App by app, AI gradually making its way into travel

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Mezi CEO Swapnil Shinde says Casto Travel's Marco app has helped Casto's agents become five times more productive.
Mezi CEO Swapnil Shinde says Casto Travel's Marco app has helped Casto's agents become five times more productive.

In recent months, numerous products touting the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of chatbots or voice interfaces have come online in the travel space, signaling that the technology behind them has advanced to the point where interacting with machines has become useful.

Even so, while travel companies continue to invest in new AI technologies to help streamline operations and interact with clients, those technologies have not advanced to the point where they could replace humans, said Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst with Phocuswright.

This July, within the space of days, two new travel chatbots were announced. Mezi, a virtual travel assistant powered by AI, launched Mezi for Business and announced clients that included Adelman Travel and Casto Travel. Sabre said it was testing an AI-powered chatbot with Travel Solutions International USA and Casto.

That same week, Kayak launched the ability to book hotel rooms using the Amazon Echo device and its virtual personal assistant, Alexa; previously, the feature merely offered search functions. A month later, booking ability was extended to the Echo Show, a device with a screen that enables visual elements. Similar voice features are available on other devices, such as Google Home.

In recent weeks, the travel club Mr & Mrs Smith introduced a voice-activated search of its hotel inventory via Alexa, NYC & Company implemented an AI chatbot as a resource for visitors, and Cruise Planners announced both consumer- and agent-facing Alexa skills, among other recently introduced products.

"The technology has come along," Rose said, which is why so many new products are being introduced.

Facets of AI have been in existence in some travel brands for years, according to Matthias Keller, Kayak's chief scientist, who oversees the company's AI efforts. For example, machine learning has long influenced the sort order of hotels on Kayak.

"But now, with the chatbots and the voice agents, machine learning/AI is something that you can touch and feel, so to speak," Keller said. "It's coming to the surface, and it's recognized by everyone as a major driver of this whole innovation, this whole new space."

The quality of chatbots and voice recognition technology has been steadily improving as well, he said. Five years ago, speaking to AI technology was like speaking to a robot, but new technologies are overcoming that hurdle, he said.

While recent advances have been numerous, chatbots have been around for a long time. Rose covered their history in a 2016 Phocuswright report titled "Travel chatbots are hot, but will they replace or augment human conversation?"

The concept of chatbots began in 1966, when an MIT scientist created a program called Eliza that mimicked human conversation. The first wave of chatbots appeared in the 1990s, but answers that had not been anticipated tended to hit a dead end, and the chatbots failed to be conversational.

Today, Rose said, "we have reached a point where being able to use semantic understanding, natural language processing, to have a conversational interface via chat has matured [to the point] that it does handle some things. But it is a mistake for the market to think it is a human replacement; it has limited capabilities."

Those capabilities, however, lend themselves well to an environment like corporate travel, as evidenced by Mezi's and Sabre's efforts in the area.

Sabre said its chatbot is designed to handle frequent, basic service and support requests like changing a flight. More complex requests are routed to a human agent.

Mezi for Business operates largely the same way. Moreover, using Mezi's platform, agents are able to train the AI to deal with requests it has failed to fulfil so that it can answer similar requests in the future. CEO Swapnil Shinde said the AI answers about 60% of requests now, and the company hopes to increase that to 80% in the next three to six months.

Travel management companies are attracted to a product like Mezi because it offers a "high-touch, personal experience" to travelers, Shinde said, and it helps agents become more productive. Marco, Casto Travel's white-labeled app powered by Mezi, has already made its agents five times more productive, he said.

"Imagine a travel agent who was doing 1,000 bookings a month," Shinde said. "Now, the same travel agent can do 5,000 bookings a month."

Productivity is also increased by lessening training time. Shinde said an agent can be fully trained on the Mezi dashboard in three to five days.

Marc Casto, president and CEO of Casto Travel, was quick to jump on board new technologies such as Sabre's and Mezi's chatbots. Portions of Casto's corporate client base prefer quick turnaround times that bots provide in many cases, he said, and the conversational interface is more appealing than forms on a website, for example.

"It's quick, it's reliable, and it's much more intuitive than most communications when using automated systems," he said.

Casto agreed that AI technology is improving, but its cost is also coming down, an important consideration for agencies like his.

"It's possible for all of us to start approaching these," he said. "Even if we're looking at 12 months back, the cost of developing and maintaining your own chatbots was pretty significant."

Rose, the Phocuswright analyst, cautioned that chatbots face some hurdles. For one thing, not everyone wants to use a chat interface. What's more, unlike frequent corporate travelers, leisure travelers typically lack a detailed profile for a chatbot to pull data from when making product recommendations.

AI-powered voice technology is likely the "more dramatic disruption to the way things are done today," Rose said, because it enables users to simply speak, instead of type what they want. It does face challenges, though.

For example, if a user is looking for the lowest-cost flight from San Francisco and Boston, how does the technology define lowest? Would it give the user a result that includes a ridiculously long layover?

Also, planning travel requires information. Chatbots tend to ask a number of questions, Rose said, but at what point would a voice interface user become frustrated and switch to a different planning method because voice is no longer providing efficiency?

"I think we're at the early stages of all this stuff," Rose said. "And while it shouldn't be ignored, it also shouldn't be viewed as the future that everyone is going to be participating in. It's going to be for sectors of the population," likely younger generations.

Keller acknowledged that Kayak is still in the early stages of offering voice-enabled hotel bookings, but consumers have been using the feature.

"People are very excited that this is happening," he said. He admitted that some might not be ready to fully trust a voice interface, but predicted that, "within the next year, this [technology] is going to be a real e-commerce channel and a real channel for users to regularly interact with our brand."

Keller is a believer in voice in travel because talking is simply easier than typing for most people. He said Kayak will continue investing in the technology, hopefully enabling users to book more things, like flights, via voice.

"There are a lot of things missing right now," he said, but time and money is being invested to solve those problems.

Rose and Casto both asserted that while technologies like voice and chatbots are advancing, they are still in their infant stage, with growth to come.

"I personally believe that we're in the equivalent of the AOL, 'You've got mail' stage of Internet production as it relates to robotics," Casto said. "We are [so] at the early stage of what we're going to see -- how this impacts travel -- that it's very hard to anticipate what the future holds. But the lesson learned from that environment is that I truly believe it will be all-encompassing, it will be unavoidable, and it would be foolish to not be making investments in this area."

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