Artificial intelligence (AI), a technology that as recently
as a few years ago was a mystery to many, is now a fast-growing technology in
the travel industry, something travel companies budget for, and many are
applying it as a business tool that provides efficiencies and improves customer
While the industry is a long way from a truly autonomous
agent powered by AI, experts foresee a bright future, especially for AI
technologies that make humans "smarter" by helping them in their
AI does face hurdles, though, as evidenced by the recent
shuttering of WayBlazer, a B2B company that focused on trip-planning applications
built on AI technologies.
"While we have not run out of innovative solutions,
unfortunately we have run out of funding and time," CEO Noreen Henry said
in a statement in late July.
About a month before news broke that WayBlazer was
shuttering, Henry discussed the state of AI in the travel industry with Travel
Weekly. It has made rapid progress in recent years, she said, compared with
three years ago, when leaders in AI were still explaining what it is and how to
"It's no longer just trying AI for AI's sake,"
Henry said. "But it's [about] where are the business problems, that they
have good data, good information to be able to actually leverage this
technology to have real business benefits for them."
WayBlazer's demise does not, however, diminish the role AI
plays in the travel industry, according to Norm Rose, senior technology and
corporate travel analyst at Phocuswright. Rose is also the president and
founder of Travel Tech Consulting. In a blog post on his website, he discussed
the "hype cycle" in the travel industry that surrounds emerging
technology, which inevitably comes with fallout.
For example, he pointed to the emergence of OTAs, initially "dismissed
by the offline community, with some believing no one will ever buy travel
online." He also cited companies that don't have a mobile strategy or that
believe mobile is reserved for searching for, not buying, travel.
With WayBlazer shuttering, Rose wrote, "some of these
same travel industry naysayers may declare that AI may have a minimal impact on
the travel industry. We have seen inflated claims about AI in terms of voice
and digital assistants, causing some to dismiss these new technologies as not
ready for prime-time."
But, Rose said, "What many people miss is the
evolutionary nature of emerging technology" like AI.
"Bottom line," Rose wrote in an email, "AI is
overhyped, but the shutting down of WayBlazer does not mean AI does not have an
important role in the travel ecosystem."
In an earlier interview, Rose -- who has been tracking AI
and the technology behind it since the 1980s -- said that while the concept of
AI is decades old, the technology behind it has developed rapidly in recent
years. And while he believes it is hyped, especially around the level of
personalization it can achieve, it has some practical-use cases in travel. As
an example, he pointed to customer service chatbots.
"In reality, the more successful travel industry
applications seem to combine human and AI together," Rose said. Whether it's
a desktop tool for the travel agent to make them smarter or a process where we
fit AI into the flow, like in a chat, we use it specifically to answer certain
types of questions, and then we go to a human when things get too complex."
Lola is a good example of that use case. The Boston-based agency,
whose clients communicate with agents through a chat interface, is focused on
business travelers. Paul English, president and chief technology officer, said
the company uses AI in two ways. First, it personalizes search results based on
past travel. Second, it assists human agents by analyzing chats and giving them
tips on how best to answer travelers.
Casto Travel in San Jose, Calif., employs a chatbot it calls
Marco, which provides post-ticketing services for travelers, such as seat
assignments and flight changes. CEO Marc Casto is a co-chairman of ASTA's
technology committee, which is tracking AI and its likely impact on agencies.
Some clients use Marco frequently, he said, while others
prefer to communicate only with Casto's agents. He said that mix of clients is
fine. The technology is available for those who want it.
"Just like online booking tools used to be unique and
they now are so commonplace," he said, "so will be AI."
Trisept Solutions also has an AI product that helps agents
be "smarter." Its Xcelerator platform provides agents with a natural
language metasearch of cruises and hotels, the goal of which is to match a
client with the most relevant product, according to CEO John Ische. Trisept
also uses AI for some back-of-house solutions to improve operations and
pricing, providing efficiency benefits. (Xcelerator is powered by the now-closed WayBlazer, and
Ische said Trisept is looking into other AI tech options for its platform.)
The key to AI is the data behind it, Ische said. Today, many
in the industry are putting in place a foundation of data that can then be
harnessed by AI technologies.
"Like any new technology, it does take some time to
mature," Ische said. "I really think that artificial intelligence in
general is still an emerging technology in travel, and I think you'll see a big
influx here, a big ramp-up across the whole travel space."
Allianz Global Assistance started using basic AI technology
about five or six years ago, according to Begench Atayev, vice president of
marketing analytics. The travel insurer uses AI to develop personalized quotes
for customers shopping through its partners: providers such as cruise lines and
OTAs and companies in the event-ticketing space. The third iteration of its
quoting platform launched last year.
"It uses mathematical prediction models and various
machine learning techniques that enhance our ability to offer personalization
and improved customer experience," Atayev said.
For example, the platform uses multiple data points to
figure out in which state a customer lives. That way, when the customer is in a
partner's booking path, he or she won't have to answer that question, and the
overall experience will be less disruptive.
Allianz has a lot of data to use: Atayev said the company
issues more than 1 billion quotes each year. It uses anonymous data points from
those quotes to get better at personalization.
"Good customer experience, satisfied customers, drive
more repeat business to our partners and to us, as well," he said. "It's
good for customers, our partners and us, too."
Josh Galun, hospitality and travel lead at the
Washington-based technology firm Excella, said travel companies are investing
more in AI, but the industry is largely playing catch-up. He cited a 2017 McKinsey paper that concluded the travel and tourism sector "was
the least advanced in AI and increasing its AI budgets by the smallest amount."
"So there is definitely an element of the industry
catching up," Galun said. "But I think that it is really starting to
find those use cases where it really makes sense."
Phocuswright's Rose said he hoped to see more AI technology
that assists humans in the coming years. But he warned that innovation probably
won't come from within the travel industry itself.
"If you look at the dollars being spent by Facebook, by
Google, by Apple, these mega tech companies have millions of dollars and
attract the best AI people in the world," Rose said. "I think that we're
going to see advancements in AI from outside the travel industry, which will
then impact travel."