Artificial Intelligence in Hospitality: Bots Build Brands
Whether we are business travelers or leisure travelers (most of us both), we are already seeing the advent of new technology to enhance the travel. But before we look at Artificial Intelligence as another game changing capability, let’s remind ourselves of what constitutes the Hospitality industry:
- Travel & Leisure: airlines, car rentals, cruise lines, restaurants, intermediaries, etc.
- Lodging: vacation clubs, hotels, etc.
- Entertainment: parks and resorts, gaming, casinos, digital content producers, etc.
In all of these, the onslaught of mobile, social media and digital transformation is around us. But recently the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is beginning to change the game even further. To define AI, it is the use of technology to reduce human intervention by using data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing. The key to having such experience (and yet maintaining the “personal touch” for the right brand experience) is to understand the customer. The new hospitality consumer is:
- more knowledgeable with internet and mobile accessibility. Everyone who books a vacation, looks at digital channels for ideas, feedback and reviews - this creates a seismic “shift of power” to consumers. With online consumer-created content and social networks, the consumer has become co-owner of the brand.
- more empowered and demands unique requirements across multi-channel options. They go online the moment their friend tells them something. This speed, volume, and transparency associated with internet travel distribution has put new pressure on most companies to re-calibrate their value chains. The technology enablers are not about anonymous mass nor individual customers, but about individuals within a community with influencers, creators & consumers.
- more diverse and the rising global consumer has the confidence in self-assembling holidays and has a readiness for self-packaging of trips (Do-It-Yourself). Everyone looks for specific personalization and destination flexibility - such data-driven capabilities are key for companies to compete.
For such a consumer, some of the areas where AI can help are as below and need to be evaluated for all categories of the traveler experience - before-the-trip (property selection, upgrade requests, adding / changing current booking), during-the-trip (make bookings for spa, car for the day, trip planning, etc.), and post-trip (feedback, missing item inquiries, loyalty points information, next stay discounts and promotions, etc.). The categories of such capabilities are as below:
- Digital Concierge - Learn from past experience – With the advent of digitial technologies, every guest interaction has some digital “paper trail”. Using this data, a conversational intelligent messaging experience can be developed. This can provide guests with the conversational, contextual assistance and special attention that guests have come to expect from a traditional in-property concierge. It gives guests the option to find information on their own and then switch to an agent-assisted interaction only when necessary. Some recent examples are hotels deploying robotic customer experience guides to inform guests on local tourist attractions, dining recommendations and hotel features and amenities, etc. Recently a famous cruise line deployed a mobile app where guests can ask questions and perform some actions via a chat-like interface on the mobile device.
- Search Assistants / Virtual Agents / Chatbots - This is a technology to parse and interpret a customer request. Natural Language Processing is used to understand what is contextually relevant in a guest inquiry. This Question-and-Answer technology is combined with analytics to identify and possible results. Exciting developments will also come from techniques enabling chatbots to plug augmented reality into the conversation. For e.g. a traveller making a hotel booking could use this to inspect rooms or check out local restaurants or neighbourhood before making their selection.
- IoT & Intelligence of things – With the advent of wearable devices, AI can be leveraged to complement customers’ personal tastes and the targeting can be truly one-on-one.
- Revenue Management - Pricing algorithms of these companies can now integrate data feeds like weather, events, etc. to maximize yield and rates.
- Video & Sensor Analytics – With approximately 250 million CCTV cameras worldwide, there is a lot of data to be leveraged - 98% of the video feeds go unseen. AI-enabled systems and video analytics can enable organizations to use computers and big data technologies to analyze, in real time, footage from these video cameras to better understand trends. E.g. passenger traffic flow, abandoned object detection, access control and perimeter security for situation awareness systems, etc.
- Connected Guest of the Future – All of us absorb multiple components of hospitality but data exchange is not always smooth. Instead of traditional data technology for a traveler - airline, car rental, hotel, casinos, immigration, Govt DB, etc., using a distributed ledger technology & blockchain can help with seemingly endless data reconciliation. This combined with AI can be used to understand the guest technology-enabled journey and lead with personalization to build emotional loyalty.
But like any other technology capabilities, the key is to know the implementation challenges that might lie ahead:
- Keep it simple – chatbots interactions need to be as efficient, short and painless as possible
- Keep it consistent – seamless experience for customers across all communication channels
- Keep it secure – privacy and security are critical
In summary, as companies evaluate the applicability of this new set of technology options, they key is to understand where to deploy these to increase customer experience and reduce costs, without sacrificing the ESSENCE of the BRAND.
Ashu Bhatia is Executive / VP with Avanade – North America Advisory services and has significant experience in management consulting in the United States, Europe, and Asia. An MBA from Carnegie Mellon University, he currently works in areas of Strategy, Customer Relationship Management, Big Data/Analytics in Entertainment & Hospitality and has authored an IT Strategy book, Value Creation.