Booking partnerships, Google and chatbots will define the future

Attendees at Day 2 of EyeforTravel’s San Francisco conference got a solid history lesson, a peak into the future, and some practical advice for creating happy holidaymakers. Derek Water reports

The travel industry’s work must continue as the quiet conquest undertaken by Google, which has slowly amassed a formidable presence with new travel initiatives, continues.

Del Ross, chief digital officer with McKinsey and Company, said Google’s growing presence with its flights, hotel search, and other travel tools should inspire brands to focus on what they do best. In many ways, this is to create an optimum stay experience so that customers will come back and be willing to book directly with them.

He said that Google’s $12.2 billion in revenue from hotel and flight referrals is more than other competitors, but it’s just a fraction of the company’s overall business. Indeed, Google’s dominance in travel is an interesting conundrum because it pales in comparison to its other initiatives.

Smaller and medium size hotels and other travel destinations may feel powerless against Google and other large companies that want to control the booking experience. But they don’t have to feel that way, he said, urging them to use their accessible data to create an experience that see customers returning.

We need to think about the cost of getting [the customer] and keeping them, buying their love at the lowest possible cost

Del Ross, Chief Digital Officer, McKinsey and Company

“We train people in the industry to say, ‘have you stayed with us before?’” That’s a dumb question. We know the answer, we have the data in front of us. The screen is blinking; we know if they’re a platinum loyalty member. It's because we have this first time, every time mentality,” he said. “We need to think about the cost of getting and keeping them, buying their love at the lowest possible cost.” 

While some may be loathe to invest in building a direct booking experience, Ross argued that instead of simply outsourcing to aggregators, this may be a worthwhile bet.

“Direct booking isn't free, it might be your biggest expense but it might be worth it because you’re buying that customer from the first trip and can earn their recurring loyalty,” Ross said.

Also speaking on the Google session was Brian Harniman, the cofounder and managing director of Brand New Matter Inc, and a former Priceline exec. He reminded the audience of the travel industry’s journey from the days when Priceline, by giving the customer more control over booking, was a revolutionary concept.

But, as he pointed out, the experience wasn’t always great. And as expectations change about how quickly computing takes place on a mobile device, he sees value in a great experience that people will want to return for.

“The experience makes a difference. Differentiate properties, supply value to direct bookers, offer upgrades, know your guests and what makes them happy,” he said.

Chatbots, AI are already here

We are rushing into the future, and it may have already arrived for two technologies: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and chatbots.

The latter is already being used by some travel apps to give customers an easier way to contact the property or enquire about additional services.

Stuart Greif, a senior executive for travel and hospitality transportation industry solutions with Microsoft, said even if AI isn’t yet appropriate for a specific business, it’s worth exploring and understanding the innovation.

“When it comes to artificial intelligence, the question is what business problem are you trying to solve? Talk to your folks to understand the capabilities and value of the business needs,” he said.

Another area where Microsoft is making heavy investments is with voice recognition, with the company claiming that it is able to outperform humans in some instances. Chatbots, by comparison, are becoming more part of the mainstream, as integrated options inside many applications.

Being able to search instantly for a booking without jumping through apps or tapping multiple menus is what’s on the horizon

Matthias Keller, Chief Scientist, Kayak

“I think chat bots are here, the shift to voice is underway. If you have areas where it would be of benefit to your business to have some kind of integration with voice services or automation you need to be a part of it and have that conversation.”

Matthias Keller, a chief scientist with Kayak, said that future is closer than you think. The company was a large partner for Google Home, an AI-powered competitor to Amazon’s Echo. Being able to search instantly for a booking without jumping through apps or tapping multiple menus is what’s on the horizon, he said.

“There is hope that future travel assistants can do more work and solve hard problems for us,” he said.

Missed San Francisco? Why not join us next week at EyeforTravel Europe 2017

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