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Beyond booking: How next-gen travel apps do more than your desktop ever could

Les Shu

When it comes to travel planning, we are increasingly booking trips – whether it’s a flight, hotel, or car – on phones. Kayak CTO Giorgos Zacharia told Digital Trends that mobile devices are driving the company’s roadmap more than ever, and the stats back that up. According to analytics data from Adobe’s Digital Insights (ADI) team, mobile bookings continue to grow. In its research, ADI found that phones and tablets accounted for 21 percent of online bookings.

But travel apps have traditionally just duplicated the desktop experience. You search for a flight, book it, and that is the end of the story. Despite the growth in mobile, desktop bookings are still much higher than mobile, ADI said. Which is why Zacharia and others in the industry believe mobile apps must evolve into services that offer some sort of personalization – for before, during, and after a trip.

He may be right because the latest travel apps are doing just that. Leveraging real-time big data and monitoring how users behave, these apps can provide information and services that are unique to each user (or as close to it as possible). Many of these new app features are at their infancy, but they provide a look at how mobile travel apps are becoming more like virtual travel agents, rather that basic search tools.

Booking.com adds tailored Booking Experiences

Leveraging artificial intelligence and user data, Booking.com has created Booking Experiences, a new feature within the Booking.com app that provides in-destination recommendations tailored for a particular user.

Launching in Paris, London, and Dubai by month’s end, and in New York City during the fall, Booking Experiences turns the Booking.com app (iOS and Android) into a personal travel guide. Instead of generic recommendations, Booking Experiences uses a combination of traveller endorsements from the user community, your previous preferences, real-time location, and third-party data (wait times at a museum, for example). The AI can (or will attempt to) create a personalized itinerary to help you get the most out of a vacation. Through machine learning, the more you interact with the app, the better it becomes at predicting what you might find interesting.

Booking Now App Venice Beach

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“The technology behind Booking Experiences will continuously learn from your travel preferences, as well as other travellers like you, to eventually present you with increasingly curated options that are just right for you,” said David Vismans, chief product officer at Booking.com, in a statement.

Booking Experiences also introduces a new way to pay for access to select venues and attractions in the launch cities, by way of QR code. Once you’re at the participating location, getting inside is as easy scanning the QR code. Fees are charged to a credit card you have on file.

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Avis Now goes beyond car renting

When renting a car, you don’t have control over what cars are available at the time of arrival. Avis has updated its app with new features it calls Avis Now, which gives you greater control of the rental process at the start, middle, and end.

With the app, you can initiate a rental without checking in at the counter, and a car will be assigned to you. However, you can switch vehicles simply by swiping and choosing another preferred vehicle. The app lets you view what’s available in the fleet, in real-time, and you can upgrade to an SUV if you’re not jazzed about the compact.

During the rental period, the app can lock or unlock doors. If you need more time, you can also extend the rental. Avis can send important messages, or provide help when requested. These features aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they allow Avis to stay in-communication with renters at all times.

To use the Avis Now features, renters have to sign up with the free Avis Preferred program. The app is available on both iOS and Android.

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Facebook Messenger’s chatbots are changing things

Through AI chatbots, Facebook Messenger is increasingly becoming a platform for what Chris Messina, Uber’s Developer Experience Lead, coined as “conversational commerce.” Whether it’s a human or bot, Messina believes more and more service-oriented companies, including Uber, will utilize Facebook Messenger and other messaging platforms as the way to interact with consumers – something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg echoed a few months later, during the F8 conference. Considering that Facebook just announced that Messenger is now used by one billion users, it’s a huge audience and opportunity.

Indeed, the travel sector is already experimenting with conversational commerce. In March, Dutch airliner KLM partnered with Facebook to trial Messenger as a platform for a passenger’s entire journey. Aside from a boarding pass, KLM can provide real-time information as well as immediate customer assistance.

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Hipmunk, the travel-planning search company, unveiled its Hello Hipmunk planning assistant in June. Using a chatbot (also available via Slack and email), you can search for flights and hotels using natural conversation – as you might with a real-life travel agent. It can even tell you when the best times to travel are. According to the company, it can cut down the number of searches (which averages around 20) users make to find the best pricing. Because you’re dealing with AI you can’t be too complex in your requests, and it’s only available to English-speaking users. But as it continues to learn, Hello Hipmunk should only get more advanced.

But it isn’t just Hipmunk that’s getting onboard the Messenger train. Kayak, which launched travel search bot on Slack and Amazon’s Alexa, now offers travel planners the ability to search for flights, hotels, and rental cars from within Facebook Messenger. Kayak can also provide real-time changes (like a new gate or flight delays), and destination suggestions, based on the budget you provide.

Related: 9 travel tech trends that will make 2016 a great year to get out of town

Which leads us to think Messina is right: 2016 is becoming the year of conversational commerce, and Facebook Messenger is driving the conversations. Or, it’s trying to, at least. Not everyone is a fan.

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Hopper 3.0 has a vacation notifier

By analyzing big data to search for travel trends, Hopper tries to predict when airfares might be at the lowest. For travelers who need reassurance that they’re getting the best deal, Hopper now provides that peace of mind.

With more than six million people now using Hopper, it has a lot of data to mine. Based on user behavior, it found that more than half of its users have flexibility when it comes to dates or destinations. It also discovered that many folks are interested in deals from their home airport for spontaneous travel.

To meet their needs, Hopper recently updated its app to version 3.0, which includes a new notification feed. According to the company, the feed “will include updates about your current trips watches. It will also provide tips and recommendations that are tailored to your specific watches or searches. [It] will let you know if you could snag a better deal by adjusting your dates or it will make a recommendation if a similar destination is on sale.”

Related: Facebook chat bots might be the future, but right now they feel like the past

The feed will also send notifications about deals to favorite destinations, breaking fare sales, and other deals. While airfare deal alerts aren’t new, this is all being done in real-time – Hopper monitors more than two billion prices each day – and you are more likely to receive deals you actually want.

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Marriott goes Mobile

For Marriott, mobile technology has become the biggest revolution in its business since the mattress. According to George Corbin, Marriott’s senior vice president who oversees the Marriott Digital business, Marriott.com earned approximately $12 billion in gross revenue in 2015 – the first time it surpassed a billion dollars – with the mobile app accounting for a big part of that. The app lets guests check-in and -out remotely, and also make housekeeping requests, among other features.

Nearly all hotel apps let guests do the same thing, but Corbin told Digital Trends that the company is now focusing on how the app can deliver more personalization in order to drive greater booking conversions.

“There been talk for ages about personalization,” Corbin said. “There’s been the promise of personalization, and there’s been the reality of personalization. The promise has finally met reality.”

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Corbin said Marriott is “moving from a, ‘Hey, let’s push the customer what we want to tell them,’ to instead, ‘Let’s give the customer what they need right now.’”

He added that historically, after a booking, a customer was left to fend for him or herself, and that accounts for a lot of the stress travelers experience on a trip. Analyzing what Corbin called travel “pain points,” Marriott found it could help relieve travelers’ stress during a journey, from beginning to end.

And Marriott is able to do this thanks to its app. “Mobile has changed the way we can reach the customer at all these points,” Corbin said, adding that this type of mobile personalization is good for business. Using the Service Request function, “People who had an issue and got it resolved upon first contact – their satisfaction with the stay was higher than people with no problem at all.”

When it comes to new technologies, Marriott constantly is on the lookout for new trends, from virtual reality to social networking, and Netflix streaming. Ultimately, Corbin said, it’s about proofs of concepts that can operate at scale. For Marriott, the mobile app could be its biggest proof of concept to date.

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