Growth of voice in travel the talk of Phocuswright 2018

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Volara CEO David Berger said travelers' familiarity with voice-activated virtual assistants is one reason the technology demands exploration. Photo Credit: Michelle McSwain Photography

LOS ANGELES -- Among the many new technologies slowly infiltrating the travel space, one of the most buzzed-about in recent years has been voice.

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 this month.

"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.

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