Skift Take

Bumpy roads are inevitable, as is discerning the hype from genuine application, but travel companies should be considering their role in a world powered by generative AI and how to get there. If they haven't started, they are already behind.

Microsoft took over tech headlines last week when it said that its search engine, Bing, is being relaunched in partnership with generative artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT.

This comes shortly after Microsoft announced a multibillion dollar investment into OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT

If Bing is getting this new AI capability, and Google has similar plans, it begs the question of how online travel agencies and other brands are implementing generative AI in an effort to keep up. 

Some online travel agencies are making serious moves, if they haven’t implemented something already, as they envision a future powered by generative AI.

Beyond much hype and headlines in recent weeks, the immediate opportunity with generative AI in travel planning seems to be helping in the pre-planning phase, before travelers really know what they want or do not want. But experts envision that booking technology powered by generative AI could move away from the typical process of filling out forms in multiple web pages, toward a fully integrated process that begins conversationally without so many cumbersome steps. 

“That’s much more compelling than going to TripAdvisor, and it will be for sure,” said Marc Mekki, who worked for over a decade as a tour operator and now coaches organizations on how to make sense of tech innovation. Mekki is scheduled to speak about generative AI at the travel industry conference Arival next month in Berlin. 

Companies Making Moves

The companies that will be able to capitalize on the opportunities are those that can adapt quickly and embrace change, said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist of Hopper, in a statement to Skift. Hopper, a travel agency app that’s pioneering fintech options like price freezes, did not grant an interview request on the topic, but Surry said in the emailed statement that generative AI could permeate much of what the company does. 

“We think it has the potential to impact how we interact with our own customers,” Surry said. “There’s some interesting use cases that we hope to explore such as improving automation and responses for common customer service requests through chat (and eventually even speech and video), as well as concierge-like services to recommend travel destinations, create personalized itineraries and the like. 

“It will also have a big impact on how we work, particularly in product development as we learn to use these new tools to improve the speed and quality of delivering our products and increasing our own efficiency and productivity. We will be able to experiment with how this can assist software development, as well as other use cases like making job descriptions more attractive to specific audiences.

“And I suspect this is just the beginning — we’ll need to go back to first principles and rethink a lot of how and why we do things the way we do.”

Omio, an online travel agency for ground transport and flights, is starting to work on implementing generative AI, according to CEO Naren Shaam, though he said it is too early to share details. Berlin-based Omio operates in 37 countries.

“If I were to make a prediction, it will completely change the way we create products as a travel company,” Shaam said. “I do see this as a mega shift that will come to the industry, and we’re definitely looking into that seriously.”

Expedia Group did not grant an interview request on the topic and did not share specific moves it is making, but chief technology officer Rathi Murthy sent a statement about where she sees the biggest opportunities for generative AI, namely personalized trip planning and chatbots.

“AI needs large data sets to feed off, and we have over 70 petabytes of travel data on booking patterns and traveler behavior powering our platform,” Murthy said. “With this in place, it’s easy for me to imagine integrating generative AI into our platform to further personalize how travelers search for a trip, going beyond creating trip itineraries that have been heavily highlighted as a great example of what this next generation of AI can do.”  

Corporate travel agency Navan (formerly TripActions) last week said that it has integrated ChatGPT into a chatbot called Ava as a conversational way to help travel managers book trips, with a goal of expanding upon its capabilities. Navan said it is also using the technology to write, test, and fix code. 

Ilan Twig, Navan chief technology officer, posted a demo of the new chatbot on Twitter with the comment, “Ava (automated virtual assistant) is going to change the way we book and manage corp travel.”

The beta version of the chatbot is available to 20 percent of Navan’s customers, with a full rollout expected in the coming months. 

Limitations in Travel

As companies build generative AI features into their websites, they say the tech will be able to better utilize vast amounts of data they have already collected over years in business. That’s the stance that Omio is taking, and that’s also the basis for the Tripnotes travel mapping app being built, utilizing resources from the founder’s previous startup. The end goal for Tripnotes is that travelers will be able to complete bookings through the app.

But Mekki questions how many travel companies can add enough value to really compete in that environment because most travel data is not truly proprietary. A drug company, in contrast, that holds trade secrets could potentially derive more value from generative AI by using it to discover the molecules that perform best as pharmaceuticals. 

“The problem is, in my view, that we’re in an industry that unless you do something highly particular, like significantly niche, that it’s not disruptive enough to set you apart from anyone else,” Mekki said “In travel, it’s going to be fairly easy to build or acquire what is tantamount to the same source data. What kind of information is so proprietary that you would hold it in a large enough data silo for it to be unique? It’s not going to be destination information, because everyone has it or can get it.”

Another concern: if future travelers plan and book trips through a sort of chatbot feature, rather than the traditional list that’s populated in a search engine, Mekki believes that smaller companies like tour operators and independent hotels should be worried about how they will be found. 

“I think that’s the number one question for everyone to really stay up at night about,” Mekki said. 

“You’re not going to search engine optimize your way out of that one, so what are you going to do? You become more dependent on OTAs. OTAs are going to be the great winners here because they just don’t lose, and I’m afraid that is bound to continue.”

Murthy of Expedia highlighted that the travel industry generally runs on old technology, which was exemplified during the recent meltdowns with Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Before companies invest in generative AI, they need to make sure the technological fundamentals of their platform are sound,” Murthy said.

She added that it can take a lot of time and resources to build AI to the level where it needs to be, and it’s unclear at this point how scalable it is.

UPDATE: This story was updated to include statements from Expedia.

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Tags: bookings, chatgpt, generative ai, hopper, omio, online travel agencies, OpenAi, startups, travel tech, travel technology

Photo credit: Online travel agency experts believe generative AI could change the way they do business. DimaBerlin / Adobe

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