Artificial intelligence (AI), which many experts predict will have an enormous impact on the travel industry, is becoming a reality not in the form of blockbuster apps but as a slow, steady trickle of apps, features and technological innovations.
The pace of its progress was measured recently by a London School of Economics study, which identified AI and big data as “key disruptive factors shaping the travel distribution industry over the next decade.” But the resulting report also noted that those factors have yet to spark major changes.
More and more companies are developing and using AI technology today, and experts agree that a recognizable impact isn’t too far off; it will begin trickling into agents’ workflows over the next several months.
“It’s definitely not going to be like a flip switch — one day there’s no AI and the next day there’s AI,” said Paul English, co-founder of the travel agency Lola, where agents use AI to augment their workflows on a daily basis. “It’s going to [happen] progressively.”
John Ische, president of Trisept Solutions, which this month is launching Discover, a search function using AI within its Xcelerator agency-management platform, said it won’t be long before AI becomes more mainstream.
“Right now, artificial intelligence in travel is on the leading edge,” he said. “The wave is coming. … Right now, you really can’t point to a lot in travel and say, ‘This has been a big game changer in travel and is changing the way people buy travel or how they experience travel.’ But I do think with what we’re doing and what other people are doing in travel with artificial intelligence, that swell is about to take off.”
The London School of Economics report, titled “Travel distribution: The end of the world as we know it?” was commissioned by Amadeus. It found that on a scale of zero to 10, travel retailers rated AI at eight for its importance in disrupting travel distribution.
“Its impact on travel distribution is now at the forefront of many industry analysts’ minds,” the report said.
AI could, for example, can be used to tap into traveler information to precisely target consumers, the report stated, which creates opportunities for “improving the travel experience, selling a wider range of services and targeting advertising in a more personalized way.”
Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at Phocuswright, said that for travel agents in particular, technology that aids in the planning and recommendation process is likely to evolve further and be integrated into agents’ workflows. He cited as an example a tool that could draw on an agency network or on a consortium’s collective expertise, enabling an agent to pull up deep information when a client calls for a particular trip.
“When will we see this? Well, it depends on who’s pioneering it,” Rose said.
Amadeus is already using AI in a variety of ways, said Rashesh Jethi, the GDS’s head of research and development in North America.
On the agent side, for example, Amadeus is working on developing a guest reservation system with InterContinental Hotels Group that employs AI. When someone logs into the system, it recognizes him or her as a member of a particular segment; for example a reservation agent.
Using that knowledge as well as information within the system about that particular person’s workflow, AI suggests actions instead of asking the agent to click through a hierarchy of menus and screens. The system learns from individuals and groups based on what they click, further refining future suggestions.
Jethi said it is an efficient system and saves agents, particularly new users, time. Amadeus has been testing the system with some customers for the past few months, and it has received solid feedback. It plans to roll it out in the next several months.
Trisept is also ready to debut its initial version of Xcelerator’s Discover function, which employs AI when agents search for trip suggestions. For example, Ische said, if an agent were to search for an Italy vacation for a family with teenagers interested in architecture and history, it might kick back a hotel in Florence or a cruise with port calls in Naples and Rome.
Discover learns which suggestions are good based on agents’ selections and can refine future results. It is launching with hotel and cruise search functionality, though cruises right now are limited to those on Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line brands. By the end of the year, Ische said, it will expand to packaged tours, river cruises and more ocean cruise brands.
Like Amadeus’ program, Discover is designed to save agents time in the trip-planning process. Agents at Lola already use AI constantly. They converse with clients solely through chat, and it makes suggestions for responses, parsing data to quickly provide them with, for example, flight information when a client writes they want to visit Paris. Despite the focus on AI, though, it is agents who answer all queries.
“We’re 100% human,” English said. “And the reason we’re 100% human is that I don’t want to trust the AI yet, because I don’t want to take the chance of making a mistake.”
English also said he does not believe AI will ever replace human travel agents because of the expertise they offer and the relationships they have forged in the industry, but putting an agent between AI and a client seems right.
Ische predicted that future innovation in AI will enable better travel experiences as it is further refined. “We’re at the early stages of artificial intelligence impacting the travel experience,” he said. “It’s going to open up a lot of opportunity as more innovation happens, but the end result is going to be much better experiences for travelers.”