The travel industry was hard hit by COVID-19 when everything came to a screeching halt more than a year ago. But now, with light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the industry is getting ready for a boom. EY-Parthenon built models to project occupancy rate recovery, and the most optimistic outlook has bookings exceeding pre-COVID levels before the end of 2021.
Technology is set to play a major role in recovery, including familiar AI-powered solutions. Before the pandemic, AI and other forms of machine learning were just beginning to infiltrate the travel sector. The biggest advantage of these technologies is their ability to personalize experiences and streamline services based on customer data.
AI will go beyond that in 2021, offering enhancements that help put travelers at ease as the health and safety fears from the pandemic are still fresh in people’s minds. Here are nine ways AI-powered tools will drive a travel revival in the coming year:
- Customer service: AI-based customer service technologies are already assisting in passenger identification during travel and personalizing experiences with curated recommendations. For example, the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel in London uses a chatbot called Edward and the Las Vegas Cosmopolitan Hotel has a chatbot named Rose that answer questions and provide guest assistance 24/7.
- Smart assistants: AI devices with integrated voice technology like Amazon Echo and Google Home offer customers a range of services and reduce physical interactions. Echo speakers in Wynn Las Vegas hotel rooms allow guests to set room temperature, change the light, turn the TV on and off, etc.
Smart assistants are also serving as an AI concierge at numerous hotel chains, using AI’s self-learning ability to adapt and respond to each guest on a personalized basis. Hilton uses an AI robot called Connie to provide tourist information to customers who speak to it. Each human interaction also helps teach the robot, improving the quality of future communications.
AI-enabled digital concierge/chatbots can facilitate easy check-ins, make bookings, take room service orders, and perform additional tasks. Chatbots used in the Andaz Singapore and the Pan Pacific in Singapore can conduct health declarations, facilitate contactless ordering for dine-in services and manage crowd control.
- Recommendation platforms: Companies like Hyatt Hotels, Booking.com and Skyscanner have integrated with Facebook Messenger through intelligent bots to deliver personalized recommendations to help travelers book rooms or find flights through social media. These chatbots can also provide tailored suggestions, based on recent searches and bookings.
- Process automation: Companies are accelerating process automation, using technologies like serverless SaaS platforms to digitize workflows and processes. This can help speed up the booking process, automate expense reporting and provide cost-saving insights. Automation across the entire travel industry will become the new norm.
- Contactless technology: The industry is deploying more touchless options like contactless fingerprint, touchless payments, and other recognition technology, including facial recognition, retina scanning and various biometric identifiers. Marriott Hotels have started delivering room keys through a self-service kiosk upon check-in through facial recognition.
Contactless solutions also present a unique opportunity to build customer loyalty through targeted marketing systems linked to a customer’s unique ID. For example, Qatar Airways’ IATA Travel Pass app enables users to receive COVID-19 test results and verify their eligibility to fly with ‘OK to travel’ status and receive continuous health regulatory updates for the destination country.
- Targeted campaigns during disruptions: Disruptions in travel can offer unexpected opportunities for hotels. One hotel’s bookings dropped after several flight cancellations. The hotel used public data on flight cancellations and weather information, gathering information via an API and processing it through a conditional algorithm. With this data, the hotel chain predicted cancelled flights and targeted ads to travelers in areas that were likely to be affected. The brand’s paid mobile search campaign offered potential guests searching for last-minute accommodations ads with information about rooms and distance from an airport to their hotel. The campaign resulted in an increase in mobile bookings and high conversion rates.
- Optimize for contingency management: Contingency management is a time-sensitive task that requires instant responses. With AI, it’s possible to predict disruptions and efficiently mitigate the loss for travelers and carriers. AI can forecast travel disruptions based on data about weather, current delays, and other airport service information. An AI tool can send out timely notifications, alerting users and travel managers about upcoming disruptions and automatically put a contingency plan into action. Qantas Airlines was the first to apply AI to improve its operations. Its Amadeus solution helps reduce the number of and length of delays, whether due to excessive traffic, operational delays, or weather conditions, leading to a better travel experience.
- Social media sentiment analysis: Customers always leave a trail, and social media is a large pool of valuable data that brands can analyze to improve their services. Computing power and underlying machine learning techniques allow for analysis of all brand-related reviews. Sentiment analysis explores textual data to define and rate emotional and factual qualities. Feedback analysis can be used by hotel and airlines brands to enhance or hyper-personalize services.
- Fraud detection: Payment fraud is one of the most popular types of scams in the travel industry. People pay for a purchase and then claim their card was stolen, demanding a chargeback. Customer behavior analysis using profiling and machine learning technologies can help prevent and detect illegal transactions. The mobile booking app HotelTonight applied a customize machine learning model to predict and detect fraud, reducing chargebacks by 50%.
Machine learning and AI will change travel as an experience. AI processes can help people avoid long queues and waiting in crowded spaces, contributing to safe distancing. With AI, the industry is becoming an experience-driven and asset-light business. Hospitality organizations will become more agile and profitable by integrating modern technology at each step of traveler journey and drive a travel revival.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Anil Kaul is the co-founder and CEO of Absolutdata, an Infogain company specializing in big data analytics, marketing analytics and customer analytics.
Anil has over 22 years of experience in advanced analytics, market research, and management consulting. He is very passionate about analytics and leveraging technology to improve business decision-making. Prior to founding Absolutdata, Anil worked at McKinsey & Co. and Personify. He is also on the board of Edutopia, an innovative start-up in the language learning space. Anil holds a Ph.D. and a Master of Marketing degree, both from Cornell University.