Earlier this month we released our annual travel industry trends forecast, Skift Megatrends 2017. You can read about each of the trends on Skift, or download a copy of our magazine here.
There are few things buzzier in travel right now than the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and human-machine interfaces. Except, in some ways it’s not new. Google search culls millions of options every second of every day for people seeking a good hotel or meal. That’s possible due to AI, or machine-learning, where Google can not only crunch data at the speed of light, but also “learn” how to deliver more nuanced results.
“AI is simply a group of technologies that will increasingly be used to augment human capabilities, and make us better at the things we do best,” wrote Bob Rogers, chief data scientist for analytics and AI solutions at Intel, in CIO, a publication serving chief information officers. “What’s more, AI isn’t a story set in the distant future. It’s here today, and improving our lives in countless ways.”
What is new, however, is that all kinds of travel and hospitality brands are now embedding AI tech in their search process, and chat platforms in their online communications, to improve customer service and engagement. The AI wave in travel began in 2016. It will get more mainstream in 2017.
Visit Orlando was one of the first tourism boards to integrate AI into its web and app platforms to answer more complex travel searches for things like the best brunch spots that serve craft beer. The quality of responses to that query between the pre- and post-implementation of AI in summer 2016 were night and day. The web/app AI technology was developed by Austin-based Wayblazer, which builds AI frameworks for travel companies around IBM Watson technology.
Likewise in 2016, Hilton Worldwide launched its Watson-powered “Connie” robot, and Leading Hotels uses Watson’s brain to match specific guest searches with individual hotels. Air Canada and SAS Airlines both use IBM’s machine-learning platform for its flight attendants’ in-flight iPad app. And Phoenix-based Local Motors’ electric, 3D-printed driverless minibus Olli is manned by Watson at the wheel, which is scheduled to start driving city streets in Washington D.C., Miami, and Las Vegas in 2017.
In other recent developments, unrelated to IBM Watson, Kayak co-founder Paul English unveiled the Lola app in 2016, delivering a combination of AI-augmented chat functionality and a live staff of travel agents.
“We’re trying to create superhuman travel consultants who are AI-powered and can handle more trips per hour than a regular travel agent can,” English told Skift. “They can make dramatically better recommendations than normal travel agents.”
AI-powered chatbots are also going mainstream in 2017. Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell have already led the way with AI chat to improve customer service efficiency, and provide roadmaps for ambitious travel brands. At the other end of the hospitality scale, luxury brands like Dorchester Hotels and Edwardian Hotels have invested in new AI-embedded customer relationship management systems. Edwardian’s virtual concierge “Edward” is described as a “new interactive text response mobile SMS service” to help guests request basic hotel amenities.
Meanwhile, Facebook is developing its in-house “DeepText” AI engine in an attempt to compete with Google’s dominance in travel search. Also, Booking.com launched its new AI-powered Booking Experiences pilot platform in 2016 in select cities, so travelers can now search more intelligently for bookable tours and activities within the Booking.com app.
There’s still a long way to go before AI and human-machine interfaces truly transform travel research and the user experience across a broad spectrum of brands. But we’re on our way.