Vertical Markets Spotlight: Speech in Travel and Hospitality

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After suffering a sharp downturn at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the travel/hospitality industry is coming back strong as consumers are returning to cruises, airlines, theme parks, and other venues they largely avoided for the past couple of years.

In the meantime, speech technology became part of consumer’s everyday lives, and travel consultant Revfine urges the hospitality industry to take advantage of it. “For tourism companies, it is important to respond to this, to embrace new approaches and to capitalize on the technology’s potential,” company officials write in a recent blog post.

Technology providers have recognized that both consumers and travel/hospitality providers like being able to use speech technology to obtain flight information, book restaurant reservations, and access a host of other travel/hospitality-related services without leaving the comfort of their homes or hotel rooms (if they’re already on the road).

One key area of development is voice search, spurred on by the popularity of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. Voice search is so easy for travelers to use, and it provides hotels, airlines, and other travel/hospitality companies with easy and affordable ways to drive additional business. And for most, the cost of installing Alexa- and Google Home-enabled devices in hotel rooms can be offset by freeing staff to do more revenue-generating tasks rather than answering numerous, often redundant, questions.

Recognizing the potential the hospitality industry affords, Amazon has launched Alexa Smart Properties to help hotels, resorts, and vacation rental communities manage their Alexa-enabled devices and networks and field Alexa skills specific to their properties.

Numerous properties are already using the technology, according to Rebecca Wettemann, CEO and principal of Valoir, who has encountered it at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Guests at Wynn Las Vegas can use Alexa to control lights, open and close curtains, set the temperature, request housekeeping service, and much more. RAIN, which customized the technology for Wynn Las Vegas, said it fielded 49,000 utterances in the first two months, helping it design automations that can respond to inquiries that would otherwise have been handled by the front desk.

The technology is unique in that it can apply artificial intelligence and rules to reject out-of-bounds requests. For example, if a guest was to request 20 towels, the technology could respond that the request didn’t meet hotel standards and that guests could only receive a maximum of four additional towels per night.

More than two-thirds of all Wynn Las Vegas guests surveyed early in the deployment cycle said they liked having a room with Alexa.

Alexa and Google Assistant are finding use cases in other parts of the hospitality industry as well. Dutch airline KLM recently launched its smart, interactive voice-driven pack assistant on Google Home. KLM helps passengers pack their bags through its service bot. The service bot, called BB (short for BlueBot), includes artificial intelligence and offers personalized advice on what to take along, based on passengers’ destinations, trip durations, and local weather conditions.

“KLM is well known for its personal approach. KLM’s new service on Google Home with BB is the next step in its innovative digital strategy and the first step on voice, offering personalized service through Google Home with the help of artificial intelligence,” said Pieter Groeneveld, Air France-KLM’s senior vice president of digital, in a statement when the service was announced. “KLM’s interactive pack assistant shows the added value offered by KLM throughout the entire customer journey.”

In the future, KLM expects customers to be able to send voice reminders via Google Home to their preferred social media channels for specific items that might not be readily on hand, like travel visas, airline tickets, or rental car agreements.

One of the destinations that KLM serves is Orlando, Fla. KLM passengers can use the bot to learn about many of the city’s amenities.

Additionally, Tripadvisor and Visit Orlando, the city’s official tourism association, developed a fully immersive audio tourism “experience” using Amazon’s Alexa voice technology. The new Alexa skill uses Tripadvisor’s content and highlights lesser-known activities and attractions, from hiking to airboat rides, celebrity-chef dining to local arts and culture.

“While Orlando is known as the theme park capital of the world, our destination offers endless options for all types of travelers to uncover hidden gems throughout our unique neighborhoods, from Winter Garden and Downtown Orlando to Lake Nona and beyond,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO at Visit Orlando, in a statement when the program was announced. “We are thrilled to give visitors a new and innovative way to learn about Orlando as Alexa takes listeners through a journey, introducing unexpected Orlando experiences and helpful reviews from travelers who have [visited] before.”

Tripadvisor developed a similar program with tourism partners in Abu Dhabi, a popular destination in the United Arab Emirates.

While Amazon and Google are the biggest providers of technologies for hospitality and travel, they aren’t the only ones. Volara provides a voice-based guest engagement software running on hardware like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest Hub, and it recently partnered with Intelity, providers of a guest engagement and staff management platform for the hotel, casino, cruise, and luxury residential communities, to offer a voice-based system for guests at upscale properties like New York City’s Ganesvoort Meatpacking NYC. Properties can deploy both platforms simultaneously. The partners expect to offer more in-depth integration over time, with voice requests flowing through the platform directly into GEMS, Intelity’s staff automation platform.

But while the in-room guest experience has been one of the major focuses for speech technology innovation, the contact center has been a steady user of speech interfaces. They became especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last two years have been a roller coaster for brands in the travel/hospitality sector, with pandemic disruption producing many confusing and challenging scenarios for both brands and consumers, ranging from shutdowns and personnel furloughs to the need to orchestrate safe opening/operating procedures as well as navigating mask mandates and various legal requirements,” says Daniel Ziv, vice president of speech and text analytics, global product strategy, at Verint.

“Cancellations and rescheduling have been rampant, especially given the fact that the airlines did not penalize customers for cancellations or rescheduling, so interaction volumes for this use case rose precipitously,” Ziv adds. “For intermediary booking brands (such as Priceline and Expedia), this scenario was made even more challenging because for every one customer you might have a flight, hotel, and rental car cancellation/reschedule and a need to rebook based on availability, rules, and requirements across multiple carriers and brands.”

As the travel/hospitality sector shifts from a state of crisis to one of recovery, companies need to place a huge amount of attention on brand rebuilding. Key to this effort will be the ability to discern what is important to customers and to understand how they can differentiate, according to Ziv. “The use of speech technology is just as important now in the rebound,” he says. “The travel and hospitality industry is unique in that customers are predominantly mobile-first and on the move; often scenarios that arise can’t wait. For example, if you are stuck in an airport because your flight has been canceled, you need assistance urgently.”

That places an added burden on travel/hospitality contact centers, an area that has always been ripe for innovation.

Carnival Cruise Lines is among the travel/hospitality companies relying on speech technology to improve the performance of its contact center. The company uses Verint’s enterprise management and interactive voice response technology to conduct post-call surveys for customer satisfaction with travel agent sales interactions.

After interacting with the contact center, customers who agree to a survey are transferred to the IVR, which uses the same “Tina” persona that delivers Carnival’s other voice prompts, providing customers with a familiar interface that they’ve already used comfortably.

“The focus moving forward will be on ensuring the success of one workforce, where everyone is empowered with the right tools to assist customers, no matter what channel they choose, and to handle volume spikes,” Ziv says. “Also critical to success is having a total quality approach where voice and interaction analytics come together to support immediate, real-time analysis and guidance across 100 percent of interactions for continuous improvement.”

Expect even more use of speech technology in the travel/hospitality industry as business travel starts returning to pre-COVID levels, meaning even more queries that will require the sector to use even more automated solutions to handle the increase. 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises1@comcast.net.

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