Man vs machine: humans still have the upper hand, says CWT

Replacing many human tasks using AI is possible and might help to drive efficiencies, cut costs and improve the customer experience, but there is more to it than that

Just about every occupation, say consultants McKinsey, have a task that can be automated using artificial intelligence (AI). Though to date there’s been a lot of talk and not so much action in the travel space, with brands like Amazon pouring money into Alexa, it remains a hot topic.

From customer focused chat bots to automated room service, driverless cars or the robot run front desk, the possibilities for AI in travel have focused mainly on cutting costs, improving the customer experience and driving efficiencies. But, according to McKinsey, only 5% of jobs have the capacity to be fully automated. There are also other things to think about including cost of implementation, impact on the labour force, economic benefits and whether it will be socially accepted.

Carlos Sanchez, Sr. Manager Big Data Analytics at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, shared his thoughts on the pros and cons ahead of EyeforTravel’s European Summit in London next month.


Carlos Sanchez, Sr. Manager Big Data Analytics at Carlson Wagonlit Travel 

EFT: AI is a hot topic. How do you think it will change the future of travel?

CS: One of the most staggering statistics in travel is the number of websites visited before booking a trip – more than 30. AI is here to change that. It will have a major impact, enabling the analysis of large data sets on the fly and delivering the right information to the right traveller at the right time. No longer will we be presented with every possible combination, but only with the options that appeal to us.

EFT: Do you think there will ever be a point where humans are replaced in data analysis roles in travel?

CS: I don’t think that will happen. Machines might be very good at finding solutions for specific problems but even then, they are not very good at explaining those solutions to us humans. So we’d have to follow them blindly. That’s unlikely to happen. People don’t like being told what to do – and especially by machines!  

EFT: What about robots providing customer service at hotel front desks?  

CS: Despite all the progress being made in the travel industry, I don’t believe robots will replace humans. As humans we are still much more comfortable talking to other human beings than to machines.

Despite all the progress being made in the travel industry, I don’t believe robots will replace humans

And this level of comfort is not going to go away any time soon. We even have a certain level of distrust towards machines. After all, all the sci-fi movies warn us they want to take over the world. So there will be a mix of human/robot face-to-face customer service where the client decides where to go.

EFT: Where can AI and machine learning go wrong?

CS: Machines [driven by data] might be able to predict with a high degree of accuracy what, say, your television viewing tastes are, or where you might want to go next. But they are incapable of judging whether their recommendations may cross any boundaries. Take the famous Target incident where it began sending baby offers to a teenage girl. When her Dad saw them, he became furious and asked Target for an apology. Sure enough, he soon discovered that his daughter was pregnant – but that is not the way to find out!

EFT: Your CEO Andrew Jordan has said that “people are quick to discard things that don’t work for them”. How do you tackle that from a corporate travel perspective?

CS: Yes, true, and there is more on what Andrew has to say here but let’s just say the business travel industry is primed for change.

It is important that the corporate travel space understands business travellers are also consumers. Therefore, they are accustomed to and expect the highly personalised user experience that they already have access to in areas such as retail and entertainment. Amazon or Netflix – just two examples of many – provide automatic recommendations based on your previous activity.

My view is that big data provides the opportunity for the managed travel industry to use technology in the same way as the most innovative retailers. The result will be truly tailored insights and services.

A consumer-grade, personalised experience could:

  • Deliver an app that knows and suggests the right flights and hotels

  • Challenges you with ideas and offers you actually want – and gets it right!

  • Informs you if people you work with or know are crossing paths as you travel

  • Alert you to problems such as weather, cancellations or delays with good, sensible suggestions to help you take evasive action and assistance to make the changes as easy and painlessly as possible.

As an example: say you go from London to New York regularly. For your next booking, all you need to do is say: ‘I need to be in New York on Wednesday and back in London on Friday’. Based on your past preferences – flight times, airline, hotel, ground transportation – the travel management company will make recommendations that will be right, 99% of the time. That process really can be automated, making it highly efficient.

Sanchez also contributed to EyeforTravel's recent The State of Data in Travel Report 2017 

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