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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.

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.

5 Technology Trends Transforming the Travel Industry

robots in the japan travel industry

Over the past few months we’ve published several articles on the relationship between technology and the tourism industry. There’s plenty happening. And so many things to be excited about and hopeful for. We thought it would be a good idea to aggregate all of these things into one handy blog post. So here you have it, 5 ways that technology is set to transform the travel industry…

Read more