The opening session of the GBTA Europe conference 2017 featured an intriguing session on artificial intelligence and how it will change the face of travel management in the future, with questions delivered by a special ‘AI’ called Ingo (voiced by VDR executive director Hans-Ingo Biehl) and moderated by Catherine McGavock, regional vice president EMEA at the GBTA.

Ingo started the panel discussion by asking participants to explain how they think AI will be used in the travel industry. Serdar Gurbuz, head of digital innovation at Turkish Airlines, began by saying the carrier realised the potential of the technology and began to invest in its application.

He commented: “Complex technology is emerging and companies need to work to adapt it or risk falling behind their competitors. We believe AI will help humans to increase efficiency, decrease costs and enhance the customer experience.”

Karen Hutchings, global travel, meetings and events leader at EY, agreed: “We realised we could take advantage of the data collected by AI tools and use it to make smarter decisions. We started our robotics process a year ago and the first robotic process has replaced 70 per cent of the manual work that was done before in chasing people who had registered to attend a meeting or event to book flights in advance. This is one example of the six we have live, with ten in the pipeline. The opportunities are really endless.”

Alex Kaluzny, CTO at Egencia, said companies need only look to the consumer space to find out how they can innovate corporate travel with technology.

“The data you can get from AI is great for transparency, but it can be overwhelming,” he said. “That’s another way the technology can help – it sorts all this data to find the relevant information to assist suppliers in making the right recommendations to travellers. In turn, this data can only help travel managers design better policies and programmes.”

When asked how their own companies are currently using AI, Hutchings said the automated processes are helping EY keep on top of corporate card payments.

“We’re able to chase payment to avoid fees and extra charges. It’s also helping us book smarter and be more compliant. So if someone has booked a flight with no hotel but they’ll be away overnight, then we can contact them to find out how they have booked their hotel and remind them of the policy.

“We basically split our programme and robotics into three pillars – cost savings, compliance and traveller/attendee experience. All the robotic processes we have implemented fit into one of these three categories.

“It’s important to keep these processes simple, though. Don’t complicate it if you don’t have to. Your first focus when implementing new technology should be on automating those repetitive tasks that unnecessarily take up time.”

Kaluzny added that Egencia is using AI to improve the traveller experience and constantly monitors feedback to ensure it’s doing so in the right way.

At Turkish Airlines, Gurbuz said chatbots are being used for online check-in and customer service, while the carrier is researching the use of Facebook chatbots to make bookings and itinerary changes. It is also testing facial recognition at some of its lounges, whereby passengers gain entry using biometrics rather than checking in with a person at a desk.

The overarching theme of the discussion was that AI will not replace humans, but enhance them and help them be more productive.

Kaluzny commented: “AI will revolutionise the way we as humans interact, but I don’t think we’re in danger of being replaced by machines in our industry. Agents and buyers will forever add value in any travel programme.”

Hutchings added: “Implementing AI isn’t about headcount savings, it’s about enhancing the traveller experience, especially for those road warriors who are on the road for many nights out of the year, in addition to what it cam bring in relation to compliance and savings.”

Gurbuz ended the session by encouraging the audience to embrace technology.

“We need to start investing now, not when it has been tested multiple times,” he said. “It can only help us do our jobs better and make us more efficient.”

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