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July/August 2017
For Business, Corporate Travel & Meeting Buyers & Arrangers

Rise of the machines

THE SEEMINGLY UNSTOPPABLE RISE of the online booking tool has assured us of one thing – business travellers and bookers have weaned themselves off the need to speak to a person. Yet how far will this trend really go?

Just how much are we willing to go to hand over to technology? Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in the last few years have made it possible for computers to act more and more like humans to the point where Alan Turing’s famous test – in which users attempt to distinguish between a human and a computer asked the same questions – is about to become impossible.

AI is becoming more mainstream due to the confluence of a number of factors. The first is that the cloud – essentially computing power on tap over the internet – has allowed companies to have easier and cheaper access to high-performance systems. Patrick Duncan, vice-president at travel AI platform WayBlazer, says: “Big data has been the buzzphrase for the past five years. People have realised the amount of data in their systems and, wanting to leverage that, they have exposed it to the cloud.”

The second factor is that there have been some breakthroughs in AI research. In the past, AI was largely an academic pursuit but now primary research is coming out of companies such as Google and Facebook – both of which regularly publish academic research emerging from their AI divisions.

TRAVEL ‘BOTS’ ARE HERE The travel sector is getting in on the AI act and many companies are launching ‘bots’ – automated assistants powered by AI. Last March, KLM became the first airline to trial a bot within Facebook’s Messenger platform.

In October, Mastercard announced it was developing bots for both its merchant and bank partners, which will use chat, messaging and natural language interfaces to communicate with consumers, letting them transact, manage finances and shop. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, travel and expense platform Concur launched a bot in beta for the group messaging platform Slack, which allows users to submit receipts, get a summary, create quick expense claims and examine travel itineraries. FCM’s Sam – short for Smart Assistant for Mobile – has been the highest profile bot launched in the business travel sector. It was launched at the GBTA Convention in Boston last July and trialled during the second half of 2016. It officially launched in the UK at last month’s Business Travel Show. The Sam bot lets users view itineraries and receive information on gate changes, driving directions, weather, restaurant recommendations and reservations. It also lets users contact a live consultant 24 hours a day.

Sam is intended to replace FCM’s existing mobile offering, says John Morhous, the TMC’s global technology product solutions leader. He calls it “an itinerary management tool on steroids”. “We believe mobile is the key to the business travel market going forward – it is the most important point of sale and customer service channel. It will be how most business travellers interact with their travel programme and travel management company,” he says. Half a year in, Sam is doing well, says Morhous. “Before going live, we had a few clients pilot a pre-release version to do some testing and look at workflows.

There is a fine line between informing people and ticking people off. We now have dozens of customers live on the app, and any customer that trades with FCM can now log into the App Store to download it. They only need authentication credentials for our portal platform.” One obvious question is how transaction fees will be pitched in this brave new bot world. “In the current version of Sam, there is a blended fee structure that sits between offline and online [transaction fees],”says Morhous. “We are now turning on more self-booking features in the app, and if you book a car and hotel yourself and complete the booking without having to work with a consultant, those will attract a more online fee structure.” How does Sam work with travel policies? “We will have a generic policy based on best practice in the market. Then, if customers want to take their full travel policy and load that into Sam, there will be a level of commercial uplift,” he says – meaning clients will be charged more. “It may be that only certain workflows will be turned on.”

BOTS THAT TALK

Unlike some of the new wave of AI assistants out there such as Amazon Echo, Sam does not currently work with voice, although Morhous says this option may be added. Thomas Sabatier, CEO of bot builder The Chatbot Factory, says: “Natural language is the most natural interface for human beings to communicate. Applied to human/ machine communication, we can bet that this is the final stage of digital democratisation. With chatbots, no one will be able to say ‘I don’t know how to use a computer or a smartphone’.”

WayBlazer’s Patrick Duncan believes voice will ultimately become the logical interface between people and computers. “It is what Amazon has been pushing for with Alexa and Echo, and now Google with Google Home. Apple and every other hardware manufacturer is going to be embedding dialoguing systems into their platforms. The natural interface is going to be voice, although there will still be a place for visual-based systems.” Sabatier says bots will be a game changer in travel. He says: “When people travel on business, they expect a time-saving and smooth experience,” he says. “A chatbot coupled with AI and data can overcome this challenge. In fact, people need assistance not only when booking their trip, but also when planning it.

