The big global travel management companies have pivoted to become more like technology companies in recent years. Despite the usual bromides about innovation and user experience, they're unlikely to invest in voice-powered automation right now. Personalization needs to come first.
Marriott International is leading the charge on placing Amazon Alexa devices in its hotel rooms across the U.S. and the rest of the travel industry is paying close attention.
This technology could provide another source of revenue for hotels. If a guest is comfortable interacting with a smart device, why not let them use their voice to make requests and spend money on property or with partners? Amazon’s new Alexa for Hospitality service can also automate simple guest requests for things like extra towels and checking out.
It’s easy to see how this poses problems for companies trying to keep business travel costs down; if a hotel is recommending activities and meals to business travelers, it makes it harder to keep control of spending.
Purchases may be charged to someone’s personal Amazon account, then later expensed, providing less visibility into spending during a trip. It will be interesting to see how these hotels use their formidable loyalty programs to entice customers to try spending money using their voices for the first time.
There’s also the security problem; many large corporations may balk at putting employees up at properties with built-in microphones that could potentially record sensitive information.
Hotel chains now espouse a vision where voice sits alongside more traditional sales and marketing channels, allowing properties to earn additional revenue. Best Western and Marriott are leading the charge, although early experiments at the Wynn Las Vegas were completely unsuccessful and essential a waste of money for the resort company, according to a source who works in the guest room technology field.
Information on consumer usage of devices isn’t exactly encouraging for these use cases in the near future, though. Amazon owns just over 70 percent of the U.S. smart speaker market, according to research by Voicebot, a decline from 90 percent in 2016. Just 20 percent of the U.S. population have a smart speaker in their home, while 77 percent use a smartphone, according to research by Pew Internet (wouldn’t it make more sense to develop these tools for Google Assistant and Siri, which everyone already has in his or her pocket?).
The expectation is that consumer adoption will increase as the devices become cheaper and users become more willing to spend money on purchases made through voice channels. Hotels can charge local businesses for placement on their voice platforms, then take a cut of the profit once a booking is made.
Business Travel as a Platform
Should the corporate travel ecosystem be looking at voice-controlled purchases in the same way that hospitality is?
Voice-controlled bookings, it seems, won’t emerge for business travelers anytime soon. Travel management companies have been toying with solutions using Alexa, most notably Concur Labs’ efforts to let travelers ask for their travel information. Others are working on ways to introduce voice to the workflow of travel managers, allowing them to access traveler information and data from Alexa devices.
Right now these are cool but land squarely in the gimmick category when it comes to travel technology. There’s an intermediate step that needs to happen before travel management companies can really leverage voice assistants appropriately: personalization.
Booking a trip using an online booking tool or app can be complex, but at least they present options that a traveler can choose from. Booking through a voice assistant right now would entail a loss of control that many business travelers simply won’t accept. The move from a visual interface to audio is a major shift, and personalization will be necessary to make travelers comfortable with the change.
There’s also the reality that automated support would undercut the business model of many travel management companies, which essentially charge extra for human agents to change an itinerary or fix a disruption. Why innovate yourself out of your established business model? For travelers, it would also be frustrating to ask for something then be denied by a robot voice due to corporate travel policy.
There is a vision, however, of how voice personalization could inevitably dovetail with the business model of a travel management company. A recent Skift chat with Serko CEO Darrin Grafton (full interview forthcoming) touched on the ways that service-oriented travel management companies can monetize purchases instead of discouraging them.
“[Take] personalization, and then you blend it with consumerization to ask what can I do outside of a managed program that enables me to have a better journey,” said Grafton. “As we’re extending the ecosystem out we’re looking at how that comes into the total journey. Let’s say I’ve been to a Los Angeles Lakers game and I’ve had that expense claim previously, or I bought the tickets personally. So the system looks ahead into my calendar and says hey, you’ve got nothing, no event tonight. The Knicks are playing the Lakers at Madison Square Garden. Here’s StubHub and here’s a ticket that we suggest for you. Of course, you book it, and then the commission on that flows back to the travel management company.”
A case like this is perfect for voice as a user interface, but it will only be possible with comprehensive profiles and personalization of individual business travelers. It’s reminiscent of the role the personal or executive assistant of old used to play during the travel process. It also represents a valuable perk for employees in a tight labor market where more workers are taking travel policy into account when switching jobs.
It may seem far-fetched, but as travel management companies pivot to provide specific services and solutions to individual clients, personalization that goes beyond flights, hotels, and dining will become an important differentiator.
For now, though, voice represents a challenge to the sector with no easy solution. While companies and travel managers will have to grapple with a new challenge if voice really catches on in hospitality, executives and travel technologists should also explore how to create the best user experience for travelers as their expectations evolve.
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Photo Credit: In this Oct. 18, 2010 photo, an Amazon.com package sits in a UPS truck in Palo Alto, Calif. Paul Sakuma / Associate Press
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