LOS ANGELES -- Among the many new technologies slowly
infiltrating the travel space, one of the most buzzed-about in recent years has
Thanks to the recent proliferation of voice-activated virtual
assistant software -- Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or Google Assistant -- voice
technology is quickly entering the mainstream, promising consumers an easier
and faster way to search for information, find answers and book travel.
At the Phocuswright Conference here earlier this month,
voice remained a hot topic, with Volara CEO David Berger citing recent
Phocuswright data suggesting that 47% of online travelers today have experience
with voice assistance.
"They have [voice assistants] at home, and they have
them in their everyday life," Berger said, adding that many hotels across
the U.S. have been early adopters of voice technology and virtual assistant
devices. "They're starting to expect them during their journey."
Berger's bullish view on voice was echoed by Google vice
president of product management Richard Holden, who announced onstage that
Google would be launching hotel booking capability on Google Assistant later
"Voice is impressive," Holden told the
Phocuswright audience. "In terms of growth overall, 50% of our traffic is
on mobile today, and 20% of that is on voice and growing rapidly." He
added that voice usage has gained notable traction in emerging markets,
including markets where literacy rates are low.
While Google Assistant is closely associated with Google
Home devices, Holden emphasized that a virtual assistant can be enabled across
a variety of device types, including smartphones.
"With travel, we're very focused on the phone, because
we think having the screen is an important part of the information flow that's
coming back to the consumer," he said, adding that Google Assistant is
currently enabled on more than 500 million devices.
Not every executive at Phocuswright was as enamored with
voice, however. Kayak CEO Steve Hafner questioned if the technology is
conducive to the many intricacies of travel research and booking. Kayak was
among the first major travel brands to debut an Alexa skill back in 2016.
"Does anyone use Alexa to look for travel information,
find flight statuses or book a hotel?" Hafner asked the audience. "Yeah,
I don't think so. We did it because it's fun, our engineers love doing that
stuff, and we've done a lot of innovative skills for Alexa. But I don't
envision a world where you say, 'Hey Google or Alexa, ask Kayak to do this.'
Travel is probably going to be one of the last [voice] categories that actually
becomes a use case that is frequent for people."
Glenn Fogel, president and CEO of Kayak's parent company,
Booking Holdings, agreed that voice has been "overhyped." Where Fogel
sees value, however, is in the artificial intelligence utilized and data
collected by voice-activated virtual assistants.
"The notion of using all this data to deliver a better,
more personalized experience on our site is absolutely [valuable]," Fogel
said. "Other sites have done this already and proven it. The travel
category hasn't been on the leading edge, but there's tremendous opportunity."
Personalization and privacy
Indeed, data and personalization were also major points of
focus at the conference, as demonstrated by the array of travel technology
startups looking to harness consumer information and provide more customized
and targeted communications.
These included Vivere, which uses what it calls "intelligent
data analysis" to create an interest-based digital hub for consumers, and
Baarb, a business-to-business platform that promises to deliver "hyper-relevant
search results based on travelers' preferences" and, thanks to knowledge
of where travelers have been and what they want, to predict where travelers
will want to go next.
Both companies earned top honors at the event, with Baarb
winning the Phocuswright Conference's OAG Award for AI Travel Innovation and
Vivere winning the Brand USA Marketing Innovation Award.
As with the wave of up-and-comers, established stalwarts like
AccorHotels are similarly prioritizing personalization. The hospitality company
is using its Accor Customer Digital Card program, which aggregates customer
information, to connect with guests.
Maud Bailly, chief digital officer for AccorHotels, said, "Many guests say that they want to
be known and recognized, and they are OK with sharing information in order to
get a more personalized experience in the hotel. Our goal is to leverage this
crazy amount of data to maximize guest satisfaction. But our other concern is
to be completely General Data Protection Regulation-compliant. We want to
respect the privacy of our guests."
Google's Holden acknowledged that privacy is a concern,
adding that, in his view, the tech giant has been relatively "conservative"
when it comes to pushing consumers' comfort levels.
"People are comfortable sharing data if they're getting
high utility, at the end of the day," Holden said.