When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella strolled onto the stage at its February press event to announce new AI-powered updates to the company’s Bing search engine, he used a handful of hypothetical scenarios to showcase the capabilities of its upgraded ChatGPT-powered software. “We want to have a lot of fun innovating again in search because it’s high time,” Nadella said, before demoing configurations that showed enhanced, annotated AI-generated answers for new recipes, furniture shopping at Ikea, and more. For the travel industry, one query, in particular, may be the start of a revolutionary way for how people could search for their next vacation.
“Create an itinerary for each day of a five-day trip to Mexico City,” Nadella asked, before Bing’s chatbot provided a rough schedule of Monday-to-Friday activities in and around the Mexican capital, along with sources and links for more information. Powered by GPT 3.5, the OpenAI language model of Bing can answer complete queries, including up-to-date information that other AI-powered chatbots seemingly cannot yet.
No matter which chatbot you ask today or in the future, these instant answers to far-ranging travel queries have immense implications for travel and hospitality. With industry experts betting AI may stick around, how do travel brands keep up?
Breakthroughs & Drawbacks
AI’s integration into travel, like its integration into every industry, doesn’t come without tribulations. This new tech is fun and exciting because the possibilities seem endless, but real-world customer experience (CX) issues will emerge sooner rather than later.
As search engines adopt AI, planning becomes very conversational. Rather than searching in the traditionally structured way of entering a destination and dates, then refining with filters, users could engage in a dialogue with the search engine, discussing their preferences, interests, and budget up-front. Because search engines will adopt this before most travel providers, the handoff between search engines and booking engines could be tricky and will need to be facilitated carefully. Users may face a disjointed experience if they are redirected from a highly personalized conversational search engine to a less sophisticated traditional booking experience or vice versa.
To provide a more cohesive experience and avoid frustrating users with a sudden shift in the level of personalization before they book, companies will need to evaluate and update their digital foundations. There is a significant amount of legacy technology in travel and hospitality, so providing a seamless experience means companies need to prioritize modernizing both their back- and front-end systems to be nimble in responding to these rapidly evolving changes.
At the same time, the adoption of AI-powered technology in travel planning has been met with mixed reactions, with a clear generational divide emerging in how people engage with these tools.
To effectively engage with users across different generations, travel companies must understand what works and doesn't work for these age groups. Younger users may respond well to conversational AI-powered tools, like intelligent chatbots, while older users may prefer more human interfaces, like talking to a live agent. Travel companies must also take into account that some users, regardless of age, may be less likely to experiment with new technology, and may be more comfortable sticking with what they know. Companies should consider evolving their experiences iteratively over time to help their guests adapt gradually, plus explore ways to educate and inform them of the changes and their benefits to help build loyalty.
Loyalty will be even more critical in a world where search engines provide actual answers instead of the traditional list of links, as this could introduce challenges around discoverability for brands. Until more information is available on how to optimize content and websites for AI algorithms, brands should continue to build loyalty, engage their travelers regularly, and give them a reason to start on their brand site instead of a search engine. Interestingly, AI could be the answer here, enabling travel providers to move higher up the funnel into the dreaming and planning phase where they have traditionally struggled to compete.
The Next Step in CX
Overall, an AI-powered travel industry means hospitality brands need to prepare for the inevitable frustrations and issues that will emerge. They can do so by empowering their employees to gain valuable insights into customer friction points by using AI-powered technologies right now to better monitor and analyze customer interactions across various touchpoints.
By using data analytics and machine learning algorithms, brands can identify patterns and trends that indicate where customers are struggling or encountering challenges in their interactions. This could include issues such as knowing the tell-tale signs of digital frustrations and being able to quantify them, such as rage clicks, text cues, slow response times, confusing user interfaces, or unsuccessful user journeys. Once these friction points are identified, hospitality brands can take proactive steps to address them, such as improving their technology infrastructure, providing additional training to staff or redesigning customer-facing interfaces.
At the end of the day, human experiences are at the root of travel – but there’s no denying that tech is ingraining itself more and more into the experience. Making sure CX strategies are up to par to match these innovations is half the battle. It can “make it or break it” for some guests. As new tech developments like the ChatGPT-powered Bing emerge, hospitality brands that experiment to stay ahead will come out on top. But flashy new tech and features do little if they aren’t optimized properly, continuously improved, and enhancing the overall CX.
About the Author
Danielle Harvey is vice president of travel and hospitality strategy at Quantum Metric. As an industry leader, Danielle provides expertise that helps airlines, hotels, and other travel providers optimize the digital customer experience. Danielle has 15 years of experience as a practitioner in the travel industry, having spent 11 years with Wyndham Hotels and Resorts and four years with Avis Budget Group. She has held leadership roles in digital, marketing, and analytics.