Emerging technologies are changing how we travel. Travel industry businesses are embracing technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and big data not only to provide better services to travelers, but also to better understand what travelers really want.
Why is adoption happening so fast? In our information-sodden world, travelers have more power than ever. If a travel industry business provides shoddy service, travelers are nearly certain to air their grievances publicly on Twitter, Yelp, TripAdvisor, or other forums. It’s also easier than ever to research travel choices in advance. To get noticed, travel industry businesses need to find new ways to differentiate themselves.
This all combines to mean that travel industry businesses are more consumer- and tech-focused than ever. By using emerging technologies in innovative ways, they’re able to create optimized user experiences for travelers. This helps them gain competitive advantage both now and in the future.
Since peak travel season is right around the corner, Distillery takes a look at some of the emerging technologies that may change how you plan, book, and experience your next trip.
Smart Rooms and the IoT
Smart rooms, also called “connected rooms,” are cloud-based systems that use IoT devices to let guests personalize their stays. Chains like Marriott, Kimpton, Hilton, IHG, Starwood, Wynn, and AccorHotels have already deployed these capabilities in many hotels.
Technologies vary by hotel. In-room tablets, voice assistants, and smartphone apps are all popular options. Whatever the technology, connectivity with IoT devices may let guests manage everything from their room’s temperature, curtains, lights, coffeemakers, headboards, and TVs to their requests for hotel services (e.g., spa or restaurant reservations, wake-up calls, housekeeping).
Some capabilities verge on the deluxe. Imagine aromatherapy programmed to your preferences (AccorHotels offers a choice of “coffee, tea, or sea breeze”), starting the shower at just the right temperature, or being able to check if there’s a free elliptical in your hotel’s fitness center. Imagine smart mirrors that do double-duty, showing you the day’s headlines as you brush your teeth. Imagine bedside under-carpet RFID sensors that sense middle-of-the-night wake-ups, triggering the bathroom’s night light.
Chatbots — AI programs users talk with via messaging interfaces — are changing how people book and manage countless aspects of travel.
Booking sites like Kayak, Skyscanner, Booking.com, Expedia, and Hipmunk let users explore destinations and search flights, hotels, and car rentals via Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype, or Google Hangouts chatbots. Pre-trip, chatbots may offer location-based recommendations, travel tips, price alerts, and decision-making help. During your trip, they may provide travel updates (e.g., flight delays) and reminders (e.g., check-in times). Post-trip, they may ask for your feedback — or provide ideas for your next trip.
As the first line of defense for customer care, travel chatbots have a solid record with common needs and requests. For example, Booking.com’s Booking Assistant chatbot can answer one-third of users’ requests in less than five minutes. When it can’t, requests are quickly routed to live agents.
Of course, travel chatbots aren’t exclusive to booking sites. Many hotels use chatbots to address guest needs, including check-in. OpenTable’s chatbot can book you a table almost anywhere. Ticketmaster’s can get you tickets to that Broadway show. Eurail’s chatbot is named Gina. Amtrak’s is named Julie, and “she” saved them a million dollars in a single year while providing 800% ROI.
Machine learning — in which AI helps systems use data to automatically learn from experience and improve performance — holds tremendous potential for improving UX in many areas of travel.
Take all those chatbots and virtual assistants. As you interact with them, they capture data from each transaction. Over time, this data enables them to learn your preferences, habits, and pain points.
Businesses use this data to create a better user experience for you. Maybe your hotel learns that you always ask for an extra pillow, and usually order room-service pancakes at 7:30am each morning. Next time you stay, they can proactively offer these options, impressing the heck out of you and (hopefully) gaining your loyalty.
Expedia takes machine learning a step further. Their product testing lab uses facial recognition and eye-tracking software to monitor users’ emotions and focus as they make bookings online. The resulting data helps Expedia test assumptions about users and ultimately improve booking system UX.
Hotels and other travel industry businesses also use the captured data for countless other purposes. Data helps them better target their marketing efforts (e.g., offering you personalized offers based on your preferences). It helps them identify common complaints and requests so they can proactively offer solutions or identify needed changes. It helps them isolate strengths and weaknesses in users’ eyes, enabling them to gain competitive insights and improve their operations. It helps them conduct real-time research on market rates so they can ensure competitive rates. Used intelligently, big data holds the key to competitive advantage in an astonishingly crowded travel marketplace.
AR and VR
AR and VR are getting in the travel game, too. Gone are the days when a generous cable/PPV package was the most exciting entertainment on offer. Hotels like Starwood’s Aloft offer loaner Oculus Rift VR headsets. VR bicycles could transform your Cleveland-based hotel’s fitness center to a blissful ride through the Italian countryside. Customized AR experiences and quests provide another way to encourage guests to explore a hotel or destination. (Just Google “Disney AR experience” to get an idea of how deep the Mickey Mouse crew is taking AR.)
VR is making it easier to preview destinations and properties. Airbnb and hotel chains like Marriott use VR to let prospective guests view 360-degree images of available properties. Google users’ 360-degree images let users virtually preview destinations worldwide.
These emerging tech examples are only a taste of what’s to come in the world of travel. Fingerprint entry systems and biometric iris scanners could someday make access cards a thing of the past. AI robots like Starwood’s “Botlr” butler and Hilton’s “Connie” digital concierge could mean fewer awkward interactions while standing in a towel. Beacons could deliver location-based experiences and information to your smartphone. You might leave notes in an AR environment to tell your hotel about that extra pillow.
The realm of the possible is changing by the second for these emerging technologies. Luckily, their evolution seems headed firmly toward consumer-first, optimized-UX experiences for travelers.
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