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Article by Tracy Oppenheimer

The Travel and Hospitality Bot Renaissance

Helpshift 17 December 2018
When considering how traveler preferences for planning have evolved alongside technology, chatbots are the logical next step.Travelers used to rely on travel agents. Nowadays, most prefer to plan their trips on their own thanks to the online capabilities and booking sites that make it so easy to do so. Chatbots facilitate self-service but make the experience even more convenient and conversational. It's the best of both worlds.Quite a few travel and hospitality brands rely on chatbots to keep their customers close and engaged. Many help travelers navigate their websites, FAQs or plan their next trip. Some allow travelers to make travel arrangements through Facebook Messenger or give customers better, faster customer service options around the clock.But other travel and hospitality brands are taking bots to the next level.Here are some of the ways that travel and hospitality brands are ushering in the new era of chatbots -- from the traditional, to the novel, to the truly outrageous.The TraditionalistsExpedia was an early adopter of chatbot technology. In 2016, the travel booking site launched three different chatbot channels: a chatbot for Skype that travelers could use to find and book hotel rooms, manage reservations, or confirm and cancel flights and hotels; a new "skill" for Amazon Alexa that travelers could use to retrieve details about their itineraries; and a Facebook chatbot that travelers could use to browse and book hotel rooms.Scott Crawford, Expedia's vice president of product management, has high hopes for chatbot technology, "Online travel agents democratized travel 20 years ago [but] one could argue that the paradigm of booking a holiday online hasn't evolved in huge leaps since then," he wrote. "Chatbots represent the next seismic shift that will evolve not only the travel booking process but also the customer service experience for decades to come."Many other travel and hospitality brands seem to agree with him.Kayak also has a Facebook Messenger chatbot that offers travelers a wealth of information about flights, rental cars, hotels and activities. It also keeps them updated on future travel plans and travel opportunities specific to their budget -- a signature Kayak offering.Amtrak's virtual assistant Julie can help with booking reservations, navigating the Amtrak website and providing information about train stations. While she doesn't fill out travel information for travelers, she can advise them on how to do it correctly.And Booking.com has a support chatbot -- the Booking Assistant -- that uses artificial intelligence to help customers self-serve by answering questions on payment, date changes, transportation, pet policies and internet availability. As of last year, the Booking Assistant was handling about a third of customer inquiries -- in under five minutes per inquiry.As explained by James Waters, Booking.com's global director of customer service in Travel Weekly: "AI is not about replacing human interaction, but is instead a vehicle to facilitate an even more personalized, instantaneously gratifying and frictionless travel experience for consumers."In a recent interview with CRM Exchange, Helpshift CEO Linda Crawford commented on how the travel industry can use bots to better both the customer experience and brand operations."Artificial intelligence is in a unique position to promote a better customer support experience that also comes at a lower cost," Crawford said. "Chatbots make customer support processes more efficient and streamlined, allowing more bandwidth for human-provided high-touch assistance when necessary. Using bots in this scenario will enable consumers to get instant answers. The next phase of customer service is proactive -- not passive or reactive and brands who want to stay ahead of the competition should take this to heart."The NovelThe Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas launched a chatbot concierge named Rose, with the hope that Rose would convert guests into direct customers. When guests check in, they're given Rose's phone number and invited to text her with questions. Rose can help with everything from pizza at 3 a.m. to requests for fresh towels. She also comes loaded with a bunch of restaurant and entertainment recommendations -- plus a dose of wit and a sense of humor.As Travel + Leisure reports, "In addition to providing restaurant and bar recommendations, Rose can also play games with you, such as 'Kiss Marry Diss,' 'Would You Rather' or 'Two Truths and a Lie,' or take you on a tour of the hotel's art collection."Two years later, she's paying dividends: Rose's mission was to transition guests into direct customers. Since introducing Rose, 43 percent of Cosmopolitan guests who interact with her and return to the hotel do, in fact, book direct.Like Rose, but housed in a physical robot, Hilton's "Connie" is a concierge, with the ability to inform guests about nearby places of interest. Connie "is about as personable as a robot can get, able to provide travelers with as much information as they require," reports Social Tables. "It can even help to plan excursions."But JetBlue founder David Neeleman took things to a whole new level when he recently announced plans to launch an "app-powered airline" that will rely on chatbots to replace human support agents for all but a handful of high-level inquiries."The real innovation here is more flexible and powerful processes," wrote Dave Michels in NoJitter. "Most interactions with airlines are self-inflicted. Moxy will proactively reschedule customers as a result of cancellations. Customers can accept the new schedule within the app without ever speaking to anyone. Clearly, Neeleman intends to rethink the workflow, and that likely means lots of AI and, yes, chatbots."The Truly OutrageousJapan's Henn Na Hotel, which claims to be "the world's first hotel staffed by robots," has truly thought "outside the bot," if you will.Visitors to the Henn Na Hotel are greeted by a velociraptor and an android but, conspicuously, no humans. Check in happens on a touchscreen and guest rooms are unlocked by face recognition. Inside the room, another robot controls the heating and lighting. If requested, it can also provide a weather forecast or sing. This walks the line between what is practical and useful, and what will lead to the dystopian AI future we all are taught to fear in the movies.The Guardian's Monisha Rajesh visited the Henn Na and found that, while the property itself was beautiful and the robots were amusing, the hotel seemed to be more about novelty than creating a better experience for the customer. "Henn-na, said to be the world's first hotel run by robots, turns out to need a surprising amount of human intervention -- except where you would most like it," she wrote, concluding "Robots may be the future, but for hotel hospitality, you still can't beat the human touch."So as long as brands don't treat chatbots as the experience itself but instead as a means to improving it -- both throughout the booking process and during the stay -- chatbots will continue to add massive value for the travel industry.

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