TTE 2017: Virtual travel agents are a step closer, say AI experts

TTE 2017: Virtual travel agents are a step closer, say AI experts

Advances in technology mean AI is to feature heavily in the coming years and is edging closer to automating human actions. Lee Hayhurst reports

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technology are poised to bring the virtual travel agent a step closer to reality.

IT firms at last week’s Travel Technology Europe showcased how AI will increasingly automate many tasks traditionally done by humans.

And the pace of change is set to quicken, as firms aim to keep up with the rise to prominence of intelligent interactive voice-controlled devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and chatbots.

Dutch budget airline Transavia has worked with digital customer experience specialist Mirabeau, part of the Cognizant group, to create a flight search chatbot for Facebook Messenger.

Ines Verburgh, innovation lead at Transavia, said the pioneering bot took just four weeks to build and was launched as a test so the airline could start learning what works and what doesn’t.

“It’s going to take time; it’s never going to be clever straight away. You have to train it,” she said.

“It’s scary to fail but people need to understand that experiments and failure is good, otherwise you are not learning.”

Mirabeau strategy director Edgard Beckand predicted such natural language voice interfaces would have a bigger impact than the smartphone revolution.

“We see digital user interfaces and customer experience playing an extremely important role in business success,” he said.

“If you can harness these types of technology, you can create smarter digital products that really blend in to people’s lives.”

Beckand added: “AI is going to be used everywhere, in websites, in call centres, but the bot environment is a great place
to start experimenting.”

Kevin Ashbridge, account director at software developer SDL, said customer expectations are being driven from outside travel by personal technology developed by the likes of Apple.

“If you waste people’s time, they won’t book with you,” he said. “People expect you to know who they are and deliver content that’s relevant to them.

“You as travel companies are being challenged to create relevant personal content because of Apple. It has to be optimised for the device, relevant and fast, and in my language.”

Ashbridge said personalisation today requires customers to tick boxes and use filters, whereas the digital interfaces of the future will do this intuitively without being asked.

“When you book you get the same piece of data as everyone else,” said Ashbridge. “I have to do all sorts of research to know if that’s relevant to me.

“Content is treated as a ‘blob’ of words, or pictures or video that sits in a database and when someone comes along you just put that in front of them.”

SDL is piloting technology that automatically tailors product descriptions in milliseconds using AI and natural language processing that constantly tests and learns what drives conversions.

Terry Jones, chairman of, said the latest technologies will glean meaningful customer insights from the explosion of data generated by the billions of devices hooked up to the web.

“There’s an increasing amount of unstructured data and traditional computing isn’t ready for it,” he said. “Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence is a game changer.

“These are smart computers that learn over time,” Jones added. “They are the first computers to be worth more when they’re old than when they’re new.”

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