Opinion

The future for travel marketers? Use artificial intelligence just like Netflix

Ahead of his panel discussion at Mumbrella Asia's upcoming Travel Marketing Summit on April 16 in Singapore, ACI HR's Andrew Chan examines the next frontiers of artificial intelligence in the travel industry

Artificial intelligence emerged as discipline back as early as 1956, but it only moved beyond the domain of science fiction over the last two decades.

For the travel industry, the technology really came into its own when consumers stopped referring to travel books and instead turned to blogs and review sites. First on their desktops and then on their smartphones for destination guidance. That was around the mid-2000s. From then on, everything from flights and hotels to ‘experience’ booking has migrated away from human travel agents onto the internet-sphere. And this really was only the start of the evolution.

The daily routine of chatbots

Today, the most obvious and frequently-used piece of AI technology in the travel sector is chatbots. They have been employed to help with the essential function of booking confirmations. But it now goes beyond just automated emails.

For instance, the Dutch airline KLM introduced ‘Blue Bot’ on both Facebook Messenger and Google Home. BB is self-learning and can adapt to any systems. It helps you through the entire booking process. Travellers can also look for information instead of having to go through a search engine.

Human (almost) conversation is a welcome method of engagement for consumers used to the stale routine of search engines and comparison websites.  As such it is no surprise that people treat chatbots in a remarkably humane manner, sending thank you notes and emojis to signify their appreciation. Human expectations can shift rapidly so if KLM starts offering such a valuable service, it will surely trigger other airlines to follow suit.

This is where we are at now in the travel industry. We can apply this to airlines as well as the hotel industry, and it is only a matter of two-to-three years before the major players start to fully embrace this mode of operation.

Next on board: Travel personalisation

If those in the travel industry want to impress their clients, then they will have to learn from the online entertainment industry. The next frontier of AI should be personalisation. As an example, we witnessed the Mayon volcanic eruption on January 23 this year. It forced the cancellation of flights in the Philippines.

Such unexpected events present the perfect opportunity for travel companies to impress customers. Put yourself in their shoes. If you have taken one week of holiday to visit the Mayon rice terraces and your flights were cancelled suddenly, this would usually mark the end of the trip. Over before it even started. But, what if your airline were smart enough to suggest another location based on your previous online activities and put forward Vietnam instead?

The next flight out would be one hour after your current flight and you are provided with this alternative even as you are informed of the disappointing news. Your hotel’s chatbot picked up the details from ChannelNews Asia and had redirected your stay from the Philippines to Vietnam instead. In an instant, the disappointment gives way to hope and a new-found respect for the airline and hotel involved.

Taking inspiration from Netflix

We know that Netflix is the undisputed leader on this in the video streaming industry. The company recently hit $100 billion of market capitalisation when it announced that it had added two million subscribers in the last quarter of 2017. While investors are happy that Netflix is pouring billions into content creation to add new clients, the real secret of its success lies in its content personalisation and recommendation service.

Harvard Business Review has noted how Netflix has managed to perfect the AI recommendation engine based on its customers viewing habits. 

Travel disruption prepares for take-off

So the future is unknown. We might not be able to pinpoint exactly which AI application will resonate. But tech disruption is the perfect opportunity for innovative travel companies to set themselves apart from the competition. If you are not at the forefront of change, then be prepared for AI start-ups to invade your space – just in the same way that Instagram replaced Kodak.

Andrew Chan is the founder and CEO of ACI HR. He will be speaking at Mumbrella Asia’s inaugural Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16

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