Business Travel Is Changing Fast, and AI Is Driving The Disruption

We can all feel it, and with every new day we’re experiencing it. Artificial intelligence is rapidly taking hold in the travel industry, and vendors, travel management companies and users alike are all quickly adopting the latest in technology to help drive efficiency and productivity.

Business travel has exploded, and with this growth has come greater user expectation. Leisure travel has paved the way with smarter, simpler interfaces, and the wider online industry (think Amazon, Google etc) has reshaped what we assume to be the base standard of experience that we will accept.  For many, customisation is now a non-negotiable requirement, and businesses are employing this to extract greater value.

So, what are the implications of AI for business travel?

For an expert opinion, we spoke to Mike Dudarenok, Chief Customer Officer, Flight Centre Corporate Brands, Australia, and we asked him to give us his assessment of where AI is going and how it will affect us all. Here’s what Mike has to say:

Implications For Decision Makers

As budget owners, efficiency and effectiveness is always on our mind. We’re always asking, how do we stretch our dollar further and utilise the budgets allocated the best way possible?  This is where AI can help – automatically using tickets on credit to suggest the best days to travel or schedule offsite meetings to predicting when would the budget be over based on the current spending trends. 

While budgets are important, safety of our people is even more important in the current volatile world.  Providing AI based risk assessments for each trip and incorporating additional precautions into the trips with higher risk factors can be as simple as encouraging travellers to fly the day before to reduce fatigue; automatically arranging for a designated pick up driver for your travellers; and more complex continuous trip monitoring and alert systems.

Implications for Bookers

While technology has made business travel easier to administer and manage, the complexity of business travel has not reduced; it is more complex then usual. New airline routes, providers and services pop-up almost every day and even if booking travel is your full-time job being abreast of all this complexity is not an easy feat.

This is where AI can help by advising and suggesting the best way to get your travellers from point A to point B, all inside policy guidelines and as efficiently as possible. AI will make the Travel Booker more intelligent by providing them with more relevant information, incorporating needs and preferences of travellers, rather than providing hundreds of choices which may not be relevant or useful to the booking.

Implications for Travellers

The most wide-ranging impact of AI will be on the lives of travellers – more effective and efficient door-to-door journeys will become a reality rather than a dream.  As a frequent traveller myself, I am constantly surprised by lack of efficiency and poor design of travel processes – if I go through this airport at least twice a week, why do I have to go through the same security screening as less frequent travellers?

Airports will continue to evolve and finally government agencies will start using the AI technology to make the process almost invisible by incorporating face recognition and other biometric technologies in the ways previously thought impossible. Our digital assistants will take more of the burden away from us automatically booking an airport carpark or arranging an Uber to rebooking our flights should our schedule change.

How AI Will Change Planning A Trip

Planning a business trip hasn’t changed much since the 70’s, probably with the exception of some technology which has made the process a bit easier. You still search for options and decide that is the best way to get where you need to go or if price becomes a factor, consider changing your plans.

In the world of AI, we won’t need to spend time searching. We will be given the best options if our plans can’t change including likelihood of cancellation of the trip or our meeting.  If the plans are not solid yet, we will be provided with the best days to travel and potential itineraries and price estimates.

In the not too distant future, ultimate trip planning will take into consideration not just costs and your business commitments, but also any personal obligations the traveller has – such as offering earlier flights to ensure you are home for an all-important family dinner or incorporating blocked out days into trip planning while looking for the cheapest days to spend time with your out of town team.

A Better Way of Booking

People don’t like spending time booking business travel (with some exceptions) – it’s a chore one has to complete in order to do business.

The world of one click booking is no longer too far to consider it a dream.  As a frequent traveller, my booking behaviour is reasonably predictable and follows the pattern, so why not offer me a recommendation as soon as I have accepted a face-to-face meeting in the other city?

While the above will work well for simple trips, for more complex booking arrangements Artificial Intelligence will help us make better purchasing decisions – such as offering alternative days to travel to alternative but better-quality hotels, arranging for a transfer or an Uber packaging the whole experience.

While this is early days, booking tools like Savi already incorporate traveller preferences and needs into the itinerary recommendations. As these tools continue to mature, the recommendations and suggestions would become the default behaviour of traveller or booker, both simplifying the booking process (reducing clicks = improving efficiency) and improving budget utilisation.

AI Means More Personalised Travel Experiences

Personalisation is all about tailoring a product or service to your specific needs or requirements. In the world of travel this translates to sitting at your preferred aisle seat on short haul journeys (so you can get out faster) to sitting in window seat for the long-haul trips (so you can sleep without being interrupted). 

As technology and platforms mature, more personal preferences will be incorporated throughout the whole business travel journey, from trip planning (only suggesting hotels on the company travel policy); to booking (don’t show flights if I can’t get an aisle seat in the first 5 rows); to in trip (receiving your preferred type of pillow without specifically asking at reception or at booking) and the like.

What’s the Role and Benefits of Recommendation Engines?

A recommendation engine can be defined as software that analyses available data to make suggestions for something that a target user may have interest in, be it flights, hotels, or books or videos or jobs, among other possibilities.

An engine, in a software context, is a special-purpose program that performs a task through a variable algorithm and it is often a feature of some larger program or platform.  For example, Google, a search engine is one type of recommendation engine, responding to search queries with pages of results that are (at least theoretically) the search engine's best suggestions for websites that satisfy the user's query, based on the search term plus other data, such as location and trending topics.

