s World Cup Finals, it’s expected that more than 100,000 Chinese tourists will make the trip to Russia.

Interestingly, Russia is becoming a magnet of sorts for Chinese holidaymakers, so it’s no surprise that they are flocking in to watch the football.

According to data released by Trip Advisor, the number of Chinese tourists between January and May increased by 38 percent year on year.  Data collected by Ctrip suggests that, for example, two-leg tours to Moscow and St. Petersburg over the summer have seen a month-on-month increase of over 100 percent. The conclusion: It seems as though the Chinese are coming for the football and making a vacation of it.

And Don’t Forget India

Another football-mad country that failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament is India. According to the India Times, wealthy Indians will be heading to the World Cup in huge numbers, despite a spike in airfares and hotel rates.

According to the piece, the relative proximity of Russia makes it an ideal starting point for a summer trip of famous sporting events, from the World Cup to the Wimbledon Championships.

“We have seen an increase in people travelling to Russia during this period. Airfares and hotel rates have definitely gone up by at least 20% due to increase in demand for the World Cup, but this hasn’t dampened demand,” said Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings, one of India’s oldest travel agents.

“We have also seen a 10% increase in last-minute bookings to Russia, and expect this to continue, and even peak closer to the final stages of the tournament.”

The Other Side of the World Cup from a Tourism Perspective

It seems obvious to say but we will say it anyway: If the World Cup is drawing travellers to Russia in huge numbers, surely there are other destinations missing out?

That appears to be the case, at least in the Seychelles.

seychelles tourism hit by weak russian ruble and fifa world cup 2018

The archipelago in the western Indian Ocean is a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Among the country’s most common visitors are Russians. However, the Seychelles has seen just a two percent rise in inbound tourists for the first half of the year. The boss of the Seychelles Tourism Board, Sherin Francis, has said that the figure is below what the country was predicting.

One huge part of that is the fact that the number of Russians coming for the summer has dropped by a huge 18 percent compared to the same period last year. Francis believes that the FIFA World Cup is partly responsible: Many Russians are no doubt staying at home to enjoy the party and choosing to travel around their own country instead.

The value of the Russian ruble has also dropped in recent times, making travel abroad more difficult for the Russian market. Both of these conditions “are not favourable for prompt recovery of this market,” she said.

“Four years ago, we had only one percent increase and this year we see ourselves faced with a similar situation. Russians are travelling within Russia to watch the matches as the event is taking place in their country. We also see other potential visitors from Europe as well as other markets travelling to Russia to support their teams,” said Francis.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. The World Cup is a unique travel industry event that causes some obvious tourism shifts, as well as some unexpected ones.