Technology has transformed travel over the last 20 years. According to a recent study, 74% of us now plan our trips online, whether it’s booking flights and accommodation, using a mobile boarding pass, arranging visits to museums, or making use of the myriad travel apps now available. Apps are offering great new innovations such as showing potential customers the layout of a hotel room using virtual and augmented reality, or acting as a virtual travel guide when touring a city. And at the heart of all this is the smartphone, with 45% of travellers using one for just about everything to do with their holidays.
When travel technology first emerged in the mid-1990s, it was in the shape of booking websites, and the approach was simple: a means to browse and buy flights and hotels online rather than by visiting a travel agent on the high street. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and these websites are now billion-dollar tech companies with global reach.
Take travel tech leader Booking.com, for example. Employing more than 17,500 people in over 200 offices worldwide, Booking.com uses its technology, global network and wealth of customer-led insight to help shape the next generation of travel innovation. For Booking.com, listening to travellers and learning from how they interact with the site is key to understanding and meeting their wants and needs. And with more than 28 million property listings located in 147,000 destinations worldwide and 173 million verified guest reviews, the company has access to a lot of potentially useful information. But it’s way too much for humans to process alone.
AI and travel
Many regard the use of AI – specifically Machine Learning (ML) technology – as key to the evolution of travel, and a means to provide customers with an increasingly personalised experience, not only when booking but also when travelling.
“Every aspect of the customer journey on Booking.com is enhanced by machine learning in some way,” explains Onno Zoeter, Principal Data Scientist at Booking.com . “Our ML teams work with very large and rich datasets to train multiple machine learning models that are working behind the scenes to help our customers – from how we suggest destinations and the best place to stay, to how we surface and auto-translate guest reviews. We make it easy for teams to use models in experiments, so they get frequent, real-world feedback and can improve faster.”
Creating a frictionless customer experience is essential for all leading ecommerce companies, and this applies equally to the travel industry, where companies are using convergence technology to offer customers bespoke, tailored experiences.
A holistic approach in which a smartphone and apps provide the traveller with everything they need – from booking and flying, to staying and returning – is the frictionless, hassle-free experience that all of us desire. For example, without leaving Booking.com’s app, you can book transport to and from the airport and get QR codes for attractions when you arrive at your destination, minimising the time you need to spend organising your itinerary, and leaving you more time to soak up the experience of being somewhere new and exciting.
Chatbots and machine translation
Creating a seamless experience like this relies on developing AI that’s fit for purpose. One of the ways ML is developing is in the form of next-generation chatbots, designed to streamline customer enquiries by automatically answering some of the most common questions: what time is check-in? Is there parking available? Is there WiFi? What kind of bed does my room have? Can I bring a pet?
Booking.com’s Booking Assistant can currently answer more than 60% of the questions it receives in English automatically. It learns from the different types of questions asked and adapts its answers accordingly. It can even handle tasks, such as booking a parking space or arranging a late check-out.
“It’s about leveraging technology to do the repetitive things that don’t require human intervention ,” says Zoeter. “This empowers people to focus their time and energy on the more fulfilling, complex questions and challenges, and ultimately deliver a more seamless, connected experience to our customers.”
We’re also seeing increasingly sophisticated machine translations and understanding being born out of the travel industry. For example, Booking.com has been experimenting with a different approach called Neural Machine Translation (NMT), which is far better at understanding the colloquial, idiomatic structures present in the way we speak in our native tongues. This tech will not only feed into chatbot technology, improving AI’s effectiveness at processing written language and its accuracy at speech recognition, but at some point, it may also allow travellers to talk to local people without the need for a human translator. In short, the genuine Babelfish may not be far away: a technology that will not only revolutionise the experience of travel, but could also have huge, potentially positive implications far beyond.
Conscious and sustainable travel
Another area in which technology is proving invaluable is in facilitating a more sustainable, eco-friendly approach to travel. “By championing and supporting innovators in the sustainable travel space, we are leveraging technology to create a more sustainable future for the global travel industry,” says Marianne Gybels, who leads CSR at Booking.com.
Booking.com is trialling various eco-friendly new initiatives. Projects like the Booking Booster Accelerator Programme seeks to encourage environmentally-conscious start-ups in the travel industry, and the Booking Cares Fund provides non-profit projects with financial support, aiming to create a virtuous circle of providers and consumers.
With the rise of more socially-conscious and eco-friendly travel, providing customers with more information and transparent choices when it comes to human rights issues in specific destinations presents an exciting new challenge for travel platforms. Similarly, the equitability of the local tourist industry and the extent to which providers and places are LGBTQ+-friendly offer the opportunity to leverage data to provide insights to the right customers at the right time.
Ultimately, it’s this continuous learning and data-driven culture that provides the raw material needed to shape change in the travel industry, with platforms like Booking.com working to make the technology more about the traveller than ever before, and using machine learning to give them a personalised rather than prescriptive experience. Employing hundreds of user-experience designers, alongside developers, data scientists and user experience copywriters Booking.com even has its own dedicated machine learning centre in Tel Aviv, a global hub for machine learning technology.
What’s clear is that this journey has barely begun. The future of travel will not be shaped by the industry trying to force travellers towards certain destinations and deals, but by the extent to which they are responsive to their evolving desires.
If you love to explore and want to shape the way people travel now and in the future, explore a career at Booking.com.