7 ways AI will revolutionize business travel

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In April, United Airlines hit a huge pocket of public relations turbulence after a passenger was forcibly removed from one of its partners’ airplanes. The incident raised questions about blindly following procedures, passenger rights, and United’s executive leadership.

Here’s another question it raised: Could artificial intelligence (AI) have prevented the embarrassing drama from even happening?

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AI and machine learning are already impacting many areas of business, such as marketing, as well as most industries, including retail. The travel industry in particular “is ripe for AI interventions,” says Param Singh, Associate Professor of Business Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. From chatbots to robotic bellhops, here are seven ways AI could impact business travel in the months, and years, ahead.

1. Fewer overbooking dramas

On April 9, 2017, a paying passenger was dragged off United Express Flight 3411, from Chicago to Louisville, Ky. Four seats on the full flight were needed to accommodate airline crew members, as USA Today and others reported.

After no volunteers came forward, four passengers were selected by computer. Passengers were chosen on the basis of frequent-flier status, fare type, and connecting flight options. Three passengers eventually deplaned willingly in exchange for travel vouchers. A fourth, physician David Dao, refused, was removed against his will—and became an unwilling member of the viral video hall of fame.

AI could have helped United avoid the high-profile drama in several ways, says Henry H. Harteveldt, president and travel industry analyst of Atmosphere Research Group. In theory at least, AI could have provided an early warning to the airline’s crew scheduling or planning application about a potential staffing problem on the horizon, giving the airline more time to address the issue, he explains.

Also, on the day of the flight, AI might have enabled the airline to identify the passengers most agreeable to changing their travel plans based on their profile data, Harteveldt says. Younger passengers, for instance, would potentially have more flexibility and greater interest in travel vouchers, vs. a physician like Dao, aged 69, who was anxious to return to his practice in Kentucky.

2. More personalized service

Some of the AI interventions are already happening, with chatbots for booking (such as GuestU and SnapTravel), personal travel assistants (such as Mezi), and AI to help human agents with travel planning (notably Lola), Singh says.

“Most of the AI interventions right now are what we could call machine-learning-driven,” Singh explains. “With large amount of personal data, sophisticated algorithms are able to predict your needs and recommend appropriate solutions. These are, at a core level, automating the functions that people perform.”

But with the next wave of applications, “we’ll start seeing major improvements in the business travel experience,” Singh says. “This wave will be AI interventions built on cognitive computing. These systems will have the ability to understand, learn and reason through the enormous data and then provide solutions that a human agent won’t be able to provide on their own. These systems would provide value-added services and experiences, which would cognitively not be possible for the average employee in the travel industry.”

The travel industry can use AI and machine learning “to learn about the habits and preferences of its frequent fliers and guests, to provide more personalized experiences,” says Sumit Gupta, VP of HPC, AI and analytics at IBM. “Imagine the day when you can sit down in your seat and the flight attendant already knows just how you like your gin and tonic. Then, you’re greeted at the hotel desk by name because of visual recognition software. And the Yankees game is already playing on the TV when I arrive in my room.”

Wayne Thompson, chief data scientist at analytics software developer SAS, paints the following picture of AI-assisted business travel in the future:

“Let’s say you have an important customer briefing in Los Angeles,” Thompson explains. “You’ve already received a text that your flight is on time. Monday morning is one of the busiest times at the airport, and naturally you’re running late. You start to worry about finding a spot to park in the packed airport garage, but then your navigation system uses image detection to direct you to the best open spot. Using convolutional networks, the computer can analyze photos of the parking lot in real time and detect images with a 6 percent error rate, which is better than the human eye.”

Once you pass through airport security, “you’re back on track timewise and decide to get a coffee and something to read,” Thompson continues. “While approaching the book store, you’re notified of special promotions based on your reading history. Then, at checkout you receive a coupon for gardening and classic car magazines, based on a recommendation system that knows these are your hobbies.

“Now you’re starting to wonder why your co-worker hasn’t arrived at the gate. She receives a warning that she was in the wrong terminal and gets instructions on the quickest route to the correct gate. Location services have long been used to route planes. Now, they can also be leveraged to better move passengers along and help assure that flights are on time.”

Once you’re in the air, you use the airplane’s Wi-Fi to tweet something like: “RDU > LAX leaving on time. No complaints here. First leg of this busy travel day could have been ugly but was not.” Using entity extraction and sentiment analysis software, the tweet is interpreted as positive, so the airline responds: “Thanks! We hope the rest of your day goes as smoothly. Should be sunny and 80 in LA when you arrive.”

3. Smarter apps and chatbots

Many developers are already using AI and machine learning to enhance the traveler’s experience via apps. For example, based on information Kayak has learned about you and what you’ve told the app/web service, your preferred hotel brands will be at the top of your Kayak search results. Location and context-aware data will alert you if, say, you’re on a trip to Paris and rain is in the forecast. “You’d get an alert, telling you if you want to see the Eiffel Tower, go now,” says Kayak CTO Giorgos Zacharia.

The Lola app, released in 2016, offers AI-based chatbot functionality along with a staff of human travel agents. “We’re trying to create superhuman travel consultants who are AI-powered and can handle more trips per hour than a regular travel agent can,” Lola CEO and co-founder Paul English told Skift. “They can make dramatically better recommendations than normal travel agents.”

