“The global travel industry, and the way in which consumers experience it, is changing so dramatically that it requires a fundamental change to the way in which travel is sold and how the traveler is served.” 

                                                                    Luis Maroto

CEO and President of Amadeus

Gone are those days when people used to throng the travel agent’s office to set their itinerary. In this age when everything is mobile-first, it is difficult for the millennials to understand why they would require someone to take care of their itinerary – especially when everything is available at the click of a button on their handheld device. When we ventured into in the travel space, this is the same vibe that we got from the industry stalwarts – travel agents as we know them are a thing of the past.

But, are they? Let us take a simple situation. Why would you not like an assistant to get your things done? If you can have an assistant for free, would you give it up? Who among you would not like to have a personal assistant to take care of your things?  Of course, you would like one! Siri, Echo, and Cortana have gone leaps and bounds in making our lives a lot easier with their intelligent assistance. They all have become a part of my daily life – but their help is yet limited in their applications. For an avid traveler, there is a limit to which these assistants can be of any meaningful assistance. How advantageous would it be for frequent travelers if they could take care of their itinerary by just simply dictating to a private secretary? The thought that immediately pops into mind is that not everyone can afford to maintain a private secretary. So if we actually like to have an assistant, then why would be travel agents be a thing of the past. That just does not sound right. Well, to be completely honest, travel agents in the traditional sense might have had their better days behind them. What the world now requires are smart assistants. This is where the convergence of smart apps and chatbots make a world of difference in the travel industry. Just like Echo or Siri or Cortana, a self-learning bot can take care of your itinerary just like your personal assistant.

The year 2015 was of critical significance in the online media space in that the number of active users for messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat etc. overtook that of the network users of Facebook, LinkedIn etc. The combined user base of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn is just over 3B whereas the WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and Messenger accounts for 3.7B active users. This just shows how chat or messaging as a medium is leapfrogging others in terms of user engagement. This is especially true in countries like China and India where business is more personal than transactional – as such it is only human nature that they prefer chat based mediums over phone calls or transactional internet booking engines. With the mobile channel expected to rope in revenues of the order of $250B in travel sales and tourism in 2019, the companies cannot turn their back against engaging their customers through the channel. As smartphones are permanently carried and providing increasing personalization to the customers, it becomes ever challenging for the travel companies to fully comprehend this shift and adapt via personalized offers and assistance to customers.

 “Conversational and artificial intelligence are making digital tools more human friendly. Natural language is the most natural interface for human being to communicate. We can bet that this is the final stage of digital democratization.”

Thomas Sabatier

CEO, The Chatbot Factory,

When it comes to the capabilities of bots, we have only scratched the surface so far. For an airline, bots can completely redefine the way a customer interacts with the airline – and more so for the loyal customers who will not flock to the aggregators to get the best deal but always book on the airlines native app. If an airline is able to position its native app at the center of a customer’s itinerary, the possibilities that open up are limitless. Imagine a scenario where an airline customer can plan his entire itinerary – right from onward flight to the cabs from/to the airport and the hotel for stay, all through the airline app. This app becomes the personal travel agent for the customer. Is that not what an airline ideally want?

Let us take a sneak peek at what the bots can do for the customers as well as the businesses. Today’s customers are always on the move and pressed for time. They want instant solutions that are least intrusive to their way of life. This is what the bots do well. Bots are not limited by time – they are there to help 24x7. Their capabilities are fast evolving – while the bots can answer all basic queries and do the basic tasks to start off with, self-learning bots can ‘learn’ to handle complex tasks with time. Bots can help the customer through the entire travel cycle and enhance the entire experience – starting with the booking, pre-travel reminders, intra-travel updates/anecdotes on must-see places during travel, cab arrangements, hotel booking, personal reminders and finally reviewing the services throughout the travel. When used for customer service, bots give a personal feel to the customer unlike transactional questions and answers. Also, studies have shown that there is a slightly higher inertia for the customers to call the helpline to talk to an actual human. They would much rather prefer a chat based medium or a bot answering their questions. The sweetener in this deal for the customer is that bots are basically instant messaging platforms – there is absolutely no wait time unlike telephone based operators or traditional travel agents. More importantly, customers can interact with bots in their language of choice which is a huge relief for non-native speakers.

Benefits for Customers

24x7 Availability

Evolving Intelligence

Enhanced Travel Experience

Personal Feel to the Customer

Instant Messaging with Zero Wait

Native Language Support

As far as businesses are concerned, travel is a customer-centric business highly skewed towards the experience. Every step towards making the experience pleasurable for the customer counts. Bot based services increase the efficiency of operation. With time, when the bots are able to handle complex procedures in an itinerary, the customer begins to get a fluid experience without the businesses even getting involved. This converts to drastically reduced contact center costs since only complex requirements are routed to be handled by humans. The overall reservation experience improves since the process is a lot more personal unlike transactional booking engines. The volumes of data collected from the customer can be used for continuous improvement and for understanding the needs of the customer better. The marketing dollars can be targeted more effectively based on customer behavior and preferences. The engaged customers give the business better insight into the changing trends in the industry. This helps the businesses adapt or pivot in the direction that the customer is moving. The personal touch of bots also helps the business gather feedback from the customer without being outright intrusive. As the bots have assisted them in every step of their travel, cleverly formulated feedback mechanisms can be built into the travel spaced conveniently to gather holistic feedback from the customer. Overall, this greatly improves the customer’s experience with the app and increase its stickiness. This is one of the biggest challenges for apps today as over 70% of the users don’t use an app as early as after 3 days of installing the app. By using bots, a business can rest assured that their customers are in good hands receiving state-of-the-art world-class experience and focus their valuable time on matters that can improve the business. Major aggregators like Expedia and Kayak have already jumped on the bandwagon for bots with NLP support. They have reported tremendous improvements in customer engagement after the bots have been deployed.

Benefits for Airlines

Increased Process Efficiency

Reduced Contact Costs

Understand the Customer Better

Continuous Feedback Loop

Increased App Stickiness

Increased Customer Engagement

We would love to hear back from you on your thoughts about the direction of the industry. Shoot us a mail at [email protected] or leave your comments below. To try out our AI/ML driven Tranzmeo Skysuite™ please visit www.tranzmeo.com

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