The use of voice technology facilitated by smart devices like Amazon's Echo is surging in popularity among consumers, and Omega World Travel is among the travel companies now entering the space.

The agency has already developed its first "skill," or capability, for the Echo, and it has an ambitious plan to roll out future iterations for use by agents and consumers alike.

In its most recent financial earnings report, Amazon said the Echo Dot, one of its smart speakers, all of which respond to the name "Alexa," was one of its best-selling products in 2017. Amazon said its customers bought "tens of millions of Echo devices last year." There are also more than 30,000 skills available to users.

Now, Omega is getting into the game. The company's first skill deals with duty-of-care information. But Nadim Hajje, Omega's vice president of information technology and data analytics, said future iterations of skills for the Echo are virtually limitless, and voice remains an area the company will continue to explore.

"The possibilities are endless for what you can do from the travel-related perspective," Hajje said.

Others in the agency community have also taken notice of the popularity of voice technology. For example, Cruise Planners last year released two Alexa skills -- one for consumers, with information about cruise lines and ships, and another for agents, which is linked to its back-office systems, enabling Alexa to quickly answer questions about topics such as payments.

Omega's first skill is not designed for consumers. Instead it is aimed at travel managers and Omega's own operations team for duty-of-care purposes. It draws from massive amounts of nearly real-time data that Omega previously made accessible to clients in the form of multiple searchable dashboards.

But instead of requiring a user to look up information manually, the skill enables team members to simply say, "Alexa, ask Omega" in order to access data points by voice.

The skill can be used to identify which cities travelers are in and how many travelers are in each city; the names of travelers in a particular city; and details about those travelers from their record locators, including what kind of travel is booked (air, hotel, car, rail, etc.) and details about that travel, such as departure and arrival times.

Finally, the skill can be used to search for travelers by vendor. For example, if a flight is disrupted, a travel manager can ask Alexa to ask Omega if any clients were on that particular flight.

"This is all instantaneous," Hajje said. "It's a matter of seconds to get that information."

The skill is in the process of getting approved by Amazon, Hajje said. When it is live, it will be sold on a subscription basis of $150 per person, per month to Omega's corporate customers, where travel managers and similar personnel may find it useful in quickly pulling traveler information.

Hajje said Omega decided to invest in voice technology partly because the mobile application landscape is so saturated today. Voice has presented a viable alternative and is picking up pace in consumer adoption and use.

"With how people are using voice internally in their households, I've seen what it can do and the opportunities it presents," he said. "It really opened up a whole new world for us."

In the future, skills developed by Omega could be consumer-facing or designed for leisure travel agents' use.

In Hajje's eyes, the world of travel-related Alexa skills is brimming with possibilities.

"What we built is really just scratching the surface," he said. "There are a lot of things that can be done later leveraging Alexa."

Omega will continue to develop more skills for Alexa, starting with one to determine key performance indicators. Then, Hajje said, he will likely look to develop a skill specifically for use by travelers, detailing their itineraries. Such a skill could include flight and hotel check-in capabilities.

Another possibility is enabling agents to use Alexa to send messages to traveling clients, perhaps ones who are on a flight that was disrupted. Echo users already have the option to call each other and leave voicemail, but that ability could be further focused for travel agents to reach groups of customers.

"Right now, we're looking at [voice] from a traveler-data perspective, but this has big implications on communications," Hajje said.

Omega will also likely develop similar capabilities for Google Home, a rival digital assistant, late this year or in 2019.

"First, we want to make sure that we get the traction that we're expecting out of this," Hajje said.

Amazon's Echo was Hajje's first choice of platform because it is more mainstream than its competitors, like Google Home or Apple's newly released HomePod, based on Siri, the virtual assistant on iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs.

"Everybody has it, everybody's familiar with it, and it's just more natural to engage with it than with even Siri," Hajje said of the Echo.


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