Artificial intelligence (AI), which many experts predict
will have an enormous impact on the travel industry, is becoming a reality not
in the form of blockbuster apps but as a slow, steady trickle of apps, features
and technological innovations.
The pace of its progress was measured recently by a London
School of Economics study, which identified AI and big data as "key
disruptive factors shaping the travel distribution industry over the next decade."
But the resulting report also noted that those factors have yet to spark major
More and more companies are developing and using AI
technology today, and experts agree that a recognizable impact isn't too far
off; it will begin trickling into agents' workflows over the next several
"It's definitely not going to be like a flip switch --
one day there's no AI and the next day there's AI," said Paul English,
co-founder of the travel agency Lola, where agents use AI to augment their
workflows on a daily basis. "It's going to [happen] progressively."
John Ische, president of Trisept Solutions, which this month
is launching Discover, a search function using AI within its Xcelerator
agency-management platform, said it won't be long before AI becomes more
"Right now, artificial intelligence in travel is on the
leading edge," he said. "The wave is coming. ... Right now, you
really can't point to a lot in travel and say, 'This has been a big game
changer in travel and is changing the way people buy travel or how they
experience travel.' But I do think with what we're doing and what other people
are doing in travel with artificial intelligence, that swell is about to take
The London School of Economics report, titled "Travel
distribution: The end of the world as we know it?" was commissioned by
Amadeus. It found that on a scale of zero to 10, travel retailers rated AI at
eight for its importance in disrupting travel distribution.
"Its impact on travel distribution is now at the
forefront of many industry analysts' minds," the report said.
AI could, for example, can be used to tap into traveler
information to precisely target consumers, the report stated, which creates
opportunities for "improving the travel experience, selling a wider range
of services and targeting advertising in a more personalized way."
Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at
Phocuswright, said that for travel agents in particular, technology that aids
in the planning and recommendation process is likely to evolve further and be
integrated into agents' workflows. He cited as an example a tool that could
draw on an agency network or on a consortium's collective expertise, enabling
an agent to pull up deep information when a client calls for a particular trip.
"When will we see this? Well, it depends on who's
pioneering it," Rose said.
Amadeus is already using AI in a variety of ways, said
Rashesh Jethi, the GDS's head of research and development in North America.
On the agent side, for example, Amadeus is working on
developing a guest reservation system with InterContinental Hotels Group that
employs AI. When someone logs into the system, it recognizes him or her as a
member of a particular segment; for example a reservation agent.
Using that knowledge as well as information within the
system about that particular person's workflow, AI suggests actions instead of
asking the agent to click through a hierarchy of menus and screens. The system
learns from individuals and groups based on what they click, further refining
Jethi said it is an efficient system and saves agents,
particularly new users, time. Amadeus has been testing the system with some
customers for the past few months, and it has received solid feedback. It plans
to roll it out in the next several months.
Trisept is also ready to debut its initial version of Xcelerator's
Discover function, which employs AI when agents search for trip suggestions.
For example, Ische said, if an agent were to search for an Italy vacation for a
family with teenagers interested in architecture and history, it might kick
back a hotel in Florence or a cruise with port calls in Naples and Rome.
Discover learns which suggestions are good based on agents'
selections and can refine future results. It is launching with hotel and cruise
search functionality, though cruises right now are limited to those on Royal
Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line brands. By the end of the year,
Ische said, it will expand to packaged tours, river cruises and more ocean
Like Amadeus' program, Discover is designed to save agents
time in the trip-planning process. Agents at Lola already use AI constantly.
They converse with clients solely through chat, and it makes suggestions for
responses, parsing data to quickly provide them with, for example, flight
information when a client writes they want to visit Paris. Despite the focus on
AI, though, it is agents who answer all queries.
"We're 100% human," English said. "And the
reason we're 100% human is that I don't want to trust the AI yet, because I don't
want to take the chance of making a mistake."
English also said he does not believe AI will ever replace
human travel agents because of the expertise they offer and the relationships
they have forged in the industry, but putting an agent between AI and a client
Ische predicted that future innovation in AI will enable
better travel experiences as it is further refined. "We're at the early
stages of artificial intelligence impacting the travel experience," he
said. "It's going to open up a lot of opportunity as more innovation
happens, but the end result is going to be much better experiences for