You may not have noticed but 2015 was a tipping point. It was the year that the number of people using messenger apps, such as WhatsApp and China’s WeChat, overtook the number of people using networking apps, such as Facebook and Twitter.
They are also being used extensively, with the average time spent on such messaging apps already 50 minutes per day. However, among younger generations, the use of messaging apps is far higher than older generations and millennials are spending far more time than this average.
By the third quarter of 2016, China’s WeChat (known as Weixin in the country) had nearly 850 million monthly active users. Yet it is what these users are doing within the app that is of most interest. In the world of travel, users can check into flights on Air Asia, control a smart hotel room at Caesar’s LINQ Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, manage their IHG Rewards Club account or book and pay for a hotel room with Elong.
The large number of users of messaging platforms services has led to the rise of so-called bots, web-powered robots that automate many of the functions, enabling them to be delivered at scale. These bots are increasingly powered by clever artificial intelligence to ensure that the answers these bots give are correct but are delivered at the lowest possible cost.
Bots in travel
Providing customer service on messaging apps has proven to be a particular area of interest in the travel sector. In 2014, Air France become the first non-Chinese airline to start servicing customers via WeChat. Both Hyatt Hotels and KLM have launched customer service channels on Facebook Messenger
Thomas Sabatier, CEO of bot builder The Chatbot Factory, says a revolution is under way. “Conversational and artificial intelligence are making digital tools more human friendly. Natural language is the most natural interface for human being to communicate. We can bet that this is the final stage of digital democratisation. With chatbots, no-one will be able to say ‘I don’t know how to use a computer or a smartphone.’”
Expedia has also launched the first travel chatbot for Skype to connect a traveller to a call with an agent within the platform. This allows users to search for and make a hotel booking, or manage selected elements of travel bookings, including hotel or flight confirmations or flight cancellations. What is particularly powerful is the ability to speak to a travel consultant to handle anything that is beyond the bot’s current capabilities.
“In travel, chatbots are going to literally change the game,” says Thomas Sabatier. “When people travel on business, they expect a time-saving and smooth experience. A chatbot coupled with AI and data can overcome this challenge. In fact, people need assistance not only when booking their trip, but also when planning it. A chatbot (like a human) can understand and assist someone throughout the whole experience but since it is connected to contextual and transactional data it makes this tool more powerful than humans to provide a richer travel experience.”
The power of voice
Travel is also certain to be one of the most popular categories for the new wave of in-home AI assistants, such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. Voice is being tipped by many to be the next big thing in tech.
In November, Expedia announced the launch of a ‘skill’ for Alexa, Amazon’s voice-based AI service which will allow people who have booked trips through the company to explore their itineraries and get further details on elements of their trip.
At the Expedia Partner Conference at the end of 2016 in Las Vegas, Brand Expedia president Aman Bhutani said, “If you had asked someone 10 years ago would we book anything on mobile, we would have laughed. But now you can pay with voice. Different modes are coming together so that the way we interact is going to change.
“It is hard to tell when it will go from slowly to suddenly, but if you were to ask me chat vs voice, it’s voice and I see it evolving so that the next five years, we will be using a huge amount of voice. It will be an exponential change.”
Bots in business travel
While leisure travel appears to be enjoying being part of the bot revolution, it will take longer for the revolution to reach business travel – although it will come, says Egencia’s Senior Director, Product Marketing Jean-Noel Lau Keng Lun. Egencia is looking at its parent company’s experiences with interest to see how those learnings can be translated to the world of business travel.
“With Expedia where you are connecting your account with Alexa, you are accepting that you are sharing details from your personal Expedia personal account with your personal Amazon account. These are both accounts you own and you have a direct relationship with the vendor company through their terms and conditions,” he says.
“In managed travel, the account you have on the booking tool is usually not your own. To what extent would a company accept linking a corporate account to a public company? It is a matter of data privacy and some will, some will not.”
But once the privacy issues are addressed, there are few technical challenges.
“It is basically a matter of sharing trip data and some profile data. The technical element is even less complicated than in the business to consumer arena: in B2B you have a known user and you have every single piece of data and history sitting in one place,” says Jean-Noel.
One barrier will be the choice of interface.
In the past this was the consultant at the travel management company before moving on to a proprietary online interface, whether that is Egencia or an online booking tool.
The rapid adoption and massive reach of interfaces such as Amazon Echo and Facebook Messenger may mean that in the future, business travel booking will take place in one of those environments.
Are you, as a travel manager, ready to allow access to such services through their corporate firewalls? Probably not yet but as such services become more commonplace, consumer love for such ways of interacting will inevitably cross over into business travel. And when an AI bot can help you tweak travel policy and access travel program details by just asking your home-based Echo a question, that leap will not seem quite so large.