Also in 2016, 12 Radisson Blu Hotels in the U.K. began offering guests access to “Edward,” an interactive, SMS-based service to answer guest questions about hotel amenities, directions, and receive guest feedback, Forbes reported.

4. Better customer service

Hilton Worldwide contact centers are using AI and machine learning in hopes of creating a better customer experience, according to Andy Traba, VP of Behaviorial and Data Science for Mattersight, a behavioral routing software service Hilton is using.

“When a business customer calls a Hilton hotel, Mattersight matches their data and analyzes their personality and behavior traits in less than five seconds,” Traba explains. “Tone, tempo, grammar, and syntax are all fed into an algorithm, along with Hilton reward levels. That algorithm mines data from billions of customer calls to quickly pair the traveler with a call center agent who is best suited for their personality and current behavior.”

For example, a caller traveling internationally who’s distraught about a lost reservation “would likely be routed to a different agent than someone who calls up to check room availability,” Traba says.

5. Travel planning integrated into everyday tools

We’re already seeing travel tools added to apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype and Slack. For example, Concur (developer of TripIt) has developed a chatbot for collaboration app Slack, enabling users to request information about their travel plans and submit expenses via Slack using a conversational interface, says Tim MacDonald, EVP of Global Products at Concur. For example, users can type a question such as, “When is my next business trip?” and the Concur chatbot will respond with itinerary details, he explains.

Concur is also working with Microsoft to integrate travel planning and expense processing into Microsoft Outlook 365. From the Outlook inbox, you’ll be able to submit an expense by clicking “Send to Concur,” MacDonald says. “And when business travel plans are added to an Outlook calendar, you’ll have the option to book travel right then and see travel options pop up in the Details pane for those plans,” he continues. “The business traveler will have the option to book flight, hotel and transportation for that city. Concur will read the trip dates and suggest options based on company travel policy.”

6. Voice-enabled smart hotel rooms

Virtual assistants—which some view as a low-level form of AI—are making inroads at some hotels.

Marriott International is among the hotel chains exploring natural language processing and digital assistants. “Our guests are quickly adopting this technology and intelligence in their lives today,” says a Marriott spokesman. “For example, people use their phone to ask for directions, order products before you even know you need them or have translation easily available. We’re excited to test what it means to bring voice-activated technology into the guest room, so guests can request services, learn about the local area, and perform general informational tasks like asking for the weather or setting an alarm for the next morning.”

Marriott is currently testing this capability by placing Amazon Echo devices in some Marriott properties, with primary tests being conducted at the W Hotel in Austin, Texas. Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant in Echo devices can control the lighting in some Marriott rooms. The brand is also testing Apple’s Siri in some properties, particularly Marriott’s Aloft hotel in Boston.

Meanwhile, Wynn Resorts Ltd. plans to install Echos in all 4,748 of its Las Vegas hotel rooms by this summer. “Alexa will let guests control room lights, room temperature, drapery, and the television using voice commands,” CEO Steve Wynn told The Verge.

7. Hotel robots!

In 2014, Marriott division Starwood introduced its robotic butler, “Botlr,” at the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif. (home of Apple’s headquarters). The R2-D2-ish robot delivers small items, like toiletries, to guest rooms, among other chores. It’s also in service at Aloft Long Island City, Aloft Miami Doral, and Aloft Silicon Valley (in Newark, Calif.).

Marriott says it’s currently designing and testing Botlr’s next-generation model, which is currently being tested. Guests will be able to text their hotel’s Botlr to request service and get information about the hotel, among other amenities, according to Marriott.

The Henn-na Hotel in Japan, which opened in 2015, achieved fame as the “world’s first robot hotel,” according to Wired. The hotel has a humanoid robot, Yumeko, as well as an English-speaking dinosaur that wears a bellboy hat and bow tie. The hotel also uses robots to clean rooms and features AI-powered systems that let guests unlock their hotel room doors using facial recognition software.

Connie is Hilton’s IBM Watson-powered robot that acts as a AI-powered concierge, answering guests’ questions about hotel amenities, nearby attractions and restaurants. Connie made its debut in 2016 in Hilton’s McLean, Virginia property.

The challenges of AI for travel

To provide value-added services, AI needs “a significant amount of personal information about the customer,” notes Singh. “It wouldn’t work without this information, and it’s a huge privacy concern. A lot of people might not feel comfortable sharing their information.”

Business travelers “will feel better giving up their data if the travel organization is transparent about its use and puts the control back in the hands of the business traveler,” adds Robert Zippel, global technology lead for Accenture Travel. “So, travel organizations need to work together with the business traveler on what the data will be used for, in regards to inputting into AI and ML capabilities, and provide opt-out options as well.”

AI introduces data security concerns as well, says Singh. “With so much personal data being stored and shared across systems, a corrupted system or a hacker could be a significant risk to the individual and the organization.”

AI also raises ethical concerns, Singh says. “What is an AI system’s goal? Is it on the customer’s side by helping them? Or is it focused on the profit of the companies by guiding the customer to the most profitable product they could potentially purchase? These things would be coded into the algorithm, and no one is sure now how it will work.”

Ultimately, AI’s major challenge will be “to provide a human touch, which is particularly important in the hospitality industry,” Singh says.  

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