artificial intelligence in tourism concept. bot on laptop connecting customers to different travel options

Why the best travel agent may be a bot

Next-Gen TechnologyTravel and Hospitality

In the travel business, agents succeed when they match the right product and price to a customer's preferences. A miss on these key elements likely means a failure to launch… or take off!

When you consider there are more than 120,000 flights every day around the world — all with different times, cost and convenience considerations — booking travel can end in analysis paralysis for even the most experienced travelers. "If we counted every possible priced itinerary as a separate product, we would rapidly pass trillions," writes Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at big data-powered travel app Hopper, in an article for Medium.

No human could possibly digest that volume of data — and now they don't have to try. Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are causing a major upheaval in the travel industry, bringing sophisticated algorithms and recommendation engines to the table that are helping travelers find and book the deals and packages that best suit their specific needs.

These targeted recommendations aren't the only application for AI. Conversational bots, highly-tailored apps, concierge customer care and actual human travel agents can all use AI to put together detailed custom itineraries — all while helping to build and maintain stronger, more personal relationships with customers.

Blending big data, AI and the human touch

For high-end travel experiences, blending technology with the human touch can result in a higher customer satisfaction with lower agent effort. "Technology can be blended effectively with human agents by making sure that the tech does what it does best: low-level interactions and data processing," says Adam Toporek, author of Be Your Customer's Hero and president of customer experience (CX) consulting firm CTS Service Solutions. "Agents should be trained to maximize their potential, navigating complex interactions using contextual knowledge."

Travel and tour companies have the opportunity to use AI's heightened abilities beyond finding a cheap hotel room or flight. Susan Ho, founder of personalized travel planning service Journy, sees AI becoming a part of planning highly customized, multi-day itineraries — eventually.

"Travel planning can be compatible with AI to deliver a better customer experience," says Ho. "But when it comes to something as complex as itinerary building, it's not quite there yet — especially because travel planning is such an incredibly personal experience."

How AI improves experience and revenue

Even the best, most personable agents can't work around the clock. That's why AI-powered conversational bots are a great way for travelers to get answers to simple questions when live agents are unavailable. AI-enabled chatbots offer an "always-on service" for accommodating different times zones, different locations and different languages.

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For instance, Amtrak's AI-powered conversational bot, Julie, answers questions and assists with bookings at all hours without the help of a human assistant. The kicker: the chatbot generates 30% more revenue than conventional bookings, and saves the company $1 million in email customer support costs.

Don't discount humans just yet, though. "Technology should be used to enhance the customer's experience; cost reduction should only be an ancillary benefit," says Toporek.

How AI increases conversion rates for travel agents

Since its founding in 2016, Journy has planned trips for more than 15,000 travelers. That volume is only possible through its use of technology. When a Journy trip planner receives a request, they can quickly reference past itineraries from people with similar interests. "It's a starting point for the trip designer, so they're already 80% there and can dedicate 100% of time on ensuring the remaining 20% of the itinerary is thoughtfully custom-built with the traveler's specific interests in mind," Ho says.

That blend of tech and human touch creates a winning combination for travel brands. When a user sees a destination-specific sample itinerary from Journy, Ho says they are four times more likely to convert and pay for the service than someone who hasn't.

How AI drives more consistent relationships with travelers

Like Journy, AI-powered travel app Hopper analyzes billions of daily flight and hotel prices to help users find good deals based on their preferences. Since most travel bookings tends to be transactional and occasional in nature, Hopper uses technology to build a more consistent relationship with travelers. Travelers don't search Hopper like they would a Priceline or Expedia (i.e. for an imminent trip), rather, they enter their travel destination, then receive ongoing push notifications that alert them when prices are at their lowest.

The company says it has sent over two billion push notifications over the past two years. "What's fascinating about that is today about 25% of every ticket that we sell on Hopper was a ticket that the person did not ask for. It's the AI that sold it," Hopper CEO Frederic Lalonde said in an interview published by travel market research firm Phocuswright. AI's ability to predict what Hopper customers are interested in based on past purchases and activity has resulted in significantly higher conversion rates.

Meanwhile, for a service like Journy, its engaging product keeps users coming back throughout their trip with the average user opening the Journy app 18 times per day while traveling.

It's all about the traveler experience

There's no doubt that AI tools can help travel companies sell more and improve personal relationships with travelers. But in the end, even the most advanced technology available can't replace a great product and a great customer experience. When it comes to conversion rate optimization for its trip planning services, Journy has found that the human element is still the most effective, converting 20 times better and with two times the Average Order Value, says Ho.

It's not AI that's driving such a high conversion rate, says Ho. "Customers don't care about the AI part, they care about getting real human service and expertise to plan their trips at a fair and transparent price."

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