Travel agencies adopting AI expected to gain an edge

AI and humans
Photo Credit: Michal Bednarek/

LAS VEGAS -- In a small conference room at the Venetian Resort here, Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom delivered a message that surely is music to travel advisors' ears: Despite Expedia's grand designs to invest heavily in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, he's confident that offline travel retailers will continue to thrive.

"Traditional travel agents have carved out a great place for themselves," Okerstrom said. "There's still a need for agents in complex travel, the complex trips that are multi-legged, that include many different stops."

But while others in the industry generally agree that AI won't be replacing human travel advisors anytime soon, they also predict that the agencies that do excel will be the ones that effectively incorporate machine learning into their operations.

Norm Rose, senior technology analyst for Phocuswright, predicted, "The best travel agents will figure out how to use AI so that AI takes care of the simple stuff and they can take care of the complex stuff."

Added Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group: "Travel agency management can't ignore AI, and smart travel agents will read up about it."

AI and its offshoot of machine learning remain relatively new phenomena. In a Nov. 20 presentation at the Phocuswright Conference in Hollywood, Fla., Google vice president of engineering for travel Oliver Heckmann said major breakthroughs have come in the past five years.

With its vast troves of customer data, Google, which declined to comment for this report, is perhaps the company with the most potential to make use of AI in the travel landscape. However, Google also has lots of priorities beyond travel. The enormous online travel companies Expedia Group and Booking Holdings are plunging forward, as well.

Expedia Group spent $1.6 billion on technology investments in 2018 alone. At the company's Explore 19 conference last month, executives promised strong, ongoing tech investments as they work to remove friction from travel and to offer more tailored services, both to customers and to partners such as hotels and vacation-rental owners.

Within the next year, said Abhijit Pal, head of research for Expedia's Travel Partner Group, the company hopes to have completed merging the data systems of its various OTAs. Doing so will enable Expedia to develop more complete profiles of individual customers, information that will aid a machine-learning algorithm as the company strives to offer increasingly nuanced and customized responses to travel searches.

Expedia has also already introduced an AI-powered virtual agent chatbot. 

Booking Holdings is employing similar technology. 

"For example, when you land on our site and aren't sure where you want to go yet, we can make suggestions for you, leveraging all past user data and machine-learning models," said Robert Ahearn, Booking's managing director for the Americas.

Booking's chatbot, Ahearn said, can answer basic inquiries, but human input is needed for more complex ones.

"We don't see technology replacing humans anytime soon," he said, "but [we do see] the two working together to create a seamless customer experience."

Indeed, some traditional leisure and business agencies are already deploying tools that combine AI-powered automation with the touch and knowledge of a human travel advisor. 

For example, Silicon Valley-based 30SecondsToFly powers AI-assisted bookings at travel management companies, including Adelman and Flight Centre, using its Claire chatbot.

Users start their search with the automated bot, which uses the individual’s history to develop responses. Sometimes the bot completes the booking. For more complicated requests, Claire will pass the customer off to a human agent. Still, the bot doesn't exit the process.

"We free the agents from their most repetitive tasks," said 30SecondsToFly co-founder Felicia Schneiderhan. "Then, when the agents give assistance, we augment them with all the things the AI has learned about the traveler. We give them 360 vision. And with that they can provide a higher quality of service, and they can provide it in a shorter amount of time, as well."

In the leisure space, American Express Travel uses the AI-powered tool Mezi, which it acquired last year, to power the AskAmex feature of its mobile app.

"It's meant to be complementary," said Sangeeta Naik, the company's global head of strategic partnerships and marketing. "We also try hard to help our travel consultants understand what AI can do to help us."

Smaller agencies will soon have easier access to AI-powered assistance, as well. Amadeus has launched its Amadeus for Developers program, which it says is the first initiative in the travel industry to make AI capabilities available to independent developers via open application program interfaces (APIs).

"These APIs will allow developers to build solutions that can predict travel intent, traveler behavior and flight delays, among others, without needing any prior background in AI or data," Amadeus said. 

Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.


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