Skift Take

There can be value in jumping into new business opportunities right away, especially for young startups. But for established companies like Booking.com, the slow and steady approach may be best.

A task force at Booking.com is dedicated to exploring how generative AI could be integrated into the platform, but just to be clear — the company is not rushing into anything. 

“There’s certainly a place for it at Booking.com. We’re sure of that,” said Rob Francis, chief technology officer of online travel agency Booking.com, owned by Booking Holdings. 

Intentional about not succumbing to the “frenzy” around the emerging type of AI, however, the company wants to avoid releasing technology before it is ready or has a real purpose, he said.

“We’re certainly kicking the tires and seeing what sort of great experiences we could bring to our customers with generative AI. We see some opportunities already,” Francis said. “Right now, what’s most pressing to me is to make sure that when we hit on the thing that’s right, that we can do it incredibly well, while maintaining trust with our customers.”

Francis is scheduled as a speaker at the upcoming Skift Future of Lodging Forum in London on March 29. 

He declined to share specifics about how or when the generative AI will be integrated into the Booking.com platform. He did say, however, that he sees a sweet spot around using the technology to better understand exactly what a user is looking for when entering the Booking.com platform.  

“Our ability to marry up the intent of a traveler, or one of our partners, with what our platform can bring to them is where we see a big opportunity,” Francis said. “We are a two-sided marketplace, and so our ability to actually help connect both sides and bring value to that intent, I think is going to go much further into our experience. It’s just a little too early to say what that’s going to look like.”

He also pointed to the potential use of voice assistant technology, which got a lot of hype in the beginning that eventually died because of how frustrating voice tech can be to use. But there could be a new opportunity for it, as other experts have said. 

“I think that starts to get much more interesting with some of these capabilities.”

While Booking.com is moving slowly, Trip.com has taken the opposite approach with the recent release of a generative AI chatbot called TripGen. The company is gathering information from user interactions as the product development team explores how to further implement the technology into its main platform. 

At Booking.com, there are several issues that the company is addressing as developers explore and test the technology. 

A lot can go wrong with the technology at this point. An example of that was seen when Bard, Google’s new generative AI chatbot, gave inaccurate information during its first demo. Francis wants to make sure something like that does not happen with Booking.com. 

One of the issues is the concern of privacy as companies are handling larges swaths of data. There have already been issues, like when one platform accidentally disclosed a patient’s medical records

There’s also the issue of ethics and transparency, making sure there is no bias creeping into the AI models, as has been documented in the past. The company already has been working on an initiative surrounding AI models of any kind in conjunction with other organizations. 

“If you think about even just where we are in the industry around the transparency and worrying about bias creeping into models, that’s something that everybody has to do better at. 

Another issue: the need for more computing power means using more energy, so there needs to also be a focus on developing efficient algorithms, he said. 

Meanwhile, companies like Hopper and Expedia, as well as some startups, have shared some information about their own plans and concerns. 

One of the top issues right now is the limited data that powers OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT and many generative AI initiatives at other companies. The data is based on information from 2021, and it lacks details, like a restaurant’s hours of operation. 

That’s where companies like Trip.com are trying to integrate the tech into its own systems of information. Until the data can be constantly updated, it won’t be much use to consumers. 

“The freshness of the information is very important,” said Amy Wei, senior director of product management for Trip.com Group, in an interview in early March. “That’s the part where we are trying to combine our technology … maybe the flight schedule or the latest hotel rate, to help people further ease their step to booking. 

Despite all of the hype and the concerns and bumps in the road, Francis does believe generative AI is here to stay. 

“I think it will ripple pretty deep through everybody’s tech stack over time,” he said. “I think there are other things that haven’t even been contemplated yet.”

But that time is not here yet, and he wants to make sure the Booking.com platform gets there successfully. 

“We’ve just got too many customers, and I really do obsess about that. We have to maintain a sterling reputation of trust,” Francis said. “It’s easy to lose credibility if you put something out too soon that underwhelms or doesn’t work.”

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Tags: booking holdings, booking.com, chatgpt, generative ai, online travel agencies, OpenAi, travel tech

Photo credit: There is a task force at Booking.com dedicated to exploring the integration of generative AI. Flickr / Flickr

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