Amazon, IHG, Hyatt, GCH talk voice
It may be early days but travel brands must prepare for the march of the voice-based machines
If customer experience is the most pressing issue for travel brands then voice should be top of mind. “If you just think about it from a customer point of view, there is nothing more comfortable or convenient or hassle free and hands free than communicating via voice,” Thomas Gmelch, the head of travel & mobility at Amazon Pay told an audience at this year’s Digital Strategy Summit in London.
And people are buying into it. By the end of 2018, some 100 million smart speakers were in use, and that is expected to double by 2020. While Amazon’s Alexa accounted for 62% of the market worldwide in 2017, by 2020 Statista forecasts that Google will be the dominant brand, increasing its market share to over 40%.
Certainly, if there was anything that Gmelch’s fellow panelists – from IHG, Hyatt and GCH Hotels - could agree on, it is that voice is the future, and that brands should be keeping abreast of market expectations and preparing for it now.
Daniel Wishnia, a digital marketing consultant at Around Town, the owners of GCH Hotels, which manages over 120 hotels across Europe, put it like this: “It may sound futuristic but it’s not so futuristic. We are going to a voice and visual stage… In the near future, we will speak with assistants.”
Sanchit Rege, Manager E-Distribution, Hyatt “kind of agreed” that assistants might one day take over and could envisage telling his Amazon or Google device “to get me all the options there are for five star luxury hotel stay in London”.
IHG runs one of the biggest voice operations globally and for Shailesh Pallipuram, the group's VP Channels, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa, “voice is a critical platform for us”.
In the audience was Alex Tourski, the founder of izi.TRAVEL, a story-telling platform, who believes there “nothing more powerful than a good story” because what “unites people are stories”. With the rise of voice, Tourski told EyeforTravel that there is huge potential for an audio-led platform that allows anybody with a smartphone in their pocket to “walk into a story”.
It is, admittedly, very early days, but transactional-based voice is already happening. In the UK, providing you have a compatible device, you can book a ticket on Virgin Trains using its new Alexa Skill. This is also possible with SunExpress, an airline that connects Europe to Turkey, as well as other holiday destinations in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands, Red Sea and North Africa.
Elsewhere, search engine Kayak was an early Alexa pioneer and is now on every major voice platform, and in the US Google Assistant allows you to check in with United Airlines, and is also testing a translation device with Hyatt and other hotels.
99% of all ‘voice skills’, the name given to voice apps, are purely informational
However, while simple verbal communication might be the future ticket for gleaning all sorts of relevant information, it’s not there yet. The challenge, according to Gmelch, is that 99% of all ‘skills’, the name given to voice apps, are purely informational. You can ask Alexa to tell you about the weather or play back your shopping list, for example. But looking ahead, finding relevant future cases will be crucial, and “make no mistake this is a big challenge”.
On challenges, Pallipuram had this to say: “The key words that you use while typing are very different to the key words when speaking to Siri or Google Assistant...that will be a massive change for industry.”
Meanwhile, Rege believes that rise of voice assistants will mean that the ability to personalise will no longer be controlled by hotels. Instead, it will be defined by his previous search history, which is likely to be very different to another person. He stresses: “We must keep investing our tech dollars in line with the expectations in the market and not really wait for things to change.”
Since Google knows his email, his calendar and his contacts, Wishnia wants voice assistants to become far more proactive. So, for example, if he has two free weeks free in his calendar, then he could expect to have trips recommended and arranged for him by a voice assistant!
However, that might be a step too far for those concerned with data protection and privacy issues and Gmelch is clear that trust and responsibility must be paramount. “First and foremost as a consumer I would still want to have control over the level of interaction or the level of proactivity that I will see from those machines. It’s very important that the customer still has a choice,” he says.
On the plus side, however, Gmelch says the majority of Amazon customers are “willing to provide relevant personal data if they perceive they are getting something in return, a value added benefit, a tangible positive result.”
So what would be a positive result? Putting his customer hat on, Gmelch said travel research is an intense experience that happens across multiple devices at all stages of the day - on his commute, in his lunch break, at home, on the couch. At the point of making a decision, he simply does not want to start again from scratch.
“How great would it be if I am back at home and I could basically have a playback of all relevant search results across multiple devices – maybe over two or three weeks…Then I could make a decision with my wife and use my voice to make that booking happen there and then.”