Ahead of his panel discussion at Mumbrella Asia’s upcoming Travel Marketing Summit on April 16 in Singapore, ACI HR’s Andrew Chan (pic) examines the next frontiers of artificial intelligence in the travel industry.

Artificial intelligence emerged as discipline as early as 1956, but it only moved beyond the domain of science fiction over the past two decades. For the travel industry, the technology really came into its own when consumers stopped referring travel books and instead turned to blogs and review sites, first on their desktops, and then their smartphones, for destination guidance from the mid-2000s. From then on, everything from flight, hotel to ‘experience’ booking has migrated away from human travel agents and into the internet-sphere. And this really is only the start of the evolution.

The daily routine of chatbots
Today, the most obvious and frequently-used piece of AI technology in the travel sector are chatbots for the essential function of booking confirmations. But those now go beyond just an automated email. For instance, the Dutch airline, KLM, introduced ‘Blue Bot’ on both Facebook Messenger and Google Home. BB is a self-learning system that can adapt to any systems and help you through the entire booking process. Travellers can also search for information through a conventional manner instead of having to go through a search engine.

Human conversation is a welcome method of search for consumers used to the stale routine of search engines and comparison websites. As such it is no surprise they treat the chatbots in a remarkably humane manner, sending thank you notes and emojis to signify their appreciation. Human expectations can shift rapidly so if KLM starts offering such valuable service, it would trigger other airlines to follow suit.

This is where we are now in the travel industry. We can apply this to airlines as well as the hotel industry and it is only a matter of two-to-three years before major players start to embrace this mode of operation fully.

Next on board: travel personalisation
If the travel industry would like to impress their clients over the medium term, then it will have to learn from the online entertainment industry. The next frontier of AI would be the personalisation of travel arrangement especially in the event of disruption. For instance, we witnessed the Mayon volcanic eruption on 23 January 2018 which forced flights cancellation in the Philippines. These unexpected events present the perfect opportunity for travel companies to impress their customers. Put yourself in their shoes: if you have taken one week of leave to visit the Mayon rice terraces and your flights were cancelled suddenly, this would usually mark the end of the trip before it even started. But, what if your airline were smart enough to suggest another location based on your previous online activities and suggested Vietnam instead. The next flight out would be one hour from your current flight and they provide this alternative even as they inform you of the disappointing news. Your hotel’s chatbot had picked up the news from ChannelNews Asia and they had redirected your stay from Philippines to Vietnam. In an instance, the disappointment had translated to hope and new-found respect for the airline and hotel involved.

Taking a Leaf from Netflix
Netflix is the undisputed leader in the video streaming industry. It had recently hit $100 billion of market capitalisation one day before the Mayon volcanic eruption when it announced that it added two million subscribers in the last quarter of 2017. While investors are happy that Netflix is pouring billions into content creation to add new clients, the real secret of its success lies in its content personalisation service. Harvard Business Review noted how Netflix perfected the AI recommendation engine based on client’s online activities such as viewing habits. This allowed Netflix to gain more subscribers as it helps them to create content that would appeal to the viewers. This created a virtuous cycle which cemented Netflix’s success in the competitive industry.

Travel disruption prepares for take-off
The future is unknown. We might not be able to pinpoint exactly which AI application will resonate. All these disruptions are the perfect opportunity for innovative travel companies to set themselves apart from the competition. If you are not at the forefront of change, then be prepared for travel start-ups who are eager to embrace AI to invade into your space like how Instagram replaced Kodak.

Article by Andrew Chan, founder and CEO of ACI HR. He will be speaking at Mumbrella Asia’s inaugural Travel Marketing Summit in Singapore on April 16