By Sam Hilgendorf, CIO for Fox World Travel
In the 1980s, I vividly remember McGruff, the Crime Dog, telling me how dangerous it was to get into a car with a stranger. Then in the early 2000s, everyone knew you never should meet a stranger you talked to on the Internet in person. But, in 2008, it was suddenly ok to find a stranger on the Internet and now pay to get into their car?
What was previously unheard of has become such a common activity that it spawned its own viral meme. Of course, I am referring to Uber. Founded during the Great Recession of 2008, Uber sparked a cross-societal change with their industry-defining solution to ground transportation. What would have previously been met with cynicism is now a globally recognized brand.
Uber was not the only company to create behavioral change during a time of crisis. During the Great Depression, Disney brought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to theatres. The conventional wisdom at the time questioned the idea of adults sitting through a 90-minute cartoon that included singing dwarfs. And yet today, Pixar’s animated movies are among the top-grossing box office films each year.
As we have seen time and time again, adversity inspires innovation, and innovation can change behavioral norms.
So, how do these examples apply to the travel booking experience?
Conventional wisdom has been that planning travel, whether for leisure or business, is still too personal and confusing for artificial intelligence (AI) to replace the travel shopping experience. While the stereotypical road-warrior may know all the flight schedules and hotels within five miles of their destination, the average traveler is starting from scratch every time. Searching for the right price, at the right time, with the right services is often tedious and time-consuming.
There are many questions and challenges with trying to implement AI for travel. If it takes me so long to find exactly the right options at the right cost, how could a bot do it any better? Would AI really understand the inter-dependencies between the airline, the hotel, and the ground transportation? What about incorporating all my personal preferences? An AI engine could not ensure I have a great travel experience, could it?
These are all questions I have been asked over the past year as AI has started making progress in other industries. The unwritten rule of booking travel is simple, “To ensure a good experience, either myself or someone I trust has to plan out the details.”
Well, chaos has a way of simply rewriting the rules.
We are currently amidst the bleakest period the travel industry has ever experienced. There continues to be tremendous pressure on the entire travel supply chain to reduce operating costs and labor while demand remains devastatingly low. Even with the positive progress on vaccines and stimulus, this cost control pressure will not subside for the foreseeable future. There is an industry-wide need to provide an easier travel planning experience that is not labor-intensive.
Answers may lie in Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a subfield of artificial intelligence focused on the processing and analysis of both spoken and written languages. An NLP application could provide the mechanism for planning and booking a full travel experience. Only with exceptions and errors being sent to an experienced travel agent for analysis and discussion.
NLP technology is not new. Grammar checkers, autocorrection engines, and email spam filters using NLP have been mainstays for years. Voice assistants, such as Alexa and Siri, are also examples of NLP coupled with speech recognition technology. Like Uber and Disney, each of these solutions has changed our behavioral norms, many of which we now take for granted. NLP provides both the strategic direction and a means to change the traveler booking experience permanently.
In 2020, major milestones were achieved in NLP. Microsoft, Google, and OpenAI all made significant progress this past year with understanding and interpreting conversational language. Natural Language Processing has recently shown the ability to correctly complete sentences, summarize documents, and provide direct answers to complex questions. Just this fall, OpenAI’s GPT-3 language generator platform wrote a 500-word op-ed to convince all of us that robots really do come in peace.
Here are a few areas where NLP could significantly change the travel planning experience.
Travel Agent assist for complex itineraries
For the more challenging travel planning, NLP could assist experienced travel agents, reducing the time, errors, and cost associated with planning.
Take, for example, a multi-country European business trip that includes air, rail, ground, and lodging, each with negotiated corporate rates. NLP could support the agent by listening to the conversation and recognizing key search parameters, like destination, date, and preferences. The agent would receive relevant search responses and options, with any corporate travel policy applied. This reduces time and removes any data entry errors. It also allows the agent to focus their energy on making recommendations and recognizing either risks or better alternatives within an itinerary.
Conversational chatbots for travel planning
Conversational chatbots have been used in many customer service industries, but they are not pervasive within travel planning websites.
There are already great travel research and review websites, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, for determining what experiences are available within a specific city. But they do not include a conversational aspect. With NLP’s prediction modeling capabilities, the conversational chatbot could inspire a unique experience during the travel planning process.
For this example, take a leisure traveler thinking about a Caribbean vacation. Within the initial dialogue, an NLP-enabled chatbot could offer up the typical questions a travel agent would ask regarding this region of the world, such as interests in activities like SCUBA or snorkeling, culinary interests, or cultural attractions. By just asking one or two probing questions, the chatbot could inspire new ideas or interests.
Say I am interested in snorkeling, but not SCUBA. The chatbot could ask a simple follow-up question, “Why not SCUBA?” My answer may be that I have never been trained. With this input, the chatbot could then suggest that I easily get certified on the same vacation with just a few hours of training my first two days, including my first dive.
Take this single example and now multiply it across every choice made during vacation planning. While many decisions may lead back to the originally stated desire, the opportunity to prompt thought around new and unexpected experiences can make vacation planning more inspirational.
A voice assistant for full itinerary booking
Voice Assistants have become a common household appliance, but there has been limited adoption of voice assistants to purchase travel. Today there are very few applications that allow for booking travel. And they are limited to just a single airline ticket or hotel reservation. Purchasing a full itinerary combining air travel, hotel, and ground transportation still presents complexities in logistics and dependencies. As NLP better understands the requirements and dependencies of travelers, a solution to book a complete trip with your voice assistant will become available.
Taking a voice assistant and combining them with the conversational chatbot capabilities creates a completely new travel planning experience. Suddenly I could be talking through my desires and interests, being prompted with new ideas and opportunities that previously I would have to come up with myself through time dedicated to research. If my itinerary becomes too complex, then the voice assistant could perform a seamless transfer of me to a knowledgeable travel agent for further assistance. These capabilities could both reduce the time and effort and lead to a better travel experience.
These potential innovations might provoke similar cynicism as Disney during the depression or if Uber was suggested in the 1980s. However, the devastating impact the pandemic has created on travel has rewritten all the rules. We need to get creative with leveraging AI and NLP for booking travel. It is time to challenge conventional wisdom.
20 years from now, if internet memes are still a thing, we will see some fun stuff on how travel “used to work.”
Sam Hilgendorf, CIO of Fox World Travel
Sam Hilgendorf is the Chief Information Officer for Fox World Travel. As a leading global travel management company, Fox has more than 60 years of success serving corporate and leisure travelers. Sam is responsible for the vision and execution of Fox’s technology portfolio, which includes IT, business intelligence, product development, and technology professional services. Sam’s 20-year history of leading IT consulting organizations brings a unique perspective to travel management services. Sam is especially inspired by the challenges that come from the fragmented nature of travel. Under Sam’s leadership, Fox has implemented a new customer contact center, and enterprise data management platform expressly focused on consolidating information and presenting travelers with a simpler travel experience.