Speech in the Travel Industry

Vertical market applications are a subject dear to the hearts of marketers in the contact center and speech technology field. Finance, healthcare and education are typical of the "low hanging fruit" vendors have long focused on, with others, such as government, getting attention as the next potential for the big sales kill. Although there are some surprisingly interesting applications associated with these verticals, as a whole they aren't the most exciting customer-facing applications out there.  

Checking on bank balances, refilling a prescription or registering for a class just doesn't have the same appeal as finding out if your best friend's plane is arriving on time, what the weather is forecasted to be during your Hawaiian vacation or knowing to take the scenic route to avoid a traffic snarl during your cross-country road trip. These applications, those found in that tasty vertical known as travel, can actually be fun. Come along with me on a speech-driven fantasy vacation as we explore speech technologies in the travel industry.

  Travel, Transportation and Hospitality Before departing on our trip let us be clear that travel and transportation are distinct categories that happen to overlap within speech technologies. Whereas the word "transportation" applies to the moving of goods and services, ala transport, such as the trucking industry, it also applies to the speech niche market of Telematics - embedded speech solutions being deployed by auto manufacturers in cars for voice navigation, voice activated dialing of phones and the like. Transportation also applies to railways, airlines, cruise ships and taxis too, but these forms of transit are used within the travel industry as well. In this article we are focusing broadly on how speech technologies are used in the travel industry, including speech used in the forms of transport that will get us to our destination. For that same reason, we will also touch upon applications within the hospitality industry.   Destination - The Big Apple - Starting Point - San Francisco For those of us who don't often take vacation, the promise and planning is half the journey. Seeing frequent e-mails from airlines and travel Web sites in my inbox, I weigh the idea of a spur of the moment quick trip on a cheap fare this weekend and mull it over while driving down the highway in my car. Should I blow my travel budget now or plan a more elaborate vacation for the summer?  New York has great appeal, but the weather has been a factor and the sunny beach in June might win out. Stuck in heavy traffic, I place a quick call to HeyAnita (1-800-44ANITA)'s voice browsing portal to first find out why I'm stuck in traffic (Cal Trans road work 1 mile ahead), then to check out the weather in New York, only to find out that it is snowing in the Big Apple. So I entertain myself with some sports scores and such, then hang up.  For traffic information I could just as easily have called a voice-automated 511 service for real-time traffic updates, as myriad 511 applications are popping up across the country including the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. In my own area, I can get traffic updates, information on airline schedules, carpooling, bicycling and more.   Change of Plans - Reservations Back home I log onto my computer and decide to plan a vacation to New York for when the weather is better, but intrigued by my experience with HeyAnita I decide to see what options are available for booking by phone through the airlines themselves. Of the entire travel industry, perhaps the quickest and most aggressive in embracing speech have been the airlines, with most major carriers providing voice information lines for everything from booking tickets to checking flight status. Flight reservation systems have been implemented by AirTran Airways (Scansoft/Intervoice), Continental (Scansoft/Intervoice), Song, a Delta Airlines subsidiary - 1-800 Fly Song (Nuance/TellMe Networks) Nippon Airways (Nuance/Omron), and United Airlines (Scansoft/Intervoice). I book two tickets on a United Airlines flight from SFO to JFK in June.   Although airlines' initial applications involved flight information and booking, many have expanded into other areas of customer service as well. If I fly Scandinavian Airlines (Audium) I can check in for my flight using their voice check-in service, which would give me the option to be reminded of my flight via short message service, 22 hours before my flight, allow me to check-in and choose my seat and receive a confirmation of my check-in via SMS. Many airlines have also implemented outbound notification services for flight changes such as Alaska Airlines (Scansoft/PAR3) and Hawaiian Airlines. If I fly Northwest Airlines (Scansoft/Convergys) I can check flight status as well as the status of any lost luggage if I were to be unfortunate in that regard.   