2023 Vertical Markets Spotlight: Speech Technology in Travel and Hospitality

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Travel and hotel firms are starting to evolve their use of speech technology from simple information queries to travel-related contact centers and in-room queries to more complex travel planning.

“Travel and hospitality brands live and breathe by how well they can create memorable experiences, maintain guest loyalty, and tailor recognition and fulfillment of customer needs,” says Frank Schneider, an artificial intelligence evangelist at Verint. “These are the key pillars of their brand strategy, and the deployment of speech technology solutions powered by conversational AI is playing a major role. Through a concierge approach to AI, brands are ensuring experience, value, and successful outcomes are at the forefront of their strategy.”

According to Schneider, travel and hotel companies are using conversational AI and speech technology to re-engineer the guest experience via digital, voice, and human support channels while allowing them to stay nimble and responsive to changing customer and business needs.

But the industry’s biggest use of speech technology remains handling mundane tasks; more complex capabilities and uses are just in their beginning phases.

Contact centers for airlines, hotels, and other travel-related firms are increasingly relying on voice automation to deflect many of the calls that would otherwise go to human agents, experts agree. “The ability to handle complex questions has doubled in the past year,” says Rebecca Wettemann, CEO and principal of Valoir.

But it’s not just in the contact center. Many of the major hotel chains have enabled customers to lodge queries, make reservations at spas and restaurants, request additional towels, schedule wake-up calls, control in-room systems like heat and lighting, check out, and even leave feedback about their stays without having to talk to hotel staff. This capability often involves integration of a voice-based virtual assistant like Amazon Alexa.

In fact, Amazon in 2018 launched Alexa for Hospitality, an industry-specific version of its virtual assistant that has already been adopted by several major hotel companies, including Marriott International, Autograph Collection, and Wynn Las Vegas.

Also in 2018, Baidu started working with InterContinental Hotels Group in China, and in 2020, Google began its active penetration into the U.S. hotel market by adding industry-specific features to its Nest Hub.

Similar technologies have been deployed at IHG, Best Western, Kimpton, and Edwardian, among many others.

Another speech technology vendor, Nomadix, signed a deal with Choice Hotels International, which has 7,500 properties across 46 countries and territories. Nomadix provides a variety of telecom technologies for answering questions, including the Angie voice assistant, a multilingual digital concierge. The technology can also provide upsell and advertising revenue, according to the vendor.

Similarly, HiJiffy, an AI-powered guest communications hub powered by conversational AI, has put a voice assistant into beta testing and expects the full rollout to begin in the next few months. It has already started work with Macdonald Hotels and Resorts, City Suites, and Finn Lough UK to bring AI-powered solutions to 1,600 properties worldwide.

HiJiffy says its multilingual virtual assistant can handle complex voice communication with guests in complete sentences, with instant voice responses designed to closely replicate an interaction with a human agent/concierge. Hoteliers can customize the voice’s gender, accent, tone, and cadence.

“Guests can ask all types of questions related to the stay during their full guest journey, from pre-stay to in-stay and post-stay,” said José Mendonça, chief technology officer of HiJiffy, in a statement.

Offerings like these, though, are still in their infancy, and further penetration seems to be on hold for now. A recent Hospitality Technology study found that only 13 percent of hotels have that kind of technology in place; 65 percent have no plans to implement it in the near future. A little more than half said the technology has moderate to major potential, but other, more important priorities include contactless payments (81 percent), 5G network availability (71 percent), and AI for analytics and predictive intelligence (68 percent).

“I’ve only seen it in a few places,” says Robert Wakefield-Carl, senior director of innovation architects at TTEC Digital. “I didn’t use it. I think that hotels understand that consumers have much more powerful and customized AI on their phones.”

“Alexa is such a limited use case that if people have Alexa at home, they’re comfortable using it at a hotel. They know what it can do and what it can’t do,” Wettemann says. “But people don’t travel and stay in hotels to educate themselves on technology. Unless you already know how to use it, you won’t use it.”

Beyond hotels, other travel hubs have started deploying similar technologies.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for example, in mid-2021 started piloting a voice-activated virtual concierge from IBM and Soul Machines in kiosks at one terminal. The digital concierge, a lifelike, responsive onscreen image, can give passengers on-demand, voice-based answers to their questions.

Named Iris, the system has a directional microphone, speaker, and camera as well as speech-to-text, conversational analytics, and text-to-speech capabilities. It provides travelers with up-to-the-minute, location-based information on flight status, gates, local restaurants, an interactive map, and other information and has already managed thousands of conversations.

“In an era when the air travel industry is up against serious logistical challenges, maximizing both efficiency and customer experience is more important than ever,” said Greg Cross, CEO of Soul Machines, in a statement.

The DFW example notwithstanding, voice-related search in travel has advanced little in the past few years, according to Skift, a travel-related news site: “The great promise and hype by travel executives several years ago about the potential of voice search to revolutionize the industry have gone nowhere. Voice-based search hasn’t progressed as a serious destination marketing avenue because the technology underpinning it can’t yet drive effective engagement, inspire travel, and handle the complexity of travel search.”

Skift adds that delivering on the promise of travel-related search relies largely on incorporating ChatGPT and other AI-related technology. The good news for travelers and travel providers is that has started to occur within the past 12 months.

“I can say where I want to go in New York, and it will give me an itinerary. Or I can tell the app that I want a romantic weekend in San Francisco, and it will come back with recommendations,” Wettemann says.

Apps like these are extremely new; one of the first, iPlan.AI, available on Android and IOS mobile devices, debuted last year. The voice-based app provides full itineraries one city at a time, depending on how many days the traveler will be there. It first asks for the destination city, how long the traveler will be there, free time each day, the number of people in the party, and interests. It also asks for economy, midrange, or luxury budget choices. With that information, the app provides a daily itinerary.

There are a handful of other options. Dutch airline KLM, for example, offers a digital assistant that works through the Google Home hub. Users can tell it where they’re going and it will tell them what to pack, tailoring the suggestions based on weather forecasts, the length of the trip, and the planned list of activities.

Travel booking site Expedia has a skill for Amazon Alexa that allows users to manage their upcoming trips. It will keep track of everything from flight information to hotel and rental car reservations through voice interactions.

And Air India announced in March that it plans to use a version of the viral chatbot ChatGPT to improve customer engagement, bookings, and travel planning.

Echoing its impact on virtually every industry, ChatGPT is expected to dramatically change the travel and tourism industry in the very near future.

Travel and hospitality companies will continue to distinguish themselves via innovation around both conversational AI solutions and large language models (LLMs), Verint’s Schneider says, pointing to the following expected advances:

  • More open-ended conversations with digital concierges that can help guests imagine what is possible on a trip with detailed explorations of places to go, where to stay, how to get around, and what to see and do on their vacation.
  • More live agent assistance and guidance tailored to preference data and need anticipation driven by AI.
  • Predictive and proactive engagement via conversational AI messaging across Apple Business Chat (iMessage), Google Chat, and WhatsApp to offer alternate flight plans before guests even know there is a problem with their current booking.

At a time where delays of more than 90 minutes are common, the ability to load an alternate flight booking based on customer preference and even airline capability is a frictionless win-win for brands and travelers, Schneider says.

Additionally, call deflections offered by voice assistants are only expected to rise as AI helps the underlying technology answer increasingly complex questions without the need for agent intervention.

In the end, across the travel and tourism industry, voice’s impact will be huge.

“It is easy to understand that if hoteliers discard the power of voice, especially with regard to younger generations, they will miss important revenue generation opportunities, apart from not providing the best customer experience,” HiJiffy’s Mendonça concludes. 

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

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