The year is 2050 and the Gen X’ers of today are giving their grandchildren a history lesson in obscure facts.
Once up a time, the story begins, Listerine mouthwash was used as an antiseptic to combat stinky feet. Then in the 1930s, Play-Doh, that colourful malleable clay of your childhood, was used as wallpaper cleaner. And did you know that, believe it or not, the mobile phone was once a device you actually talked to your mates on?
These may well be irrelevant facts to the youth of the future but not so today.
Just look around at people on their phones. They aren’t talking; they are texting or messaging, using everything from WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger, Instagram and more to communicate. In some parts of Asia, texting walkways have even been introduced so that people don’t bump into others who do actually want to see where they are going.
And needless to say, suppliers are tapping into this behavioural shift in order to build similar chat-style dialogues between customers and machines, or bots. Sometimes these conversations are still supported by humans, but sometimes they are completely virtual.
There are a slew of startups – most focused on business travel – that are looking to grab a slice of an industry said to be worth trillions. There is the ‘on-demand travel agent team’ at Pana, the beta startupHelloGbye where users talk into their phone or text using ‘natural language’ and then there is ‘Claire’ from 30secondstofly who exists for managed travel. And let’s not underestimate Facebook M and the recently unveiled messaging apps from our friends at Google. Today it’s one thing, tomorrow another!
Many of these initiatives rely on a chat interface – and that makes sense – because today’s mobile users are so conditioned to type that sometimes they forget to speak.
But change is afoot because the voice input devices currently hitting the market are designed for purely human-to-machine conversations. Amazon Echo, which allows ‘hands free convenience with voice control’, was the first. But needless to say Google was having none of that and recently launched its own voice-controlled speaker product Home.
Apple will be next and it won’t be long before it unleashes Siri to devices other than iPhone, iWatch and AppleTV.
The big question now is just how open these platforms will be. Take San Jose-based artificial intelligence company Viv. An open platform from the inventors of Siri, this is the AI world’s answer to training; it actually allows you to develop the conversations between a machine and a human about your product and service. It’s also, apparently, a self-learning platform in which the ‘software writes itself’. Pretty savvy stuff.
But what exactly does all this mean for travel? Let’s try to connect the dots.
Hard as it is to believe, much of the travel industry is still focused on selling trips. Securing the booking is the most important thing; the travel experience and the needs of traveller are pretty much irrelevant.
Now look closely and you’ll see that the focus of these new technologies remains the transaction; the only thing that’s really changed is the interface. So same meat, different gravy.
Where there is still plenty of room for competition and differentiation, however, is in ‘output’. When you search for travel on say an OTA or meta today you could return anything from 10 to 100 results. But if the machine is talking back, the traveller certainly won’t want 50 options. They’ll want one, two, at the most three.
This will require personalisation, which requires knowledge of the customer, as well as predictive capabilities. In order for the system to acquire knowledge it requires trust and loyalty from the end user as we have to train the system with our preferences and repetitive transactions.
Now it becomes clear why business travel is behind the first wave of these startups. Contrary to leisure there is a loyalty effect, a repetitive transaction pattern and in many cases a pretty homogenous target audience.
Business travel also skips the inspiration phase as the destination is defined by location of the meeting, or the traveller’s mission.
Indeed, the end goal in business travel is clear: as a frequent traveller, I just want a trip booked that best fits my mission. I don’t care about the underlying technologies or tools; I just want a stress free experience. And since my agent knows where my meeting is and that it will finish by 5pm, why can’t the system book my hotel, flight and taxi and, for that matter, since I love Japanese food, a table at the sushi bar round the corner. The winners of this game will be those that deliver a personalised experience.
In leisure, on the other hand, it is likely that the current gatekeepers of our personal interests, profiles and payment data (Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook) could become the new gatekeepers of the travel transaction.
So that history lesson of the future will, most likely, be a lesson from the past. The customer doesn’t care if it’s foot wash today, mouthwash tomorrow, as long as it does what it says on the tin.
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