Moving on, I reserve a car through Dollar Rental Car's (Scansoft/Intervoice) voice-automated reservation system, but could just as easily have booked through National Car Rental (Nuance) or Thrifty Car Rental (Scansoft/Intervoice) among others. Finally, I book a room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square through Expedia.com's (Nuance/Intervoice) customer support line, but could just have easily done it through Travelocity.com (Scansoft/Intervoice).  The hotels themselves have been slower to adopt speech for reservations, although Active Hotels (Nuance/Broca Networks Ltd.) in the United Kingdom announced an online reservation system using automatic speech recognition and text-to-speech early last year.   If I had chosen alternate transportation, such as a train, speech is available there too. Amtrak in the United States (Scansoft/Intervoice) allows customers to check on schedules, fares and make reservations all by using voice. In Europe, Swedish Railways, Trenitalia, Swiss Federal Railways and Deutsche Bahn all provide timetable information for travelers.  These applications get a tremendous amount of customer calls each day. The Deutsche Bahn application, for example, supports 8,000 train stations across Germany. Running on a 180-port Nortel Networks IVR/speech platform, using TEMIC ASR, the system receives 20,000 calls per day on a toll-free number with 75 percent of the callers staying on the line to get timetable information. This has greatly reduced the load on Deutsche Bahn's call center agents.   Bus services worldwide have also followed suit with schedule and fare information and ticket ordering lines, including Safflebussen and Swebus Express (Nuance/SAS-IT/Voice Provider) in Sweden or the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (Nuance/LogicTree) in the United States.  Even cruise lines are getting into speech. Holland America Cruise Lines (Nuance/Syntellect) has implemented a speech driven reservation system for booking cruises.   Speech is also being used in the travel industry to complement customer service on the Web. For example, Travelocity.com, a Web site I often use to plan trips, has been automated by voice using a speech-enabled system supplied by Intervoice, using Scansoft speech technology. If I had booked online or through a Travelocity.com customer service representative I could call back anytime, and using my trip identification number could get information on my itinerary or make changes such as requesting a refund. Although the system now automates a good portion of calls, if a customer needs to speak to an agent their trip information is passed to the agent along with the call. Expedia.com also has a customer care line powered by Nuance. Finally, Lola is a "natural sounding cyber guide" powered by Elan Speech TTS used to help customers book rental cars online on the Avis France Web site. Customers click on the Lola icon to get additional customer service help as they navigate the site. But perhaps the most interesting newcomer in automated bookings is Voxify. Voxify's automated agents were developed through a combination of speech technologies, behavioral  modeling and deep training in specific vertical markets, such as travel, so that the automated agents can do many of the complex application like reservations that human agents can. Voxify is being used in travel companies such as CanJet (Canada's low-fare airlines), World Choice Travel and Canadian North Airlines for automated bookings of flights as well as hotels.   Points, Points, Points As an avid traveler I'm a member of most hotel and airlines frequent traveler programs. Earning points from these programs is good. Checking on them is now easier, too. I can check on award levels, accrued points and eligibility through several speech-automated customer service lines, 24-hours a day without having to speak to an agent. Numerous applications exist including those for frequent traveler lines from Air Miles Spain (Nuance/Ydilo), Qantas (Scansoft/Avaya), Frequence Plus - part of the Air France group (Elan Speech) and American Airlines.   Sightseeing, Shows and Entertainment Being from California and therefore addicted to driving, I hop into my rental car and hit the sightseeing circuit, driving around the city, to tourist attractions and the like. Thank goodness for onboard voice-driven navigation or I would have ended up on the wrong side of many bridges several times. Telematics - embedded speech systems in cars, have been or are being developed by many car manufacturers such as BMW, Jaguar and Acura, and are found in cars from rental car companies including Thrifty Car Rental and Dollar Rent A Car. They provide various services from voice activated dialing to navigation and infotainment. Being a newbie to the traffic and driving in New York this is a lifesaver. Speaking of lifesavers, having a car with the OnStar speech system from General Motors (Nuance) is added insurance in case of an emergency. If there had been an emergency I could have used the hands-free system to contact an agent, get directions or place a call.   