Recommendation engines in travel have been around for a while.  For example, the systems which are used to shop for and present multiple flights options are underpinned by Global Distribution Systems (GDS) (the first one was born in 1960’s), which are at their base level simple recommendation systems – they look at thousands of possible flight options, consolidate them and then present back to the user (either travel consultant or traveller or booker) a list of flights in the order requested.  While at its core GDS must randomise the search results due to competition legislation, the presenter’s system applies additional recommendation logic to order the options in the most appropriate way based on what it knows about the user or what user told it about their needs.

The key benefits of great recommendation options, and Google has proven all too well, is removing clutter – how many times have you clicked to second page of results?  The same will happen in travel where the recommended or shortlisted itineraries will be the default choice is most cases, removing the need to spend copious time looking through the options to find your right option.  It doesn’t mean that options will reduce, rather the relevancy will improve based on your needs, expectation and past behaviour.

The industry has been told for many years that it’s on verge of a seismic shift, as people will start booking everything online and won’t need consultants – but the change has not come to pass and in the near future I would not expect dramatic changes to this paradigm.  Instead we will likely see a more streamlined booking process for the client online, but with the continued personal touch of a consultant. When you hit an issue with the technology the last person you want to complain to is a robot.

Recommendation engines will allow more sophisticated and complex bookings to be self-booked and managed – as the helping hand of consultant will be aided with AI guiding the users around choices they can make and the implications of choices they have already made.

For example, you can look on Kayak or other super-aggregation site for flight options, but they do not tell you clearly that taking the cheapest option might mean getting through the security in your transit point to check in the bag for the next flight – these things will change and the user will be prompted and educated that price may have significant inconveniences during their trip.

An Explosion of Chatbots and Virtual Assistants

According to Wikipedia, a chatbot is a computer program or an artificial intelligence which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods.  Such programs are often designed to convincingly simulate how a human would behave as a conversational partner, thereby passing the Turing test.

Chatbots are typically used in dialog systems for various practical purposes including customer service or information acquisition. Some chatbots use sophisticated natural language processing systems, but many simpler systems scan for keywords within the input, then pull a reply with the most matching keywords, or the most similar wording pattern, from a knowledge bases.

There are many chatbots and virtual assistants available:

  • Simple virtual meeting organisers: x.ai and SalesDirector.ai
  • Complex tools: Dazzle.ai for travel knowledge self-service or Air New Zealand’s Oscar to a more
  • Complex AI travel assistants: Flight Centre Travel Group’s ‘Sam’ (Smart Assistant for Mobile)
  •  AI-powered travel consultants: Claire by 30 Seconds to Fly, Mezi or Lola
  • Multi-skilled voice activated personal assistants: Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant.

We certainly have an explosion of Chatbots and Virtual Assistants, and that isn’t set to slow down anytime soon.

Next Level AI

At Google’s recent I/O 2018 conference, Google has showed off a jaw-dropping new capability of Google Assistant: in the not too distant future, it’s going to make phone calls on your behalf.

CEO Sundar Pichai played back a phone call recording that he said was placed by the Assistant to a hair salon. The voice sounded incredibly natural; the person on the other end had no idea they were talking to a digital AI helper. Google Assistant even dropped in a super casual “mmhmmm” early in the conversation.  Pichai reiterated that this was a real call using Assistant and not some staged demo. “The amazing thing is that Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” he said. “We’ve been working on this technology for many years. It’s called Google Duplex.”

While we may not use this technology in travel just yet, the future will see virtual assistants taking away chores from us. Travellers and bookers will be able to get their virtual assistants to engage directly with technology providers or people to make all the necessary travel arrangement and only require input from the traveller if something unexpected and out of pattern occurs.  This shift will put further pressure on travel bookers to differentiate and find ways to add value where AI cannot.

Travel Policies – Will They Become Redundant?

The traveller / procurement war around travel policy has been ongoing with winners and losers on both sides – each party has given something away on the journey to making it work for all parties. 

For example, travellers have gained the ability to self-manage their bookings (rather than going via bookers or assistants) at the expense of use of corporate booking tools which apply strict policy constraints as opposed to free-for-all online travel agencies.  Similarly, procurement and budget holders have given away some part of the budgetary control to travellers with expectations that they would make the right business and financial decisions.

Will the travel policy disappear?  While the strictest and most prescriptive policies will eventually become extinct as they are becoming counter-productive, the travel policy will still exist.  I see the policies moving from a set of rules and regulations towards a “price to beat” logic or “spend the money as you are spending your own” mentality.

Applying these new travel policies to online booking platforms poses a challenge as traditional tools and platforms don’t yet have the right framework to support it. However, the new platforms with AI-powered recommendation engines will be able to facilitate these new policies in the same way as they facilities current strict rule book policies.

Underlying it are a set of assumptions and needs which once incorporated into the decisions framework allows the outcomes of the recommendation algorithms to be budget and procurement friendly. Control is still in the hands of traveller. 

The reason it will work is simple – if the options I receive meets my needs (while still being in line with the company objectives), why would I go looking for other alternatives? Easy and simple is the way forward, as booking travel is not what an employee’s primarily responsibility is.

The Journey Has Just Begun

There are few industries better placed to benefit from advancements in AI than business travel. With vast amounts of data being created, a high number of purchase variables, plus the fact that travel doesn’t always go to plan means that there are significant gains to be made by smarter, more predictive and more personalised AI solutions.

One thing’s for sure: the pace of change is rapid, and the smartest businesses are getting on board fast.

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