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The EyeforTravel Summit kicked off with a minute's silence to honour the victims of the recent tragedy, and then it was down to the business of online travel where voice search dominates. Derek Walter reports

It is time for travel companies to start thinking in an entirely different way – as tech companies! 

That’s how deeply integrated digital technology is throughout the entire travel process from research to booking, the journey and user reviews. But where rampant acceleration is happening is in how voice search is shifting customer behaviour and expectations.

The need for the industry to grapple with this innovation was at the forefront during the kickoff of the 2017 EyeforTravel North America Summit in Las Vegas. 

Conference chairperson Del Ross, a senior advisor with McKinsey & Company, said rapid change is the new normal. Voice use through smart assistants, in particular, is another key technology use that has ramped up in the last year.

It’s such a dynamic market, the rule of thumb is if  you don’t like where the travel industry is headed, just wait a week

Del Ross, a senior advisor, McKinsey & Company

“It’s such a dynamic market, the rule of thumb is if  you don’t like where the travel industry is headed, wait a week. That’s how fast things are moving,” he said.

Voice matters

The growing presence of voice search changes how customers expect to interact with their services, according to Bill Keen, vice president of mobile solutions and digital guest experience for IHG. He said that natural queries and conversations will become a more common part of how customers look for information when creating their next travel experience.

“It’ll be talk, touch and see,” he said. “People will actually say what they want, and with that comes understanding context. Asking Alexa, asking Google Home what you want to do, using Facebook Messenger, Wechat, these will become the new channels for individuals that are looking for travel. We can call them new, but they’re evolutions of what experience horizons have come before this.”

Paul English, the CEO of Lola, said all too often the conversation surrounding voice interaction, artificial intelligence, and machine learning is framed as humans vs. technology. Instead, his argument is that there are still going to be important roles reserved for human interactions, while the future of customer-brand interaction will be be more of a hybrid. At times chatbots or other autonomous agents will do the work best, and in other situations it will be time for those with flesh and blood to handle the duties

“Using Alexa or talking to your phone provides context,” he said. “A lot of getting voice input right and making it useful is having good content and good history for that person so the voice powered system can make that happen. I’m a huge Alexa fan, but I think Google is going to have a big advantage as they have a lot of the context. When you do a simple query to Google Home, it can piece together all of that. I’m very interesting to also see how Google Home evolves.”

I’m a huge Alexa fan, but I think Google is going to have a big advantage as they have a lot of the context

Paul English, CEO, Lola

The usefulness of voice technology should be seen as a way to add value, instead of as a competitive or ‘creepy’ intrusion, according to Dan Christian, chief digital officer of The Travel Corporation. He believes that younger users in particular find the use of voice to be natural and trust it, in the same the way that eventually everyone became comfortable entering credit card numbers into Amazon.

“Speaking to a voice assistant is a value add,” he said. “We’re being taught to use voice recognition as an entry point; it’s a comfort level to have that exchange. It really is your own digital self, more like your altar ego you can utilise to do things your behalf. Some have privacy concerns, but if more value the confidence in sharing that perspective will shift over time.”

Vegas strong

The EyeforTravel conference began nearly two weeks after the deadly attack in Las Vegas. The conference began with a minute of silence to honour victims, and featured an address by Chuck Bowling, president of Mandalay Bay Resorts.

You coming here to support this destination is meaningful

Chuck Bowling, President, Mandalay Bay Resorts.

He lauded the local community for supporting the resort’s nearly 7,000 employees and for those conferences that chose to hold their events despite the recent tragedy.

“You coming here to support this destination is meaningful. Las Vegas has no other industry than tourism and entertainment. This community depends on travel for its livelihood and as an industry we can rally together and drive business,” he said.

He encouraged attendees to share that Las Vegas is still open for business and delivering good experiences for those who visit.

Missed this event? Why not join us next year in Miami for the Smart Data Travel Summit 2018

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