The impact of Artificial Intelligence on business travel

Travel News 29 Jun 2017

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is playing an ever-increasing role in our private and business lives. The huge popularity of messaging platforms like WhatsApp and digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Siri and Cortana has propelled AI into the mainstream, where corporates are generating new business value by integrating voice into their technology, thanks to AI.

Essentially, Artificial Intelligence performs computing tasks that previously required human assistance, enabling computers to make relevant responses to specific questions or requests. AI and travel are the perfect fit because of the volume and depth of information travel companies –TMCs in particular – hold on travellers, their travel patterns and preferences. In a travel world where personalization and Big Data are the mega-trends, Artificial Intelligence is the great enabler.

Travel suppliers are already using AI to interact with travellers before, during and after their trips. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines allows travellers to receive booking confirmations, check-in notifications, boarding passes and flight status updates via a Facebook Messenger bot. Hilton’s Connie is a robot concierge that answers guests’ questions about amenities, services and local attractions. The more guests interact with Connie, the more it learns, adapts and improves its recommendations.

As more brands launch these mobile travel assistants and expand their capabilities into non-travel recommendations, the biggest obstacles to be overcome are the complexities of business travel. The volume of data that the bots have to digest in a global managed travel program is much greater than in a single-country programs with more straightforward preferred supplier agreements. The bots have not licked this problem yet – but they will.

In the meantime, many Travel Management Companies are deploying AI strategies via apps that are essentially a tool to make complex tasks look simple. AI can make pre-trip planning easier because generic information such as traveller security, health and safety can be combined with more personal data such as which friends of the traveller live in a specific town or city, and what their experiences of that destination are.

As well as enhancing the traveller experience, Artificial Intelligence could improve travel and expense compliance. 2016 research by US-based Oversight Systems estimated compliance could be improved by as much as 70% as, by leveraging advanced analytics, companies can focus on serial non-compliant travellers, cutting processing time and effort by half.

However, the real added value of AI lies in the level of knowledge and real time advice it can impart without the time or cost of replicating this manually. AI simplifies complex travel decisions, shortens the buying process, cuts processing costs and delivers a much more personalized product or service.

Voice is likely to be the next big thing in travel technology after mobile because AI enables travellers to interrogate voice-based services to check itineraries, book and pay for their trips. The user does not even have to be able to use a computer or a smartphone. Being connected to contextual and transactional data, these chatbots are even more powerful than humans so the traveller experience is taken to a new level.

FCM Travel Solutions’ chatbot Sam (Smart Assistant for Mobile) can answer questions and make recommendations. Travellers can call up SAM for help with anything from itinerary management, bookings and updates to detailed destination information.

When a traveller lands at the airport, SAM will message the carousel number for collecting baggage and ask if the user needs to arrange transport from the airport to their hotel. The more a traveller uses SAM, the more intelligent the chatbot becomes, so that information delivered to the user is even more personalised.

Some predict that AI-powered technology will make the TMC redundant. We think that is unlikely because AI enables agents to add value. For example, SAM does not replace the human touch entirely and cannot do so because business travel is about people. Our approach is about blending the latest technology with personal service. Users of SAM can call or message their consultant at any time for live assistance on the go.

However, there is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence is here to stay in business travel. It is the key to licking the challenges of Big Data analytics; combining AI tools with travel data enables suppliers to transform the traveller experience.

As the chatbots evolve, the level of trip and program complexity to which they can be deployed will grow too. The term for this is natural language processing. But in the short, and even medium term, the challenge for the bots is to enable travellers to make decisions that right for the business, and themselves, within the context of travel policy.

Where leisure travel goes, business travel often follows – although it usually takes a little longer. There are issues around data privacy and travel managers allowing their bookings to take place in one of the mega-interfaces Amazon Echo and Facebook Messenger. But as such services become more commonplace, consumer adoption will surely spill over into business travel.

If an AI bot can help travel managers to tweak policy and enable travellers to access their programs by just asking their home-based Google Echo a question, why wouldn’t corporates permit access? In five years’ time, we expect that question to be long-since answered.