A chatbot (like a human) can understand and assist someone throughout the whole experience, but since it is connected to contextual and transactional data it makes this tool more powerful than humans to provide a richer travel experience.” WayBlazer’s Duncan says that he rise of AI and bots will quicken the pace of consolidation in the travel industry. “Companies that do AI well will have an unfair advantage in

the market and consumers will gravitate to those brands that create this rich, personalised experience that will allow them to do more with less effort.” “There are the big guys out there, the booking.coms and similar, who are very aware of this and are already investing massive amounts of resources. Google is going to continue to dominate, Amazon is up and coming, while Facebook has big ambitions in travel.”

‘OK Google, what do you know about business travel?’

Fact, people need assistance not only when booking their trip, but also when planning it. A chatbot (like a human) can understand and assist someone throughout the whole experience, but since it is connected to contextual and transactional data it makes this tool more powerful than humans to provide a richer travel experience.” WayBlazer’s Duncan says that he rise of AI and bots will quicken the pace of consolidation in the travel industry. “Companies that do AI well will have an unfair advantage in

the market and consumers will gravitate to those brands that create this rich, personalised experience that will allow them to do more with less effort.” “There are the big guys out there, the booking.coms and similar, who are very aware of this and are already investing massive amounts of resources. Google is going to continue to dominate, Amazon is up and coming, while Facebook has big ambitions in travel.”

GOOGLE GOES WAY BEYOND SEARCH THESE DAYS. The search giant is increasingly integrated into our lives through email, mapping, video streaming and more. It has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and natural language processing, understanding what people are saying and using it to initiate some process on the computer, whether that is search, opening an email or finding directions to a location. As a test of what it can do, I opened up my smartphone and said “OK Google” to see what it was capable of. Here’s what she told me:

BBT: “What is a travel management company?” Google (speaking): “According to Click Travel, a travel management company is a business travel agent that manages an organisation’s business travel requirements. In addition to making reservations, a travel management company will help an organisation gain control and visibility of their business travel spend.”

[BBT: Nice one, Click, clever bit of product placement there. I’ll move on to something specific.]

BBT: “What is the best way to get to Frankfurt?” Google (speaking): “Frankfurt is 8 hours 31 minutes away in light traffic. Here are your directions.” [Not quite what I was after]

BBT (with a little irritation): I would like to fly from London to Frankfurt on 20th March returning on the 25th March. Google (speaking): “Flights from London to Frankfurt leaving the 20th and returning the 25th, start at £106. The shortest flight is about 1 hour 35 minutes long. You can choose different travel dates on your screen.” BBT: “What time does the Lufthansa flight from London to Frankfurt leave?” Google (speaking): “Lufthansa 903 from London to Frankfurt is on time.” BBT: “Book a business hotel in Frankfurt.” Google (speaking): “Here are the listings for business hotel.” BBT: “Where is a good place to eat in Frankfurt?”

Google has now given up on speaking and gives me a link to the top ten restaurants in Frankfurt.

BBT verdict: Google is getting good at understanding speech and you can even see it auto-correcting what it thinks you are saying as you speak. It is going to be a while before it can replace a TMC consultant or online booking tool. But knowing Google, it won’t be too long...

BENJAMIN PARK, PAREXEL’s DIRECTOR OF PROCUREMENT AND TRAVEL, is enthusiastic about the arrival of FCM’s chatbot, Sam. He says: “Sam fills a unique technological gap in the business travel market, merging the best of both a traditional online tool and offline service into one seamless experience. Thanks to the chatbot interaction, it is a perfect combination of a modern and efficient app

that is highly personalised. Sam is the equivalent of a personal, on-call concierge that business travellers will certainly find extremely helpful to have at their disposal.” Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) global travel analyst Alice Linley-Munro also welcomes Sam’s arrival. “It’s coming at the right time for OSRL, as we are looking for a solution to allow our travellers to change their

itineraries out of hours without having to wake one of our administrators to then go to our TMC. “We will be trialling travellers going direct to the TMC, however, we are very interested for later in the  year when Sam goes live to see how it could streamline things further.” She says the majority of OSRL’s travellers are millennials and are likely to

feel more comfortable using a chatbot than talking on the phone. “My travellers are always looking for the quick and easy solution. One of the most common complaints they have about changing itineraries on the go is that when they’re on the phone they can’t then see their emails to check options. Sam will remove that gripe for them, which will then remove them griping at me.”

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