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Before 9/11 and the subsequent recession set back the pace of innovation in the online travel sector, the greatest minds of the era all expected one thing: Travelers would soon use voice commands to search and book for trips.
It still hasn’t happened, but in a burgeoning era of artificial intelligence and chat bots, a revolutionary shift in how consumers book could be on the horizon.
“We got ten years ahead of ourselves,” said Brad Gerstner, founder and CEO of Altimeter Capital, at the Skift Global Forum 2016 in New York City Tuesday.
A conversation with Gerstner, Expedia founder and Zillow chairman Rich Barton, current Expedia Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, and Priceline founder Jay Walker touched on both the history of online travel as documented in Skift’s epic oral history of the sector, but also on the potential for transformative change that exists today.
“This is really the end of the age of automation; [online travel booking sites are] a Model T Ford with a Ferrari engine,” said Walker, Priceline founder and current CEO at Upside. “There’s no question that the phone and mobile changes everything, then you add augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and big data… this version of online travel is going to seem like a dial phone. What’s different now is that the compounding growth rate has caught up.”
But what exactly will the bold transformation look like? Some see technology like Amazon Alexa’s voice recognition being the first step towards ubiquitous voice commands in travel booking.
“As we move over to more of a mobile device-centric world, the interaction model with devices is going to be much more voice-based,” said Expedia’s Khosrowshahi. “We have trained over years with wizards to tell people to put in a destination and date, and people have been trained to do that. When you go to a voice-based interaction, you can’t tell them to ask a question and structure it in one way.”
The challenge becomes retooling online travel platforms to allow for unstructured queries. At the same time, social travel discovery and booking could be equally transformative without having to rewrite the platforms that allow online travel booking.
“There will be a major interface change with how your consumer interacts,” said Barton. “It’s mindboggling to me how unsocial our travel planning and movement tools are. I would argue Facebook is probably the most important traveler sharing community that exists. There is a ton of upside to begin to think about how we can make the experience much more social.”