What would New York be without a taxi ride? Ditching the rental car on one day of the trip I walk outside to hail a cab. In less crowded suburban or metropolitan areas where taxis aren't as prolific it is more commonplace to call for one. Unified Dispatch is a company that provides speech-enabled booking and dispatch systems for many of the taxi and limousine and other dispatch services such as couriers in North America, including San Francisco Yellow Cab, Alexandria Yellow Cab and Atlanta Checker Cab. Based on Audium platforms with Vocomo voice browsers, Unified Dispatch uses ScanSoft ASR and Rhetorical TTS to book rides for passengers opting to use an automated system instead of waiting for an agent. Outside the United States, dispatch is being automated by companies such as Black and White Cabs (Scansoft/Visible Voice) in the United Kingdom, Premiere Cabs (Scansoft/Visible Voice) in Sydney and Blue Star Taxis (Nuance/VeCommerce) in New Zealand.   Tools of the Trade - Navigation & Mobile Productivity I have mentioned many services that have been speech-enabled to help me make reservations, check in and out of services, and find my way while traveling, all done using that handy device we call the telephone. But that powerful little tool has even more to offer in the way of speech in that everything from dialing to receiving information can now be done on it to help me stay in touch with home and business and be productive while on the road. At a basic level the mobile phone has been endowed with services such as VAD. VAD services are fairly commonplace throughout the telecommunications sector, but the phone can also be used to check e-mail, access contact information and more. Then there are the phones themselves. Mobile phone providers have been making their phones into miniature offices by adding full color screens, cameras and speech. For example, both Samsung and Motorola have recently added technology from Voice Signal Technologies that allows for speaker-independent name look-up and dialing, command and control and call screening. Carriers such as Sprint PCS and Verizon have added voice features such as the ability to get the status on battery strength, roaming status and signal strength using a single voice command. Some applications are enhanced by speaker adaptation, which allows the recognizer to self-tune as it gets used to a particular speaker, which is a boon to speaking in a mobile environment.   Another good example of mobile productivity solutions comes from HeyAnita. Carriers including Verizon and Sprint have licensed HeyAnita's solutions to provide their end users with the ability to browse and listen to e-mails by phone, voice-surf for information and dial by voice. One of the solutions they have produced is rapid message service, which allows a user to send voice messages across carrier networks regardless of the handset or carrier. With RMS, I can record a message and send it to one or more people hands-free and it appears as a text message on their phone. They can then reply to me whether or not they are a subscriber to the original carrier service.   Entertainment While on the road or in my hotel room, I can dial other voice-powered services. Though not directly related to travel, companies have created speech applications that allow customers to do everything from order take out pizza to purchasing movie tickets. Movie Web site Fandango.com (Nuance/TellMe Networks) is one site that I can browse by voice to order tickets and bypass movie lines and TicketMaster (Scansoft/Edify) allows me to order tickets to shows and concerts. If I get hungry and don't want to go out there is Pizza Hut (Nuance/VeCommerce) or Domino's Pizza (Jacent Technologies) for pizza delivery.   Summary Not surprisingly, where speech hasn't made much of a dent is in the applications that require the greatest amount of customer interaction and customer care, such as reservation lines in hotels. It is one thing to book a mid-sized rental car in Atlanta, easily done by speech, and quite another to handle a call from a family traveling when they want to know about on-site babysitting, promotional packages of amusement park tickets, shuttle busses from the airport and the like. The calls are longer and more complex. The nature of hospitality - making sure that the customer has their questions answered and needs taken care of, sometimes with great handholding - makes automation of the initial contact with the customer trickier, but some portions certainly doable. However, the back end of reservations, such as checking on an existing reservation, calling to guarantee late arrival or checking out of a hotel, are certainly candidates for speech. So many areas of travel, from customer-facing contacts to internal application for travel related companies, have great promise to continue on the current growth path.     Nancy Jamison is the principal analyst at Jamison Consulting in Woodside, Calif. She can be reached at nsj@jamisons.com

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