Tech Talk: Anticipating the Future

Predictive technology could revolutionise the way we buy travel – but will we miss the human factor?

At the recent ITM Conference in Dublin, delegates heard Google’s account manager Damian Lynch talk about how the search giant was “scraping the surface of ‘anticipation’” when referring to virtual assistant technology built on algorithms and data history to anticipate your needs.

And while Lynch also said this concept was “really going to take off”, Amazon has had its eye on the prize for a while. In 2013, it gained a patent for what it called “anticipatory shipping” – in theory it could deliver an item to a customer without them ordering it.

Based on predictive analytics, the user’s search history and more data, Amazon would be so confident it was the right product, such as a new DVD box set, the recipient would gladly keep the gift and pay for it.

Purchasing goods on the customer’s behalf, for now, is not common practice, but could the idea set a precedent in business travel? Will travel booking systems soon be tapping into our digital lives and automatically find, then book, the ideal flight, hotel or transport for the next business meeting?

Scott Garner, president, data and analytics at Adara, says the concept isn’t actually that new. “Decades ago, one of the earliest forms of this was the book club – they’d send you one, and if you liked it, you kept it,” he says. “But the business traveller would value this – one less thing you have to do on the road is good.”

Joakim Everstin, EMEA head of innovation and technology evangelist at Sabre, thinks the fact that airlines such as British Airways are already trialling automatic check-in ahead of your flights means we’re not far off. He says: “I don’t have time to scan all the dates and prices. So I’d like a system that could find something below a certain threshold, then reserve it for me, and I can tap and book.”

Paul Richer, senior partner at Genesys, believes calendar auto-scanning would appeal, with anticipatory technology searching for the best options. However, he adds: “I doubt whether users would want the technology to commit to paying for a trip without an authorisation. Where this could work best is for travellers who book full-fare trips which are, of course, refundable.

“The travel company could see which travellers are making regular trips and book these at best price with a click to cancel button if the flights are not required. I can also imagine a system anticipating a car that needs booking, preparing that booking and then triggering an alert to the traveller’s smartwatch with one click to accept and book.”

In some sectors, certain companies are already looking to anticipate customers’ needs. Delta Air Lines’ interactive voice response system, for example, uses technology supplied by Naunce (the voice recognition firm behind Apple’s Siri) to determine what the customer is phoning for, removing the need for options.

Sojern’s EMEA managing director, Jim Brigden, notes Uber recently patented taking trip information and then showing a recommended flight, hotel and price to get you from point A to point B all-in-one.  “That’s a pretty joined up experience,” he adds.

While the technology may already exist, there are concerns that creating a system where a ‘real’ decision is never made may be a step too far. John O’Neill, managing director at Traverse Associates, says: “Booking automatically has some inherent risks of holding inventory that is later cancelled, and then subsequently can’t be sold, plus all the complexity and hassle factor associated with changing bookings.”

For Sabre’s Everstin, the main concern is more ‘human’. “It’s about freedom of choice, he argues. “The decision has to sit with the traveller.” He cites one possible scenario where an employee would be in a hotel, and didn’t sleep well. Via a smartwatch, that information would feed into the hotel’s system, and they could then offer an upgraded breakfast package.

“Is the value-add higher than the fact I’m giving up this information,” he questions. “And would that [sleep] information be available to the person’s company, who could then turn around and say ‘your heartbeat’s way too high’? It’s a very intrusive thing. The technology can do that, but I have a humanist approach.”

Meanwhile, Katherine Grass, head of innovation and ventures at Amadeus UK and Ireland, believes if the decision-making process is removed, so is the chance for companies to “inspire” people to travel. “People like looking at different websites to plan their holiday,” she says. “We don’t want to take the magic away from that inspiration.”

Toby Guest, global strategic sourcing manager, congress and events at Bayer, says he would be against any system that books travel for you. “If we were to allow [travel companies] to start making assumptions and adding extras they ‘presume’ we would want, I’d be annoyed,” he says, adding travel firms are already prevented from auto-completing insurance, baggage, seating and other tick boxes to “prevent flagrant upselling”.

While anticipatory booking may seem outlandish, the business travel sector, with its large silos of data, is ripe for trialling this tech. Yet in the leisure sector, OTAs have the track record in going the extra mile to fulfil customers’ needs.

Traverse Associates’ O’Neill adds: “The people who hold the data are best placed to draw analytic insights and to set up a learning system.  From my perspective, the default fulfilment of all of these booking requests would be massive teams of people making all of these new bookings.  Where you start to get massive cost savings in the whole system is by leveraging automation technology to automatically fulfil these orders in the back office.”

Adara’s Garner, meanwhile, says his company uses “predictive technology extensively, to predict what type of messages are most relevant to particular travellers”. And with the rise in mobile bookings, and “unique identifiers”, anticipatory booking is possible. “With some partners we can append data back on to their CRM system,” he says.

Sojern, for example, has in-depth data on more than 350 million travellers worldwide.

As Brigden says: “We know when business people are in the market for a flight, hotel, car hire or train ticket and we can use this data to influence behaviour with targeted offerings at the right time, to the right people, with the right message.

“Business travel has lots of advantages as it’s a smaller, tighter audience and it’s easier to predict patterns, trends and events. And, of course, a B2B provider knows who the user is so, theoretically, it should be easier. The question is: do B2B providers have the necessary budgets, technical knowledge and corporate vision to take advantage of this opportunity?”

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